Opinion » Ted Rall

Will the Next 9/11 Arrive Via Drone?

Aggressive drone wars set a dangerous precedent


There's no denying it: We Americans have a lot of nerve.

We love to pick fights but when someone punches back, man, the whining never stops. And boy, do we love to escalate. Nuclear weapons? We invented the suckers, used them not once but twice--yet we have the balls to slap economic sabotage on the Iranians and North Koreans and smear them as "rogue states" for even thinking about trying to get their own.

You know the pattern. We escalate the arms race with some new gadget to kill and maim more efficiently, then we deploy brute economic and military force to keep those new weapons to ourselves for as long as possible.

Now it's drones. Beginning in 2004 with George W. Bush, the drone warfare program was greatly escalated by an Obama administration marketing itself as a regime ending two wars in public while it secretly expands America's military footprint.

Rather than assume the dignified posture of silence or the embarrassed posture of a kid who got caught in the cookie jar, Obama administration officials had the gall to file a diplomatic protest after the Iranians shot at one of their spy Predators in November 2012.

In an ideal world, these devices would be illegal. Like landmines, drones do a lot more harm than good. You might as well declare the First Amendment dead and gone now that private corporations, the FBI, CIA, local police and just about anyone else can scan the crowds at anti-government protests and identify demonstrators with facial recognition software. Who is going to dare to make a radical statement now?

As the first country to develop drone technology, the United States had the chance to keep this genie stuffed in its bottle; instead, we let the monster loose and told it to run wild.

It doesn't take a genius military strategist to worry about drone weapons proliferation. The technology is relatively simple and cheap--so cheap that soldiers occupying Afghanistan use throwaway 6-pound mini-drones slightly larger than paper airplanes to see what's around the next mountain.

The FAA is rushing to approve licenses to "tens of thousands of police, fire and other government agencies able to afford drones lighter than traditional aircraft and costing as little as $300," reports The New York Times, including everything from "remote-controlled planes as big as jetliners to camera-toting hoverers called Nano Hummingbirds that weigh 19 grams."

Police departments from Seattle to Gadsden, Ala., have already bought these creepy devices. And it's now possible for a private citizen to buy his own drone for $300.

It was only a matter of time before other countries followed suit, which prompts two questions: What's to stop a hostile nation-state from attacking the United States with drones? What if terrorists get drones?

Answer to the first question: Nothing can stop a nation from Hellfiring us. While there are practical and economic barriers to entry that reduce nuclear proliferation, even the poorest nations can develop a scary drone program. Israel and its American ally claim to be terrified of the prospect of an Iranian nuclear attack against Tel Aviv, but the threat of a conventional-weapons attack via drone is really what should be keeping policymakers up at night.

Iran unveiled its Shahed 129 drone plane, a device that can fly 24 hours in a row, in September 2012. That's the one they plan to export. That month, an Iranian drone launched from Lebanon successfully took pictures of Israeli military facilities.

The trouble isn't just the drones themselves. It's how the United States uses them: aggressively, prolifically, violently and with little concern for legal or diplomatic niceties.

"Skip the drone debate, just kill the terrorists before they kill us," reads the headline of a FoxNews piece by Erick Erickson, one of the right's most reliable cretins.

But it's not that simple. When the United States asserts the right to "defend" itself by looking anywhere it wants and blowing up anyone it feels like, including its own citizens and people who have never expressed the slightest desire to attack the United States, it sets a precedent.

"More than 50 nations have or are trying to get [drone] technology," notes The Times. "The United States will set the standard for them all." Osama bin Laden said he wouldn't have hesitated to use a nuke against the United States because Hiroshima and Nagasaki were civilian targets. Using the same reasoning as the Obama administration, why wouldn't the government of Yemen be legally justified to deploy Yemeni drones over American airspace and use them to blow up any Americans or anyone else they felt like?

While a nation-state might feel constrained by the international community, its allies or domestic public opinion from attacking civilian targets in the United States, an underground resistance organization would be far less likely to refrain from using drones to make a political statement and/or wage remote-control guerrilla warfare.

Though some commentators pooh-pooh the terrorist drone threat, this is one time when the smoke rising from the ashes of buildings in an American city isn't a remote possibility created by a fevered theorist but rather an absolute certainty. It isn't a matter of if we'll get hit by drones. It's a matter of when.