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Drones a fiery subject at recent discussion

Published: February 25th, 2013

Category: News


Professor Michael W. Lewis, Ohio Northern University professor and graduate from U.S. Navy Top Gun flight school, talks about the legality of target killings carried out by drone strikes at the Federalist Society’s “The Constitutionality of Drone Strikes and Targeted Killings” lecture at UF Law on Feb. 13. (Photo by Haley Stracher)

By Jenna Box
Student writer

From pulling the trigger on the battlefield to pushing a button behind a computer screen, the development of drone use is a fiery subject.

The topic sparked discussion among UF Law scholars of the Federalist Society Feb. 13 in Room 285C.

The talk was led by veteran and professor Michael W. Lewis of Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law and commented on by Winston Nagan, UF Law’s Samuel T. Dell Research Scholar Professor of Law.

Lewis addressed common preconceived notions about drones and discussed how international law regulates the scope of where and when they are allowed to be used.

“The one misconception that I hear repeated again and again and again is the sort of PlayStation mentality that drones supposedly provide: You’re just playing a video game, you are killing people from 8,000 miles away, and you’re not at risk. It makes war easy,” Lewis said.

In fact, drone operators suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder like their counterparts on the battlefield, he said.

Although a Special Forces soldier may kill someone up close and personal, he said, the soldier doesn’t know the person he is killing. For days, the drone operator follows a target and sees him come home and kiss his wife, play soccer with his son and interact with his daughter.

“Four days later you follow him up a road and you hit him with a missile. Then you go and look and make sure that he’s dead,” he said. “You get to see what you did in great detail, and that is very much like killing your neighbor. You know this person now.”

While they may not ease the psychological consequences of war, drones are more cost effective than manned aircraft and keep operators physically safer than those on the battlefield, Lewis said.

The question of whether American citizens living abroad could be targeted by a drone strike was addressed by Lewis via explanation of war boundaries.

In a war on terrorism, participants of the armed conflict are often on the land of a nation uninvolved in the fight. America is at war with al-Qaeda, not with a specific country.

Under the boundaries of this category — called a non-international armed conflict — any state outside of the two conflicting territories is considered neutral and is not permitted to allow conflict on their soil.

However, al-Qaeda isn’t a nation, so geographic boundaries for drone strikes are hazy.

Recently, NBC news released a “Department of Justice White Paper” that states under the following three conditions it is legal to use lethal force against a senior operational leader of al-Qaeda (or an associated group) who is a U.S. citizen abroad: if an “informed, high-level official of the U.S. government” decides the person targeted presents an “imminent threat” of attack on the U.S., capture of the target is not possible and the operation would follow “applicable law of war principles.”

“The asymmetrical element in terroristic operations is that it has the quality of lethality as well as the element of complete unpredictability,” wrote the commentator, Nagan, in an email after the talk.

“[The Bush Administration] considered a degree of responsibility attributable to states that were in bed with terrorists,” he said.

Nagan agrees that when a nation supports terrorism, it is abusing its sovereignty.

He added that the use of drones “depends on the ability of final decision makers to make the case that it is a reasonable use of power for defending the vital interests of the United States.”

Lewis flew F-14 Tomcats for the U.S. Navy and is a 1992 graduate of the Navy’s Top Gun flight school. After his military service, he earned a juris doctorate from Harvard Law School, cum laude. He has published more than a dozen articles and essays on the law of war and the conflict between the U.S. and al-Qaeda.  He has testified before Congress on the legality of drone strikes and civil liberties trade-offs associated with trying terror suspects before military tribunals, and has appeared on public radio.

Nagan is the founding director of the Institute of Human Rights and Peace Development, and he has served as board chairman of Amnesty International USA.

Nagan received his doctorate of juridical science from Yale Law School and has taught courses including: International Human Rights, Legal Theory, International Law, International Courts, and Human Rights of Indigenous People. He currently teaches a course in National Security Law.




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