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Moral issue: are drones worse than torture?


The upcoming film Zero Dark Thirty’s controversial portrayal of waterboarding has reignited the debate about torture, but Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough suggested that drone warfare may be an even greater threat to human rights.

“There was a story in the BBC yesterday about a little girl who saw her grandmother killed by an indiscriminate drone strike. I would say that indiscriminate drone strikes that killed civilians are a little rougher than waterboarding three terrorists,” Scarborough said during a conversation about the new film.

Critics have slammed the film for painting a glossy picture of torture: New York’s David Edelstein wrote that Zero Dark Thirty “borders on the politically and morally reprehensible. By showing these excellent results—and by silencing the cries of the innocents held at Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and other “black sites”—it makes a case for the efficacy of torture.” (In fact, the information that led intelligence officials to Osama bin Laden’s courier was not obtained by torture.)

Random House’s Jon Meacham makes the point that like its likely Oscar contender, “Lincoln,”  “Zero Black Thirty” makes a cinematic case for bending the rules to an agreed-upon end.

“We have two films making a similar point, he remarked. “Give me one Jefferson quote if you will: ‘What is practical must control what is pure theory,’ and that is the art of politics.”

The debate on waterboarding can continue, but “national survival has sometimes required extraordinary methods,” Meacham said.

“You can say [torture] is immoral, you can say it’s wrong, just like you can say that Lincoln buying off congressmen with patronage jobs and suspending Habeas Corpus, doing a lot of awful things to end slavery and end the war, are also actions that would make us uncomfortable,” Scarborough said.

That is precisely the case that advocates of drone warfare make made: sending bombs in via remote controls is just another part of war; the civilian deaths and the murky legal territory are made up for by their efficacy.

But critics point out that the drones indiscriminately kill civilians, bomb markets, and generally terrorize communities, yet the program’s unusual secrecy keeps the public from knowing nearly anything about the decisions that go into drones and how many high-level targets are actually killed.

Moral issue: are drones worse than torture?