Obama and Romney may have spent plenty of time debating the relative merits of bayonets and battleships during the debates, but they devoted only a couple of seconds to the topic that divides even Obama supporters: drone warfare.
Those who object to drone strikes--there have been over 284 of them in Pakistan since 2008--usually do so on either moral or constitutional grounds (or both). Many legal scholars argue that drone strikes go beyond POTUS’s executive power, or represent a violation of international human rights. Moral critics compare drone warfare to a "video game" for soldiers, arguing that it creates an unhealthy psychological distance between a drone operator and the people he’s killing; then there are the frequent instances of collateral damage that strikes cause, often in the form of civilian deaths. At the same time, there are plenty of pro-drone Americans who see Obama’s so-called “kill list” as an effective, neat way to deal with a war against a nonstate entity, e.g., terrorists.
Whatever your stance on drone killings, the fact remains that there’s been very little national dialogue on the topic. Indeed, some would say that’s a direct result of the main problem with the policy: Its complete lack of transparency. A 5,000 word exposé on drone warfare that ran in the New York Times in June did a bit to help bolster attention to the policy, but as we saw in the debates, it remains woefully under the radar (so to speak) of the American consciousness.
Slate’s interactive editor Chris Kirk has done a fine job of parsing the data behind the controversial policy, via an interactive infographic he’s been working on since June. "Obama’s 284 Drone Strikes in Pakistan" pulls data from the New America Foundation, a bipartisan nonprofit that counts Eric Schmidt as the chairman of its board of directors. The map illustrates how drone strikes have increased since Bush’s presidency, but it also uses a concentric circle system to show how civilians killed (in proportion to terrorists killed) have decreased under Obama. In other words, drone killings have gotten cleaner and more precise, if much more frequent.
A few weeks ago, a debate at Fordham Law pitted pro- and anti-drone legal scholars against each other in a heated debate. Whatever your politics, it’s hard not to agree with Professor Martin Flaherty, who said, “The problem is we--as a democratic self-governing people--don’t know enough to make intelligent decisions about the balance between security payoff and violation of individuals’ rights. We need to know more about this.”