Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

09.28.12

Who Cares About Drone Strikes?

Don't expect them to become an election issue any time soon.

William Easterly reflects on a new report on the drone war from Stanford/NYU: 

Hilary Clinton said a while ago that Defense and Development were complements.

Not so much. A new report from Stanford and NYU (see excellent summary in the Guardian) found that US drone strikes (greatly increased under this administration) in Pakistan were killing and terrorizing civilians, while very few killed their terrorist targets.

It would be hard for Development to benefit from “drones hovering 24 hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning.”

The report alleges that drones strike areas multiple times, killing rescuers of victims of the first strike.  

"Next challenge in US:" he finishes mordantly, "getting people to care about this."  

Self-evidently, Americans do not care about this, because it isn't even part of the public debate; it has occupied much less of our national attention than Mitt Romney's effective tax rate.  Whacking on Bush for his adventures abroad was a convenient way for Obama to get the progressive base fired up, but there's no reason to actually act on those proclamations while in office, because not even the progressives care about this issue enough to actually vote for the other side--and to be sure, why would they?  Drone strikes are about the only thing that Mitt Romney hasn't disagreed with Obama about.  The only people who are fired up about this are a few pundits and activists on the fringe who probably weren't going to vote for a major party candidate anyway.

This is, after all, human nature, as Adam Smith noted long ago:  

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.  

The victims in Waziristan are very far away.  They rarely even appear as pictures; much less do we meet any of them.  Even people who are genuinely outraged about this are, as Smith notes, considerably more emotionally affected by much smaller events much closer to home.   They speak a different language than us, don't look like most of us, and let's face it: few of them much liked us even before we started bombing them.  It is probably not possible for us to make that kind of emotional connection with distant people who with whom we share no religious, ethnic or other quasi-tribal affiliation.

Plus they are supporting, or at least, not outing, people who intend to do us grievous harm. This makes it very easy to kill many of them in exchange for potentially saving a few of us from terrorist attacks.  Especially for politicians, who do not have to worry about the Waziri vote in the coming elections.  

Of course, I imagine that if you asked Al Qaeda's Waziri helpers why they supported terrorist attacks on Americans, they could probably give much the same explanation.