The Psychology of Killer Drones – action against our foes; reaction affecting us
Summary: We now have enough experience with drone warfare to study its effects. Just as in physics, our actions affect ourselves as well as our targets. Social science research shows that drones are a gateway to moral disengagement dehumanization, and deindividuation. The great distances drones operate over, manipulated by faceless-nameless-lawyeristic-voyeurs, creates an emotional, mental, and physical divide between “us” ( i.e. our government) and the enemies we kill. Drones allow us to dissociate our actions from our values, a useful high-cost and high-tech justification. At the end are links to gain more information about this new form of warfare.
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
— Newtons Third Law of Motion, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (1687)
- Moral Disengagement
- For more information
(1) Moral Disengagement
Bandura studied the behaviour of individuals engaging in destructive activities towards others, describing it as “moral disengagement”. “People do not generally act out destructively unless they have a mechanism to morally justify their actions to themselves and others” Moral disengagement encompasses ways one mitigates, justifies, neutralizes, or eliminates inhibitions or moral constraints connected to committing acts of violence or a crime. Bandura holds that people use moral disengagement techniques such as “cognitive reconstruction and dehumanization to view certain despicable acts or conduct as justifiable or rational” (Bandura, 2004).
McAlister, Bandura, & Owen (2006) describe four behavioural prongs of moral disengagement associated with violence particularly as it pertains to the military. The four prongs are moral justification, minimization of detrimental effects, disavowal of responsibility and dehumanization (McAlister, Bandura, & Owen, 2006):
At the behaviour locus, people transform lethal means into benevolent and moral ones through moral justification, advantageous comparison, and sanitizing language. At the agency locus, they are relieved of a sense of personal accountability by displacement and diffusion of responsibility. At the outcome locus, the injurious effects of lethal means are disregarded, minimized, or disputed. At the other end, foes are dehumanized and blamed for bringing the suffering on themselves (p. 142).
Dehumanization involves obscuring and/or distorting the human identity and qualities of an enemy (or victim) that are either known or unknown to the perpetrator of violence. The enemy (or victim) is seen as nothing more than objects – rather than anything human. “In war, we dehumanize the enemy by using derogatory epithets. Like justifying the ‘rightness’ of violence, however, dehumanization also works from both perspectives” (Bartol & Bartol, 2005, p. 361). Dehumanization is a two-edged sword. Yes, it works for the public good in time of war but unfortunately it also can work for the violent criminal. Dehumanization for the violent criminal means he feels little or no remorse for any of the suffering he inflicts nor does he worry about the consequences.
Dehumanization is based in part on the premise that dehumanization (i.e. divestment of human qualities) makes killing a known person (instead of a stranger) easier in some respects. Thus, dehumanization protocols may facilitate violent behaviour. The antithesis may hold true as well where it may be is easier to kill a stranger (e.g. the enemy) when divested of human qualities. Dehumanization can aptly be likened to a two-way street where it is irrelevant whether the “target” is known or unknown just as long as it is dehumanized
Bandura posits that once a “target” is dehumanized they are no longer viewed as people with feelings, hopes, concerns but seen as savages, unwashed masses, evil cowards, and so on (Bandura, 2004, p.136; Bartol & Bartol, 2005, p. 352). Thus, the mass or serial murderer along with other violent criminals who continually engages in assaultive behaviour, view their victims as being divested of humanity (Bartol & Bartol, 2005, p. 361).
Bandura notes that dehumanization and displacement of responsibility are moral disengagement techniques. These techniques and practices may shape an individual’s psychological makeup, facilitating the commission of violent acts (Weisbach, 2004; Bandura, 2004). Disengagement encompasses ways a person neutralizes or removes any inhibitions they have about committing horrific acts. Some other common patterns include “imagining one’s self as a hero, portraying one’s self as a functionary, thus, minimizing the harm done, and dehumanizing the victim” (Alvanou, 2007, p 88).
“Deindividuation is a process by which individuals feel they cannot be identified primarily because they are disguised or subsumed within a group” (Bartol & Bartol, 2005, p. 556). In other words, masks and disguises provide anonymity. The anonymity in turns feeds into the commission of a violent act or acts that people otherwise would not normally participate in or be a willing accessory to a violent act or crime.
Silke (2003) examined the relation between anonymity and aggression in 500 violent interpersonal assaults that occurred in Northern Ireland where 206 of the 500 offenders wore disguises to mask their identities. Silke’s efforts revealed a significant positive relationship between the use of disguises and violence. Silke’s findings support previous research in this area to include the work of Watson (1973) who suggests people are way more violent when their identity is hidden (Silke, 2003):
A significant number of studies have demonstrated that individuals who believed their identity was unknown were more likely to behave in an aggressive and punitive manner. Zimbardo (1969) showed that participants who had masked their identities (with hoods covering their faces) were much more likely to administer electric shocks-and at more severe levels-than people whose identities were not hidden. Zimbardo’s study was carried out under laboratory conditions with university students as participants, but some evidence suggests that the effect occurs in the real world as well (p. 493).
(4) For more information
(a) Articles about UAV’s
- Prattling about the legalities by the skilled attorneys at the Volokh Conspiracy. But government-loving attorney cohort will explain why anything it does is legal, why bother? Including indefinite detention without trial, torture, and assassination of of citizens.
- Filling the Skies with Assassins, Tom Engelhardt, 7 April 2009
- The Forty-Year Drone War, Nick Turse, 24 January 2010
- America Detached from War, Tom Engelhardt, 24 June 2010 — Bush’s Pilotless Dream, Smoking Drones, and Other Strange Tales from the Crypt
- An excellent introduction: “Drone Wars: Armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles“, Andrew Callam, International Affairs Review, Winter 2010
- “The Drone Wars – Killing by remote control in Pakistan“, The Atlantic, December 2010
- “A Secret License to Kill“, David Cole, New York Review of Books, 19 September 2011
- “Predators and Robots at War“. Christian Caryl, New York Review of Books, 29 September 2011 — “The day when US forces are attacked by a drone—perhaps even one operated by a terrorist — is not far away.”
- Recommended introduction to UAV warfare: “Drone Warfare: Blowback from the New American Way of War“, Leila Hudson et al, Middle East Policy, Fall 2011
(b) Other posts about UAVs on the FM website
- “Filling the skies with Assassins” by Tom Engelhardt, 12 April 2009
- America’s dominance of the sky slowly erodes – inevitable or avoidable?, 22 September 2009
- The march of technology brings “The Forty-Year Drone War”, 26 January 2010
- James Bond is not just our hero, but the model for our geopolitical strategy, on the FM website, 18 May 2010
- America plays the Apollo Option: killing from the sky, Chet Richards (Colonel, USAF, retired), 26 August 2010
- Killing Machines: Promises and Limits, 17 February 2011
- Cyberwar: a Whole New Quagmire – When the Drones Come To Roost, 8 October 2011
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