The Obama Administration’s emphasis on targeted killing of terror suspects—what President Obama has called eliminating our enemies—is also a form of anticipatory self-defense. Indeed, as the administration continues to ratchet up its use of remote drone attacks, we really would seem to have entered what one observer has called the new age of preventive war.
Preemptive warfare is a form of self-defense that occurs when your adversary has the tanks massed on your border, ready to attack. Preventive warfare is aimed at keeping your adversary from gaining the means to attack you. Both the law and the ethics of self-defense have tended to frown on preventive warfare, not least because it has no logical stopping point. But America’s recent wars have all been, in one way or another, preventive—aimed less at foiling current plans than at stopping future ones.
But is what we are doing truly self-defense? Consider one of the most famous hypotheticals on the subject of self-defense: the Fat Man puzzle. In Fat Man, you find yourself in a small boat at the bottom of a chasm. Although there are many versions, what they have in common is that an enormously fat individual is hurtling down from the cliff. You have no idea why he is falling—whether, say, he jumped or was pushed. All you know for sure is that if he hits you, you die. You have no space to maneuver, and no time to escape. Fortunately, you are armed with your trusty Fat Man gun. You can pull the trigger and vaporize him, thereby saving yourself.
The problem my students find harder is what I like to call Thin Man. Thin Man is too skinny to do us harm unless he chooses to, but he comes hurtling down off the cliff nevertheless. If he hits us, we die. But he is so thin that the odds are he will land nowhere near. We know that Thin Man means us ill. He fully intends to do us harm. We just don’t know when. It might be now—that might be why he is falling—or it might be next year. Or he might change his mind.
If we do nothing, chances are he will miss us (he is thin), fall into the water, and be washed away by the current. Later, he will fetch up on shore and can go back to plotting. We could try to pull him from the water, but we would probably fall in. Thus the present opportunity to vaporize him with our Thin Man gun might be our only shot at him. On the other hand, I believe I mentioned that we do not know his current intention. He might just be going for a swim.
Iraq was Thin Man on a massive scale: a precautionary invasion, a war just in case. The drone war is not on the same scale, but, fought by remote control, does raise similar concerns. Presumed terror leaders are blown up wherever they appear. The Obama Administration, like the Bush Administration before it, has decided to use its vaporizer gun any time Thin Man shows his face. With the two political parties in agreement, one assumes that we will be pursuing the assassination strategy for some years to come. But the Thin Man problem helps illustrate the moral complexity of this form of warfare. We fire the missile because intelligence tells us that there is probability p that the man we are targeting is the man we are looking for; and other intelligence tells us that there is probability q that the man we are looking for does indeed hold the suspected position in the terror network; and other intelligence tells us that there is probability r that the network is indeed planning a particular operation that will cause some expected level of harm. Note that whatever the harm we are trying to prevent, the product of p * q * r still likely represents a significant discounting of the expected value of our own anticipatory attack.
When all is said and done, choosing to vaporize Thin Man places enormous reliance on accurate intelligence, and, as public attention fades, we are placing enormous trust in our leaders. But as the war in Iraq demonstrated, the fact that political leaders act in good faith reliance on a particular interpretation of intelligence does not make the intelligence accurate.
Using the Fat man and the boat analogy, the case for a truly robust society would be to make a boat (country) less vulnerable to being swamped. This would not be about trying to put some ineffective spotters for Fat men at the top of the cliff (like the TSA), but automating the planes so that they could only fly routes that are well away from buildings and for a means to override any deviations that is not dependent upon people. It is also about making tougher buildings able to withstand earthquakes and category five hurricanes and several times more over pressure from closer nuclear bomb hits. Increasing the fire resistance.
These buildings codes can be increased as existing methods are made more affordable and new methods developed through a DARPA like research program.
Modular buried nuclear reactors that are meltdown proof could be used to make a more robust power grid.
A system that can degrade a small piece at a time instead of all at once should be developed.
Transportation using pocket airports and small robotic flying taxis would have fewer large planes could provide more safety while speeding up local and regional travel. They would also connect to major transportation hubs.