While aerial surveillance drones have been in the works for decades, and their more toothy cousins have dispensed justice from the skies of Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan for quite some years; it is only in the past few months that we have learned that they may be coming Stateside. Naturally some people have concerns.
It is a given that any civil liberty loss has implications for religious liberty. But that equation can be writ large in the war on terror, as that conflict has everything to do with radical religious views and what nations consider religious threat. The implications for religious bleed-through are considerable in the post-9/11 world.
For example, while it is true that England was none too supportive of the often violent Zionism that led to the establishment of Israel, one wonders whether in today's world, such a nascent state with religious baggage would be tolerated. And yes, we know why we must not merely tolerate Israel today, but for innumerable humanitarian and political reasons the U.S. must strongly support it. And we have learned to distinguish the out of control religious element there that led to the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin and also the killings on Temple Mount by a fanatic. We know the difference between Zionism and Judaism and the political entity that is Israel. But are we so sophisticated in the war on terror; when drones allow a reflex response, with little public debate and accountability?
The drone war in other places has provided a low risk, real-time way for the U.S. to take out the "bad guys." There is no question that this was modeled on Israeli targeted assignations of terrorist leaders. In both cases there is a pending question of territorial sovereignty and process of law, given that there is often not an actual act of war to respond to.
But in the space of about three months the U.S. citizenry have been introduced to first the general idea of drones in our skies (no doubt a development made legitimate by Defense Authorization Act clauses applying the military war on terror to the homeland) and finally a general introduction to the idea of armed drones overhead.
It was only a year ago that I heard George Washington University law professor (and sometime Liberty author) Jonathan Turley on CSPAN suggesting that he expected armed drones over the U.S. in short order. It seemed a far-fetched prediction. But then came news that the FAA was about to set flight paths for the drones. Then came a series of articles in magazines like The Atlantic that detailed the food fight among various law enforcement agencies to get drones armed with everything from grenades to missiles. And just a few weeks ago I met with a church group in Florida that was visibly spooked by reports in their local newspaper that the county sheriff wanted to get armed drones.
One wonders how a present-day Davidian crisis might play out. One wonders whether some overzealous informant might report from a meeting of church people that their discussion of Revelation constitutes a threat. Without due process and investigation, prejudice and perhaps just a lack of information on a group might lead to drone preemption. Sound far-fetched? We are living in the unthinkable of just a few years ago.
On thing is certain: the drones are coming, not going. As the war in Afghanistan winds down tens of thousands of them will waft home to our skies. We need to give this some consideration from a civil and religious liberty point of view. For now most drones are big, slow moving, high-up creatures with both eyes and teeth. One day soon, they may be the little bug buzzing around the room. It is a matter society needs to discuss urgently.
Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."