Drones don't kill people, people kill people
A headline in the Wall Street Journal caught my eye Saturday morning: “Drone Kills Top Al Qaeda Figure.” Something about the ambiguity of this language bothered me – in English, do we more often cite the weapon that kills someone, or the consciousness that directs the weapon? In the case of a hostage standoff in which police are forced to shoot the hostage taker, do we say, “bullet kills captor,” or “gun kills captor,” or do we say, “police shoot hostage taker?” Unless the gun was acting autonomously (impossible), or maybe fell out of a holster and went off accidentally, I’d say, “police shoot hostage taker,” is a better reflection of reality.
The "Drone Kills" headline referred to a CIA counterterrorism program attack on U.S.-born Al Qaeda recruiter, Anwar al-Awlaki. The CIA used a drone to kill al-Awlaki, and sure, in some sense, he was "killed by drone" in the same sense that someone might undergo "death by hanging." But to lead a story by saying a man had just been killed by a rope would paint a rather surreal picture.
I'm not just asking this question based on a single the WSJ headline. As the day progressed and other mentions of this incident popped up, on the radio, television, the Web, so many of them included this "Drone Kills..." construction that one has to conclude it is the accepted media term. But does it obfuscate both the reality of the situation, the necessary and practical questions that arise as the line between military and intelligence operations blurs in the era of unmanned vehicles?
And what about the technology behind it? Is there a suggestion in that persistently constructed "drone kills" headline that the drone is autonomous? It's not, but it's not hard to imagine – at least technically – many aspects of warfare carried on with humans out of the loop entirely. Science fiction writers have done a bang-up job imagining frightening visions of that future. Perhaps we in the media should be clearer and more accurate in our language, if not for the sake of preventing the public from developing a blind spot to an important ethical arena in warfighting, then at least for the sake of the language itself.