Politics & Policy

The Great Drone Panic

It is Luddism masquerading as civil libertarianism.

The Great Drone Panic of 2012 is upon us.

Congress recently instructed the Federal Aviation Administration to open up the skies to more domestic use of the pilotless aircraft by private citizens and law enforcement. This, we’re told in the urgent tones of Paul Revere on his famous ride, is the first step toward a dystopian surveillance state overseen by a ubiquitous drone air force. Nothing will be hidden from the watchful eye of the drones.

The influential conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wants drones banned domestically and thinks the first American to shoot one down will be declared a national hero. Senator Rand Paul considers them a clear-and-present danger to American freedom and is offering legislation to require a warrant every time one takes flight, except to patrol the border or in extraordinary circumstances. The drone is to our liberty what the wolf is to sheep, a natural enemy.

It is understandable that drones don’t have a warm-and-fuzzy image. Overseas, they are vehicles for an ongoing campaign of assassination. The drone attack has become the signature tactic in the war against terror. Spectacularly precise strikes take out people who had no idea they were coming, in notably antiseptic (for the operator of the drone, at least) acts of warfare.

#ad#And this is the first objection to the use of drones domestically: They are weapons of war! About to be deployed here at home! Not exactly. We don’t kill people with drones; we kill them with Hellfire missiles. The drone is just the platform. By this standard, we would have no police helicopters because helicopters are weapons of war. For that matter, by this standard police shouldn’t be allowed to carry firearms, which are a weapon of war going back a couple of centuries.

As for police drones randomly watching us as we innocently go about our business, this is not a novel phenomenon. Police do it all the time. It is called a patrol. They do it utilizing all manner of technology — on foot, on horseback, on bikes, in cars, and even on Segway scooters. So long as they are looking at us in public areas where we have no reasonable expectation of privacy, our liberty survives intact.

Drones will no doubt raise novel issues under the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure. They will require rules. The same is true of any technology, of course. The Supreme Court held unanimously earlier this year that police can’t attach a GPS tracker on someone’s vehicle without a warrant. This isn’t reason to ban all use of GPS trackers by law enforcement. The fear of drones is, in part, the fear of the new — it is Luddism masquerading as civil libertarianism.

Drones are coming no matter what. They will be too inexpensive and too useful to ignore. FedEx and UPS are interested in using drones to fly cargo. Farmers have used drones to monitor their crops. The market for drones, now almost $6 billion, is expected to double in the next ten years, according to the New York Times. Lockheed Martin is developing a tiny drone inspired by the aerodynamics of a maple seed that could fly around inside buildings.

As drones proliferate for commercial and other private uses, it is foolish to expect law enforcement to forgo them. Already, the Border Patrol uses drones down at the border. One day we will marvel that there was a time when a police drone wasn’t first on the scene of a shooting. Or a time when we had high-speed car chases, endangering everyone else on the road, instead of a drone following the suspect from the air. 

Ultimately, it is not the technology that matters, but the use to which it is put. A can of pepper spray is technologically unsophisticated. Yet it can be an instrument of cruelty if wielded arbitrarily by a cop. The drone is potentially a powerful tool. Vigilance is advisable; panic is silly.

— Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.© 2012 by King Features Syndicate.

Rich Lowry — Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via email: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. 

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