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BADASS sparks drone use debate

Published: February 7, 2014
Section: News


Before the Brandeis Academic Debate and Speech Society (BADASS) ’DEIS Impact debate began, Alyssa Adler ’16 stood in an aisle in Golding Auditorium, preparing to make her case.

’DEIS Impact is Brandeis’ annual festival of social justice, a concept on which the school was founded. BADASS got in on the action with “Debating For a More Just Future.” 2013’s public ’DEIS Impact debate concerned the benefits and drawbacks of affirmative action. This year, the topic was the United States’ use of drones overseas. The focus was on Pakistan.

Adler and David Altman ’15 took the position that drone strikes are immoral and unjustified, while Paige Lurie ’15 and Brad Burns ’15 argued that U.S. drone strikes were an effective and necessary method of maintaining national security.

BADASS debates are parliamentary. There are four debaters, two in favor and two against. The audience is encouraged to pound on whatever is at hand to show support for an argument.

Altman and Adler were the first to make their case. They claimed that drone strikes are immoral because they are a “blunt instrument,” indiscriminate in nature, which leads to overkill and collateral damage when civilians are used as human shields by terrorists. Terrorists, it follows, are not the group primarily hampered by drone strikes. Instead, innocent civilians are punished by the “lottery of birth,” not having chosen to be born into a besieged Pakistan.

Drone strikes, they went on, undermine Pakistani sovereignty and autonomy. Even though its government is not strictly an American ally, it was democratically elected, and the U.S. has not declared war on the nation of Pakistan. “Drone strikes perpetuate the notion that the only way terrorists can be effective is through terrorism,” said Altman, which was greeted by the pounding that took the place of applause. At this point Burns stood up, asking if the U.S. should simply do nothing in the face of insurgency. He was dismissed and told to “see the third point” that immediately followed.

“Pakistani civilians just don’t like drone strikes,” Altman added, explaining that drone strikes create opposition to the United States, contributing to the image of America as an imperialist hegemony. He said that in effect, drone strikes undermine counterterrorism efforts.

Then the opposition took their chance to make their case and refute the claims of the other side. Lurie stressed that America should have “American interests [and keep] interests of American civilians first. Pakistan has a right to sovereignty, but the U.S. needs to stop terrorism—and the U.S. does not have obligations to other nations’ sovereignty.” She claimed that drones are uniquely capable of stemming terrorism because drones can target more specifically and efficiently than other methods of war. She addressed the opposition by saying that terrorists still have incentives to use human shields, but drone strikes limit the scope of destruction. Her argument was that better ways to use drones should be investigated, as opposed to dismissing their use outright.

Adler took her position at the podium and began her refutation immediately. “Do Americans consent to this? Drones have hidden costs of war. [The opposition] talks about how there are no alternatives—that’s problematic. Peaceful alternatives are always better, and the benefits of drone strikes exist only in the short-term, because drones amplify the voices of violent extremists,” and legitimize the ideas of the terrorists targeted by the drones in the first place, contributing to a vicious cycle. When drone strikes do take out insurgents, she added, they create a power vacuum and promote competition to fill it. Drones don’t change the entire power structure, and in the long-term, they would need to be used even more to be effective.

Adler cleared her throat. “When war becomes easier, there’s always going to be more of it,” she said.

Drones have become a symbol for American foreign policy, Adler and Altman stressed, and as a result have led to greater American isolation in the realm of international opinion.

The team in favor of continued drone strikes argued that it is clear that the Pakistani government accepts drone strikes even if the people of Pakistan do not, and stressed that the U.S. was not looking to go to war with Pakistan.

“What are ‘alternative methods’?” asked Lurie. “If things are as bad as the opposition insists, the incentive to use them must not exist. There are huge checks against drone warfare, and…citizens are more likely to be in opposition to an American occupation of Pakistan—the only viable alternative.”

Throughout the night, there was rarely a lull, but the opposition stood up to make a point once in a while. More often than not, they were waved away. While the structure of the rounds was more informal, there was clear passion on both sides. As one side spoke, the opposition would often shake their heads in their seats, mouthing “no” as points were fired off.