Hopkins must end unethical involvement in drone research

By SARALLAH SALEHI | January 30, 2014

For many young Americans like myself, the shocking reality that our country is still at war has sadly devolved into a second nature realization. With the United States entering its 13th year of active conflict in Afghanistan, war and all its associated horrors have become a defining aspect of life in a nation that has yet to fully recover from the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001. Like most, I believe the immediate military actions taken by President Bush after the attacks to invade Afghanistan and dismantle the terrorist safe havens were certainly, in retrospect, a correct decision. Welcomed by the people of Afghanistan and supported by much of the international community, the United States’ firm initiative to combat a global threat seemed only a step in the right direction. Yet, more than a decade on, the path that our national leaders continue to ardently follow in the attempt to protect our cherished liberties from both external and internal threats has, ironically, further deteriorated those same values.

Seizing on the fears of a shocked population, then President Bush clandestinely instituted widespread surveillance programs that have metastasized into the current nightmare enterprise that Edward Snowden and other whistle blowers recently exposed. As Cicero so presciently wrote almost two millennia ago: “Inter arma enim silent leges.” In times of war, the laws are silent. Not only in the legal realm, but also within the public sphere, a pervasive sense of fear cultivated by the media unequivocally silenced and tacitly reprimanded many who boldly opposed the precarious policy decisions being made at the time.

Today, the United States has a military budget larger than almost every other significant nation on Earth combined, most of whom are our close allies. This blank check written on behalf of the American people has spawned an elaborate web of military programs with unknown missions, whose functions inside the prevailing framework are largely undefined. Within this immense defense establishment, departments have arisen that are nearly autonomous, exempt from any judicial or executive oversight. In fact, the notion that there are now more than three branches of government in power is not totally misleading. Simultaneously, the United States has entered into a never ending set of covert wars in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and Libya, not to mention the active conflict still raging in Afghanistan.

But to many Americans, knowledge of these new wars is fairly limited. Neither widely covered on television nor written about truthfully in the major publications, these secret battle zones nevertheless have real victims that die real deaths in real places. The only difference is that the lives of U.S. soldier’s are no longer in the path of direct harm, as the fighting burden has now shifted to unmanned aerial vehicles — drones. Initially utilized by President Bush as an important but relatively infrequent tool in combatting terror cells, the use of drones has assumed center stage under the current administration’s “war on terror.”

The effectiveness of these stealth warplanes in inflicting significant damage on the networks of terrorists is unquestionable, but the toll in civilian deaths is just as salient. In the past five years, the Obama administration employed Predator and Reaper drones an astonishing 390 times (an estimate based on information relayed by peoples in the targeted areas). By contrast, President Bush turned to these killer machines just 51 times. The parallel rise in total deaths caused by the heightened dependency on drones is similarly drastic: about 400 for Bush and more than 2000 for Obama. Of these deaths, estimates have put the number of innocent civilian lives lost somewhere between the figures 200 to 500. No one really knows the true extent of this “collateral” damage, as these deadly strikes are still considered secret by the government and cannot be publicly disclosed, even if the deceased are harmless children or women with no connections to terrorism.

So why should Hopkins students be especially perturbed by the immense suffering of guiltless drone victims half a world away in Pakistan and Yemen?

Because the critical technology used to launch the barrage of lethal Hellfire missiles that regularly rain down on the tribal lands of Waziristan and remote villages of Yemen are developed in our backyard — at the Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

Though some in our University community might not be aware of the Applied Physics Laboratory, this small research center 40 minutes away from the Homewood Campus is still very much part of the Hopkins system. Nestled away in a rural enclave in one of Maryland’s most affluent areas, the unremarkable veneer of the Applied Physics Lab would not elicit a hint of curiosity to the uninformed spectator. Yet, this inconspicuous façade belies the critical research and development on drone warfare technology taking place within its boundaries.

Funded heavily by government contracts from federal organizations such as the Army, Navy and an assortment of private military-oriented agencies, the Applied Physics Laboratory serves as a nurturing incubator of talented scientists and engineers who relentlessly produce highly sophisticated weapon systems. For example, in 2008, the institution received almost 70 percent of its 845 million dollar budget from the Department of Defense, not to mention the tens of millions in contracts received from private corporations like Northrup Grumman and Boeing. Let us not be deceived into thinking that the Applied Physics Laboratory is somehow a normal component of the American research university. It is, in fact, one of a kind; there are very few other places like it in the United States. No where else is the federal government going to find a well organized network of world renowned scientists and researchers ready to work, a mere arms-length away from its central foci of power.

But the most comical (or cynical) aspect of this dubious relationship with the Applied Physical Laboratory is that it is somehow categorized as a non-profit organization. Think about that for a moment. An institution that is the quintessential example of how a flawless business model should be implemented and executed is actually exempt from paying most taxes on the more than one billion dollars in income it brings in every year.

To be fair, neither the Applied Physics Laboratory nor any Hopkins affiliate is involved in the actual process of assembling the drones employed by the Department of Defense; this likely occurs at an even more secretive facility that we will most likely never know about. And to a significant degree, the Applied Physics Laboratory and its people have little leverage over how their research is ultimately utilized by the clients they service, as there are certainly other research institutions perfectly ready to step in at a moment’s notice to accept the tens of millions in research contracts offered by the government.

Still, we have to keep in mind who we are and what exactly that identity stands for. For a university that aspires in its mission to “bring the benefits of discovery into the world”, I am highly skeptical that the development of technology used in drone warfare endows the planet with any beneficial advancement.

It is our responsibility — students, faculty and administrators alike—  as members of the Hopkins community to speak out against such immoral engagements. They run wholly counter-current to our University’s mission of educating the next generation of responsible citizens and world leaders.

Sarallah Salehi is a sophomore majoring in math and political science.

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