Tuesday, April 30, 2013

To Drone or Not To Drone: The NYT/CBS News Poll Does Not Ask the Right Question

The New York Times and CBS News just released a poll this morning that tracked public sentiment on several foreign policy issues.  The poll found that 70% of Americans favor "the U.S. using unmanned aircraft or 'drones' to carry out bombing attacks against suspected terrorists in foreign countries."  
The language adopted serves as an excellent example of the constrained reality and motivated framing so often found in polls.  For instance, almost every deficit-related poll only asked about whether people wanted "tax increases," "spending cuts," or "a mix of both."  Rarely were the questions of "tax increases on whom" and "spending cuts to what" addressed, and when they were, the answers ran against the generalized findings.  People will support policies in the abstract (e.g. "spending cuts") that they may be loath to support when confronted with the human impact of the policy.
The U.S.'s drone war in Pakistan and Yemen does not just kill "suspected terrorists" although killing someone who is just a "suspect" is problematic enough.  According to the New America Foundation, the U.S.'s drone strikes have a civilian casualty rate of roughly 10% with about 300 civilian deaths so far.  The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates the civilian death toll as far higher, almost double New America's estimate, including nearly 200 children killed. According to a Stanford-NYU study, only 2% of those killed are actually "high-level" targets.
The U.S. also uses morally repulsive signature strikes and double-tap strikes.  In the former, the CIA targets individuals who fit a certain description whether they have any evidence on said individual or not.  It is the foreign policy equivalent of a hate crime--killing someone for his/her identity alone. "Double-tap" strikes, which target those who come to the aid of the killed, are often considered war crimes.
Last week on All In, Chris Hayes spoke with Yemeni activist and writer Farea al-Muslimi, who had recently spoken at the Senate hearing on drones, about how the civilian deaths caused by drone strikes radicalizes and terrorizes the Yemeni population.  In addition to ending the lives of innocents, the drone strikes produce considerable psychological and physical injury.  
A question about drones that does not address the civilian death toll--whether or not the administration admits to its existence--is fundamentally misleading.  The NYT/CBS News poll could have asked if people favor "the U.S. using unmanned aircraft or 'drones' to carry out bombing attacks against suspected terrorists in foreign countries even if there is a risk of killing civilians/a risk of civilian casualties."  I would love to see people--whether the public or the officials that promote and defend the program--asked how many civilians they believe it is okay for the U.S. to kill in order to target one suspected--suspected, not accused--terrorist. 1?  2?  5?  10?  It would be an interesting insight to one's moral compass.
Would re-framing the question make a difference?  A HuffPost/YouGov survey from February asked the question in several ways and found so:
Favor 54-18: for killing "high-level terrorism suspects overseas"
Favor 43-27: "even if those suspects were American citizens"
Oppose 42-29: "even if innocent civilians may be killed"
The possibility that the suspect was an American citizen was the suspect weakened the support a bit, but the forcing respondents to acknowledge that innocent civilians may be killed completely tanked the support.You can read that here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/...

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