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Ethical Questions Must Be Asked About Use of Robot in Police Sniper Case

Should the police have used a robot to kill the Dallas sniper? Maybe, maybe not.

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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My brother and I both hate fireworks, because they sound like combat. He served in the Marines in Vietnam and I in the Army. Explosions still make us jumpy. So we spent the Fourth of July deep in a national park where such explosions are forbidden.

When we returned to so-called civilization, we were horrified to learn of real-life combat in Dallas. A veteran had used his military skills to assassinate innocent policemen, and the police, in turn, used a robot to blow up the veteran.

Should the police have used a robot to kill the sniper? The robot is a military device. It’s a shame that the police are more and more arming themselves like the military, but we should not blame them for that.

Our society is now so heavily armed that the police have no alternative: Keeping the peace in a militarized culture requires a militarized police force. That is a shame, but get used to it. That’s the world we live in. We can only dream of an America in which civilians are never armed like soldiers.

As a veteran, I care deeply about these issues. I take some pride in my service, and I believe that military training and equipment should never be used unethically. As a university philosopher, I don’t claim to have the authority to judge the police or anyone else. But I do have strong views about what questions should be asked in a case like this — and what questions to ignore.

We do not need to ask about drones. This robot operation was not at all like what the drones are doing. Drones are being used for assassinations; recourse to assassination in warfare is controversial. Drones are especially controversial because of the damage they can do to innocent people.

Also, we do not need to ask about self-defense. The sniper claimed also to be a bomber, and as such, he presented a major threat to the people of Dallas. The police were not only acting to save themselves. Self-defense in a military context is a difficult issue, because in combat no one is totally innocent.

But this was not a typical combat mission. These police officers were totally innocent, and they were there to protect lives other than their own. As for the many killings of innocent African Americans by policemen, these cannot count as self-defense. They are not even pre-emptive killings, because the victims posed no threat. Such actions cannot be justified by any principle.

So what are the ethical questions that do matter for this case that we need to ask?

Did the sniper remain a threat to the lives of innocent people, including police officers? Apparently yes.

Was there no other way to remove the threat, short of killing the sniper? Had negotiations failed? Apparently yes.

Was it safe to send a live attacker against the sniper? Apparently no.

Did using the robot create the danger of collateral damage — of killing innocent people along with the sniper? Apparently no.

Apparently the police answered all of these questions to the best of their knowledge. If so, they did the right thing.

After we talked, my brother said, “After seeing ‘Star Wars,’ I want to know whether the robot was OK at the end of the day.” But he knew as well as I that what matters is the saving of human lives.

Paul Woodruff is a distinguished teaching professor of philosophy at The University of Texas at Austin. He served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam in 1969-70 and has written on military ethics. 

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Waco Tribune HeraldDallas Morning News, Fort Worth Star Telegram and the McAllen Monitor.

To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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