It’s easy to be inspired by the hero, even if we never put ourselves at risk for the sake of another. But it can be hard to really understand heroism – I know, for example, that I positively cannot envision what must go through a soldier’s mind as he’s running through enemy fire to try to save his squad, even though I admire his courage. The anti-hero, though – there’s someone we might admire less, even though we understand them better. Who hasn’t wanted to just do what they think needs to be done, regardless of what societal mores (or even the law, perhaps) has to say on the matter. If the end result is sufficiently good (or the results of inaction sufficiently bad), why shouldn’t we just do what needs to be done and let the ends justify our actions?
The attraction of this approach is that we can say the hell with convention – we know what’s right and we’re going to achieve it in the most efficient way possible. The problem is that those who take this approach are assuming that their judgment is better than that of society, and they are assuming that the end they are after makes their methods acceptable after the fact. But what if they’re wrong? What if the harm the anti-hero does to society by his disregard of the rules turns out to be more significant than the good that is accomplished?
Earlier this week Eddie Walsh, a journalist, scholar, and FAS affiliate published a thought-provoking piece on the increasing use of drones by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to help attack the practice of poaching in Africa. Walsh points out that the WWF – along with other NGOs – is taking it upon itself to deploy assets to curb crime in a foreign nation. And, like the anti-hero, the WWF may have a noble goal, but what if their means cause more harm than the good they accomplish?
First let’s talk about the good – the WWF has legitimately good aims, to reduce poaching. The people they’re after are criminals and the animals they’re shooting are endangered. With the exception of the poachers and their customers there are few who would argue with the WWF’s aims.
On the other hand, we do have to consider the collateral damage that can arise. Walsh points out, for example, that the poachers (or others affiliated with them) might decide that anyone working with the WWF is fair game, which could put the entire WWF organization at risk. But it can go beyond that – what if NGOs all start to become targets? After all, there are many who view NGOs and those who work for them as pesky meddlers who need to be kept in line. It’s a hard trade-off – real benefits today (less poaching and fewer poachers) versus hypothetical harm in the future – but it’s one that has to be considered.
The WWF approach has another potential downside – it reduces respect for the nations in which they are flying their drones. What does it say about a nation that has to rely on foreigners – private citizens at that – to help enforce its laws? Does this reduce respect for the nation? And for that matter, what does it say for a nation that it allows a foreign NGO to fly drones over its territory? Our drone attacks over Pakistan have aroused the ire of the Pakistanis; one can’t help but wonder what a nation – and its citizens – think about an NGO flying drones, however noble the intent, over its territory. At the very least it’s likely to reduce respect for the government on the part of citizens and rivals alike. Is there potential collateral damage stemming from the use of drones on the part of a non-governmental organization?
But there’s more to consider. Today, the WWF is using its own drones to help catch poachers, but what about tomorrow? Will GreenPeace use drones to track whaling vessels, the better to interfere with their operations? What about the Red Cross, checking on victims of a hurricane – or political prisoners? What about your local neighborhood watch, tracking local sex offenders – or whoever else triggers their interest? Or, for that matter, what about a government that hires an NGO (directly or indirectly) to look for people of interest – like maybe citizens who are tired of being oppressed? At what point does doing good turn into doing bad?
To be honest with you, I hate “slippery slope” arguments because you can turn just about anything into a slippery slope into something nefarious. At the same time, slippery slopes exist, and any transgression makes the next one that much easier to rationalize and to commit.
I honestly can’t say exactly what I think about the thought of an NGO deploying drones to help accomplish its aims. I admire the dedication exhibited by the WWF, and I respect their aims. The world will be a poorer place if poachers kill the world’s last wild rhino or the last snow leopard. But the world will also be a poorer place if there is an open season on NGOs, if nations abrogate their responsibilities to private groups, or if the technology used to do good is turned to more dubious ends.
The problem with being an anti-hero is that is requires you to be right all the time. When you decide to ignore rules (or societal convention) and take it upon yourself to do the right thing – in spite of what societal rules might call for – there isn’t much room for error. I’d hate to see a world without large game – but I’d also hate to see the neighborhood watch drones overhead every time I go outside, and I’d hate to see NGOs become targets of those who fear their meddling. It’s nice to think of well-intentioned private groups who are so dedicated to their work that they are willing to risk arrest to do good – but we have to make sure the potential costs aren’t higher than we can live with.