Drones are complicated.
There's a marvelous science behind these killing machines, but that may be their simplest aspect.
Rolling Stone did a story on drones, titled, "Rise of the Killer Drones: How America Goes to War in Secret." When it comes to anti-terrorism strikes, the Central Intelligence Agency has broad authority over its kill lists, "with limited oversight from the White House," author Michael Hastings says.
Near the end of the piece (on the jump to page 82) we're introduced to Tariq Aziz, a 16-year-old boy from Pakistan.
Aziz, who enjoyed playing soccer, lived in fear of drones, we're told. They buzzed for hours "like aerial lawn mowers" over his home in Waziristan.
One of Aziz's cousins was killed by a drone strike in April 2010. Aziz's turn came late last year. Wrong place, wrong time. His 12-year-old cousin was also "eliminated."
"The Obama administration has no comment on the killing of Tariq Aziz," Rolling Stone tells us.
It's possible that Aziz was targeted. Someone might know.
Only recently has the Obama administration acknowledged that U.S. drones sometimes kill civilians.
On the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death, John O. Brennan, Obama's top adviser on terrorism, conducted a press briefing. He said drone strikes are approved only if civilians won't be hurt - "except in the rarest of circumstances."
When peace activist Medea Benjamin interrupted Brennan to question him about Aziz and others, she was wrestled out of the room.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, based in London, has tried to keep track of U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Since 2004, we've killed some 2,500 to 3,000 people in Pakistan alone. Of those, according to the bureau's figures, between 479 and 811 were civilians, 174 of them children.
The CIA might quarrel with those estimates, and the definition of "civilian," or even the definition of "children." It offers no statistics of its own. (Others, by the way, insist the civilian count is higher.)
When Obama's adviser on terrorism says civilians are put at risk from drones "only in the rarest of circumstances," I suspect it's a bit of a fairy tale. Still, I want to trust that the administration has a better handle on what's at stake than I do.
Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times is among the skeptics - stressing that the review process for drone kills is mostly a secret. "The administration's explanation of its decision-making still boils down mostly to 'trust us,'" he writes.
McManus's opinion piece, republished in The Post-Crescent in Appleton, Wis., under the title "President Barack Obama needs to come clean on drones," drew only a handful of online comments. One reader instructed the Obama administration: "Before doing any more drone attacks please notify Doyle McManus from the Los Angeles Times to get approval."
Eighty-three percent of Americans approve of the use of drones, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll from February. Politically, it's a fairly comfortable, widespread embrace. Kill the bad guys. Spare us the complications.
But, yes, the complications.
Libertarian writer Sheldon Richman makes the obvious point that drone-bombing helps create new militants. "This is not rocket science," Richman writes. "Bomb people, and they will dislike you - and perhaps seek revenge."
What Richman apparently dismisses is that - in provoking revenge - the bombs we dropped in World War II didn't work out so badly. There's also the fact that drones are much more precise than so many other instruments of war. Declared or not, we're at war in parts of Pakistan.
There is, one would hope, a military formula at work - extermination vs. blowback, so to speak.
If you're paralyzed by the tragedy of war, you invite greater risks - even for the populace under attack. That's what the protective grownups at the CIA might say.
You and I, of course, are not privy to the drones formula. The troops sent to Afghanistan, including our friends and neighbors, they're not in on it, either.
We're lucky, maybe, to be spared the complications. I do wonder if the president is spared, too.
Soon, killer drones could move beyond the domain of people "we trust." These days, as sole proprietors, the U.S. is setting a standard for the hows and whys of robotic killing.
We're claiming the moral high ground and the revelations stop there.
Jim Anderson's email address is email@example.com.