Balaam, Drones and the NDAA

Last week I discussed how the section of the Torah we find ourselves in at this time of year deals with the young Israelite nation growing into a military power. This evolution continues in this week’s parsha when an enemy king, Balak, sends a Balaam – a sort of religious leader cum warrior – to curse the Israelite camp. And again this week, this Torah portion resonates with some of the current debate in Congress about the National Defense Authorization Act.

Balaam, we read, attempts to curse the Israelites but each time he speaks he cannot help but bless them (this is where the prayer Mah Tovu comes from). The Talmudic scholar Rabbi Yochanan posits an explanation of why the tents of Jacob were so beautiful. Rabbi Yochanan explains that the tents of the Israelites were all arranged so that none of their entrances faced each other, promising as much privacy as possible to each member of the camp. The Talmud goes  on and builds on this theme in an effort to enshrine privacy as a basic Jewish value and develop the idea of hezek ria, the harm that can be caused by seeing into someone’s private life.

The potential for too much “seeing,” or surveillance, to lead to real material damage becomes even more relevant as we consider modern technology. The increased surveillance capabilities and the ability for that surveillance to lead to lethal force raises interesting moral questions about the U.S. military and intelligence community’s use of drones. What might be the costs of the profound surveillance capabilities that drones promise? How do understand the way that ‘seeing’ translates into deadly harm?

In that vein, the U.S. House of Representatives quietly passed the first piece of legislation restricting American use of drones as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014. The NDAA included provisions from a previous bill introduced by Representative Mac Thornberry’s (R-TX) that called the Oversight of Sensitive Military Operations Act, which would require the Secretary of Defense to notify the House and Senate Armed Services Committees when a lethal attack aimed at someone on the “capture or kill” list has taken place. Another provision – an explicit ban on the use of drones to kill American citizens, unless that person is actively engaged in combat against the U.S. – offered by Representative Paul Broun (R-GA) was adopted by voice vote.

These provisions still face several major hurdles before they can become law and they only address a few aspects of many people’s concerns about this new technology, but as the first legislation on an issue that hardly anyone in Congress was talking about six months ago this represents the beginning of an important conversation.


Image courtesy of Reuters

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About Benny Witkovsky

Benny Witkovsky is an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant, he is from Madison, WI, and recently graduated from Vassar College.


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