By Grey Cox
The killing of Dallas Police shooting suspect Michael X. Johnson with a remotely controlled robot was a creative, rapid response to a brutal, shocking, extremely urgent crisis situation. In the aftermath, it has been difficult to puzzle out why he attacked, what he planned, who might be working with him, what future threats might remain from them and what, if anything, might be done to prevent such an attack in the future. These questions are especially hard to answer because a crucial source of answers, Johnson, was killed.
There are three lessons that should be learned from the results of this innovative use of a robot. First, remote-controlled robots can be used very effectively to safeguard police in high-risk confrontations with violent extremists and mentally disturbed people.
Second, using such machines to kill may halt the particular crisis, but it destroys the most important body of evidence available for understanding such people and taking steps to prevent or cut short such attacks in the future. It destroys the living brain, memories and personality of the criminal. Third, planning for the future should emphasize the development of effective nonviolent methods for using robots in such situations.
Properly designed, robotic drones on wheels or propellers can carry a variety of arms that might incapacitate criminals effectively and enable later interrogation and observation to yield essential information and insight. Tasers, tranquilizer darts, tranquilizing gas, disabling sounds, nets, glues and a variety of other nonviolent weapons or substances could and should be used in such situations rather than bullets and explosives. These were not readily available to the Dallas Police Departmen, but they should be developed and made available nationwide for the future.
In many cases, the police and public at large would prefer a nonviolent resolution because, in retrospect, they would view the people threatening violence in police standoffs as severely ill and in need of help rather than as criminals in need of punishment.
Officers who feel forced to kill someone in a police standoff can feel deep pain and sadness when they know the person they shoot is someone who arrived in that position through no fault of their own. They might be suffering from depression caused by a genetic disorder or by battlefield trauma and PTSD acquired while risking their lives fighting for our country. All would benefit from devices that made it possible to safely capture rather than kill such people.
Just as importantly, capturing suspects alive preserves an irreplaceable resource. The violent people themselves are the best source of evidence we have for learning more about their motives, methods, histories, associates and plans – as well as the possible future threats from associates or similar people.
In the case of organized criminals and violent extremists, the only people who benefit from the killing of the perpetrators are in fact their associates in the criminal organizations who want evidence pointing to them destroyed.
The development of nonviolent drone technology could and should be applied to military as well as police situations for these sorts of reasons. It would be just as useful and morally appropriate to disable and capture opponents in a firefight in Fallujah as in a domestic dispute in Farmington. The machinery needed may be somewhat different because in military operations, there often are large numbers of people involved and the tactics being deployed may be different. But the basic principles still apply. Some enemy soldiers are well meaning, patriotic, innocent people. And all enemy soldiers are potential sources of crucial information. Disabling and capturing are better than killing.
The military case highlights a third consideration as well. All opponents are potential martyrs. Killing them may easily create many more enemy combatants than it destroys. As our generals have pointed out, that is not the way to win the kinds of wars we face today.
The availability of inexpensive, remote-controlled drones makes it possible to practice nonviolent methods in police and military operations that in the past might have been too risky for humans to attempt. As we move into an age of increasing use of robots and other artificial intelligence-based technology, we need to emphasize research and development of technology that is not only “smart” but wise. In this case, as in so many, nonviolence is the path of wisdom.
Gray Cox is a professor in philosophy and peace studies at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor.