A Sobering Historical Moment in Technology from Dallas

In all the horror out of Dallas in the last week, the explosive climax of the event may prove to be the moment with the greatest long-term ramifications.

The Dallas Police Department sent an armed robot near the space of the “lone wolf” gunman and detonated a fatal explosive, ending the life of the man who shot 11 police officers, killing five. It was in the first time an American law enforcement agency used a robot to kill a suspect, said robotics expert Peter Singer of the New America Foundation to the Associated Press.

While it is difficult to second guess the decision -- one that can certainly be rationalized logically despite the ramifications, under the life-and-death circumstances -- it does begin a slippery slope about the now-legitimate question of killer robots. The hard fact is that once something like this has actually happened, moved from sci-fi to sci-fact, rarely is the genie put back in the bottle. Once a robot has been used to lethally subdue a suspect, it will surely be done again. The question then becomes, always: who makes the call?

One expert, Seth Stoughton, is quoted in The Atlantic magazine making a valid point: Once Lethal Force is justified, it’s justified no matter what the delivery system: “If someone is shooting at the police, the police are, generally speaking, going to be authorized to eliminate that threat by shooting them, or by stabbing them with a knife, or by running them over with a vehicle. Once lethal force is justified and appropriate, the method of delivery—I doubt it’s legally relevant.”

When you hear it put that way, it’s reassuring. Somewhat. But between drones in the air throughout the Middle East, on-the-ground robotics engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, there’s a whole lot of death being brought via robot already. Even if it is legal, the ethics of being able wield death so effortlessly from afar and afield raises new questions about law enforcement and war.

For have we not developed equivalent technology of non-lethal means to subdue someone, to stop them conclusively without killing them? Do police departments not have visual or sonar weaponry that can incapacitate a suspect who can then be captured and questioned? In most every case recently, it seems, the lone wolf antagonist(s) is killed (Orlando, San Bernadino, Dallas). Capturing these murderous criminals might reveal more than we know now, or at least the mind of this brand of mass murderer. If that type of technology doesn’t for sure exist, well, someone should get on it.