Would an American Who Shot Down a Surveillance Drone Be Considered a "Hero" by Some?

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
May 16 2012 11:54 AM

Would an American Who Shot Down a Surveillance Drone Be Considered a "Hero" by Some?

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An Israeli Heron TP surveillance drone, known as the IAI Eitan, flies during a presentation to the media in 2010.

Photo by JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images

The website MediaMatters reports that two Fox News contributors have suggested that Americans unhappy with domestic surveillance drones may take action into their own hands—and perhaps become heroes.

Torie Bosch Torie Bosch

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies. 

On Monday, the FAA released new rules governing the use of surveillance drones (or unmanned aerial vehicles) by domestic public safety agencies, such as law enforcement and fire departments. Interested agencies can apply for expedited approval of drones weighing up to 25 pounds.  The drones may not fly higher than 400 feet and must be in sight of an operator at all times. They also cannot fly near airports.

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That day, columnist Charles Krauthammer said on Special Report, “I would predict—I’m not encouraging, but I'm predicting—the first guy who uses a Second Amendment weapon to bring a drone down that's been hovering over his house is going to be a folk hero in this country. ... I'm not encouraging, I'm simply making a prediction.”

The next morning, on Fox and Friends, Anthony Napolitano echoed Krauthammer’s statements, even taking them a little further:
When the president bombed Libya, the Congress looked the other way. Now the president wants to dispatch plastic drones to spy on Americans. It would be reprehensible for the Congress to look the other way. And I want to give a shoutout to Charles Krauthammer. He's 100 percent correct. The first American patriot that shoots down one of these drones that comes too close to his children in his backyard will be an American hero.

Napolitano didn’t say that he would personally consider shooting down a drone an act of heroism. But he failed to invoke the same “just making a prediction” language that Krauthammer did, leading MediaMatters’ Erik Schroeck to suggest that Napolitano might be “encouraging” such action. “[W]hile there are serious concerns over the use of drones domestically, Napolitano's suggestion that an ‘American patriot’ should fire at one being used by law enforcement could lead to serious and potentially dangerous consequences,” Schroeck writes.

Schroeck's interpretation may be a bit of a stretch. But this conversation highlights the very real battle brewing between drone advocates and civil liberties activists on both the left and the right. (Krauthammer said on Special Report, "'I'm going to go hard left on you here, I'm going ACLU.)  But as more drones take to U.S. airspace, the rhetoric here is likely to go beyond Napolitano's.

As Ryan Gallagher wrote on Future Tense last month, an ongoing case out of North Dakota* involving the use of a drone borrowed from the Department of Homeland Security may help clarify the law. The family in that case, which started with a dispute over cattle, "prefer[s] to limit their contact with governmental actors,” a document notes.

*Correction, May 16, 2012: This post originally misstated where a court case involving law enforcement's use of drones is taking place. It is in North Dakota, not Montana.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.