The question of killing versus letting die has long been a source of puzzlement to me, particularly as it arises in rallies for so-called “humanitarian” wars abroad. Wealthy nations regularly “allow” people to die all over the world—of disease and starvation, as a result of natural disasters, etc.—so how, I have often wondered, does the professed desire to improve the lot of nonnationals serve to rationalize the dropping of massively destructive bombs upon their homelands? Assuming the most charitable of all possible scenarios (as unrealistic as that may be), even if leaders have the best of intentions, some of the innocent people living in places being bombed will die as a direct result of the military intervention, not the danger allegedly necessitating the use of deadly force abroad. Such deaths are written off as “collateral damage” and the policymakers thereby exonerated in the minds of nearly all of the people who paid for the bombing campaigns.
The case of COVID-19 has begun to raise the question of killing versus letting die, for some of the persons allegedly being protected by the government are being or will be killed not by the disease but by policies enacted to combat the disease. Notwithstanding the stentorian outcry of government interventionists thoroughly convinced of the necessity of lockdowns, closed borders, universal vaccination and face masks, the situation is not at all black-and-white. Indeed, it is quite complex. Everything turns on the contentious concept of “preventable deaths.”
The number one killer in the world, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) is heart disease. No one chooses to die of a heart attack, but is heart disease a case of sometimes preventable death? Obesity is a major contributing factor to heart disease, so one might not unreasonably suppose that if people were permitted to eat only lean proteins, vegetables and fruits, along with whole grains, if they were prevented from consuming fatty foods and highly processed sugar-laden snacks with no nutritive content (beyond calories), then the incidence of death by heart disease would diminish. This could be accomplished most straightforwardly by outlawing the offending foods and imposing government-enforced portion control. No state has to date prohibited or limited the production and consumption of fried foods, ice cream, and doughnuts. Which is not, however, to say that no one has ever tried something along those lines. When former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg attempted to outlaw large volume sodas (defined by his administration as exceeding 16 ounces), the law was struck down as unconstitutional. In free societies, it is up to individuals, not executives, to decide what and how much to eat and whether the risk of dying of complications arising from obesity—not only heart disease but also diabetes and other problems—is worth the freedom to choose what to consume.
One meme circulating around the internet shows a severely obese patient in a wheelchair wearing a mask and lashing out at a young, thin person for not wearing a mask. The meme is intended as a not-so-gentle reproach of those who created the negative health conditions which make them personally vulnerable to COVID-19. The insinuation is that severe lockdown and quarantine measures are problematic in a free society in part because some of the people vulnerable to COVID-19 have health-risk factors to which they themselves contributed. Obviously no one should hold octogenarians and nonagenarians “morally responsible” for the age-induced fragility which makes them more likely to succumb to respiratory infections than are younger, hardier persons. But surely there are also some people who suffer from obesity, diabetes, and other risk factors for which they, too, are not fully responsible, given their backgrounds and, in some cases, genetic predispositions. Bad choices are bad choices, but when they are made in part because of how one was raised, say, by parents who made similarly bad choices (and going back perhaps generations…), then there is some cause for restraint in judgment.
On the flip side, some people should not wear masks; not only young children but also persons with asthmatic and other respiratory conditions. While in the Dublin airport, where I had to fly in order to get to Wales (absurdly enough—because the Austrian government had decreed the United Kingdom a red zone), I noticed placards around the bathrooms pronouncing that “Not all disabilities are visible.” The signs were most likely intended to prevent anyone from upbraiding persons using handicapped bathroom facilities who by all appearances are perfectly normal. But it applies now, too, to people who do not wear masks because of their pre-existing health conditions, to which only they and their doctors are privy. Angry mask-wearers who shout shoppers out of stores for not covering their faces simply assume that they are not doing so because they are selfish or stupid (or evil or ignorant), when in at least some cases those people should not be wearing masks because doing so would be more dangerous to them than is COVID-19.
No matter what people do, death by disease cannot be fully eradicated, but other categories of death would seem to be preventable. Take the obvious example of traffic accidents, which has been discussed quite a bit on social media in recent months. If there were no cars, then there would be no car accidents and, therefore, no fatal car accidents. Make driving illegal, and road traffic injuries, which account for more than a million deaths each year worldwide, would come to a screeching halt. Despite knowing the risks involved, people choose to continue to drive vehicles. Despite the evident perils of motorcycles, which afford no protection in collisions with cars and trucks, people continue to choose to ride them. In some places, seat belts are required by law and motorcyclists must wear helmets (on pain of punishment for refusal to comply). Yet there are people who ignore those laws, unconcerned as they are about the increased risk of death which they will thereby face, and knowing that they will likely be fined if they are caught. Those are the rogues, of course, but even some of the people who do wear seat belts and helmets will be killed in traffic accidents, not to mention the many pedestrians who endanger themselves every time they cross a street. These activities are inherently dangerous to greater or lesser extents, depending upon the place and population density, but rather than outlaw all personal vehicles everywhere, governments permit individuals to assume the risk involved in activities which may tragically end in their deaths.
New Zealand has been heralded by some as a “success story” in the global battle against COVID-19, for the country imposed a complete lockdown of residents and slammed its borders shut with the result that hardly anyone in the country has succumbed to the disease—as of August 19, 2020, the grand total of deaths ascribed to COVID-19 is twenty-two. This makes New Zealand an interesting case to consider in thinking about the analogy to fatal traffic accidents. I say this because, in recent years, debate has raged over fatal auto accidents in New Zealand caused by foreign drivers. Like COVID-19, such cases tend to command a great deal of media air time, contributing to the perception of grave danger to the people of New Zealand. In 2016, there were twenty-six fatal accidents in which foreign drivers appear to have been at fault, and by 2019 the total number of traffic fatalities approached 400. At least some of those deaths were caused by foreign drivers, even if the perceived danger is higher than the reality.
The government of New Zealand might have prevented at least some of the fatal accidents by placing a moratorium on nonnational drivers, preventing them from renting cars and exacting severe penalties upon those who borrow cars from their friends and those residents who furnish cars to visitors. But this has never happened. Before COVID-19 (which we may in the future refer to as “B.C.”), despite knowing that foreign drivers from places where traffic flows down the right-hand side of the street do occasionally drift over the line on the sometimes steep and windy roads of New Zealand, thereby directly causing head-on collisions culminating in preventable deaths, the government of that nation has, at least up until now, permitted foreigners to rent vehicles and drive, even while knowing that some Kiwis (New Zealand nationals) will die as a result.
Now, with the sudden appearance of COVID-19, most foreigners are no longer allowed to drive in New Zealand for the simple reason that they are no longer permitted to travel to New Zealand. There were no doubt visitors around when the borders closed, and some may have decided to hunker down and wait for the virus to go away, but the moratorium on new tourists means a sudden and significant reduction of foreigners renting cars and killing Kiwis in New Zealand. Win-win! Well, except for the thousands of poor souls who are now out of work because twenty-two people in New Zealand died of a virus. The thinking among the powers that be, of course, is that if not for the severe lockdowns and restriction of liberties, many more people would have died there by now. Unfortunately, despite the refusal of Sweden to lockdown, we do not have as a test case any place where elderly care facilities were competently protected while the rest of the populace was allowed to roam free. Note, however, that Sweden’s per capita COVID-19 death rate is still lower than that of some countries which did impose months of severe lockdowns.
After the recent discovery of an outbreak of a few new cases (not deaths, mind you, but cases), the New Zealand government extended its lockdown of Auckland again and went one step further down a slippery slope, adopting as a national policy forcibly to place persons who test positive for COVID-19, along with their families, in quarantine camps. National elections have been postponed for a month as well. Authoritarian habits die hard, and one might surmise that once bureaucrats begin crunching the numbers of actual deaths caused in New Zealand by foreigners, they will eventually conclude that if ever they are permitted to return there for vacations, they should not be permitted to drive. In reality, that would and could happen there—and, frankly, everywhere—if and only if all of the new COVID-19 czars had some sort of consistent principles and worldview, which clearly they do not.
For example, while in Austria for more than half of 2020, I was surprised to find that smokers were permitted to puff away in public places, even though it was impossible to do so while complying with the Mund-Nasen-Schutz (face mask) requirement imposed in response to the arrival of COVID-19. Apparently, then, it is fine with the Austrian government for people today to induce in themselves lung cancer in the years to come, while endangering other residents with both second-hand smoke and COVID-19 simultaneously, but healthy nonsmokers not at significant risk of death from the virus are required by law to don face masks. If the risk aversion demonstrated by government bureaucrats in the face of COVID-19 were applied consistently, then cigarettes and personal automobiles would need to be altogether banned, in order to save people from themselves.
At first glance, smoking might seem to be a more straightforward case than obesity, for no one needs to smoke to survive, while all people must eat. Many human beings succumb to death by lung disease each year, usually as a result of having smoked. The dangers of smoking have been well-documented, and this information is now clearly printed on every pack of cigarettes, along with accompanying photos frightening enough to be screen shots from a horror film. And yet, some people continue to choose to smoke, and many continue to die each year of lung cancer and emphysema induced or exacerbated by smoking. Who is ultimately responsible when citizens die of such preventable deaths? Is it the manufacturers and distributors of cigarettes? Is it the government? Is it the voters who elect the government? Is it those who stand idly by watching others act in ways which endanger their own and in some cases other people’s health? Or are not individuals themselves ultimately responsible for what they do and thereby become?
The truth is that we never really know how and why people became the way that they became, nor why they do what they do. This is equally true for those who choose to smoke, to overeat, to ride motorcycles without helmets, and to drive while intoxicated or on steep mountain roads overhanging cliffs even when the traffic rules are the opposite of those to which they are accustomed. Given the many complex factors involved in our choices, each one of which contributes to who we finally become, the default position is generally regarded as one of personal responsibility, at least in Western liberal societies, where people are free to drink themselves to destruction or to gamble their lives away in other ways, whether literally or figuratively.
Contradictions abound in the Animal Farm-esque world of COVID-19 because different government officials the world over, and within large countries such as the United States, have very different views on what is and is not reasonable to ask of citizens. Quarantine, border restrictions and testing requirements change on a daily basis, and it is difficult to resist the suspicion that much of what is going on since the height of the crisis, in the spring of 2020, is purely the result of opportunistic politicians’ attempts to do something, do anything, so that they can take credit when the virus finally disappears.
In the current terror-tinged global pandemic milieu, where self-proclaimed “experts” are a dime a dozen, I continue to puzzle over why people are not simply being permitted to act on their own beliefs. Is not that the very basis of conscience? If anyone is truly terrified of being in the presence of unmasked persons, I would heartily exhort them to stay at home and do all of their shopping online. Just as in the case of drunk drivers and motorcyclists with no helmets, there will always be people who do not do as they are told—or as you believe that they should. If you decide to interact with those people (for example, by driving), that is a choice which you make. To those who would protest that, in the case of COVID-19, many people are ignorant of the relevant scientific literature, or “The ScienceTM,” I would counter that the very same argument would lead to the conclusion that representative democracy should be abolished. Certainly the manifest ignorance of both voters and elected officials in interpreting statistical data has become undeniable in recent months, with apparently intelligent people reading “death rates” of critically ill persons already in hospital intensive care units as applicable to the population at large.
Plato observed more than two thousand years ago that democracy is the second worse form of government—after tyranny, which is the system under which an executive is free to issue arbitrary edicts at his own caprice. The last bulwark against tyranny today remains a republican constitution—and the insistence of some people to uphold that constitution. The clear and present danger is that of citizens permitting themselves to be transformed into subjects, which can however be achieved through inducing a widespread fear of death—whether warranted by the facts or not.
In thinking about killing versus letting die, the case of COVID-19 is no less complicated than the cases of driving, eating, and smoking, all activities with built-in dangers and which are easy to abuse. Despite the strange, sudden and surprising near-unanimity of federal governments worldwide in deciding to implement a range of draconian policies intended to save the lives of those vulnerable to the disease by restricting the liberty of everyone else, and prohibiting normal activities in which healthy people would otherwise engage, the unsavory truth is that governments are in fact increasing the risk of death for many people who are in nearly no danger of dying from the virus itself.
Among the more drastic policy measures implemented in response to the appearance of COVID-19 is that of restricting access to medical services for anyone who does not exhibit acute symptoms of the dreaded disease. In this way, the new virus has been given a much higher priority than notorious killers such as cancer, heart disease, stroke and suicide. Hospitals all over the world have put “elective” surgeries on hold, postponed cancer treatment and refused admission to anyone not clearly suffering from COVID-19. This is tantamount to claiming that death by COVID-19 is somehow worse than death by cancer, heart disease, stroke, or suicide. But why should anyone believe that to be the case? The answer appears to be that because COVID-19 has been labeled a global pandemic, it is supposed to be worse than every other cause of death taken together. The numbers tell quite a different story.
In Italy, the average age of persons said to have succumbed to COVID-19 has been about eighty. Many people in that age cohort die of the flu every year. Fewer people are dying of the flu in 2020, because some of them are dying, instead, of COVID-19. So the question is not whether death is fully preventable in all of those cases, for it is not. Sometimes one’s number is just up. The question becomes, instead: is the rate of death by othercauses being significantly increased for other age cohorts as a result of efforts to prevent COVID-19 deaths in persons over seventy years of age? It will take some time to sort out the data, which is an ever-shifting sandcastle of poorly reported and misleadingly presented statistics. The United Kingdom, for example, recently reduced its official COVID-19 death toll from 46K to 41K, when it was discovered that people who died of other causes but tested positive for the virus nearly a month earlier had been included in the tally. In New York, critically ill patients sent from nursing homes to hospitals (where many died) were not counted as elderly care facility deaths. In some hospitals, workers were instructed to write “COVID-19” on death reports, even when the patient had never been tested and may well have died of something else.
Amidst all of this murkiness, one thing is clear: from the moment when COVID-19 was christened a “pandemic,” people have been conflating the effects of Covid-19 (illness and death from the disease) with the effects of government policies implemented in response to the disease. COVID-19 did not itself cause the collapse of the tourism and entertainment industries. Healthy people in those sectors stopped working not because they were ill or moribund, but because their governments made it illegal for them to do so. The mass unemployment around the globe of persons prohibited from working during the lockdowns, many of whom will not be returning to their jobs because they have been eliminated as businesses have either permanently shuttered due to insolvency, or jumped on the fast-track to downsizing via automation, will have ramifying health effects, both physical and psychological, in some cases culminating in suicide.
Millions of people in the United States alone are at risk of homelessness as a result of having suddenly lost, through no fault of their own, their source of income. Homelessness will increase the risk of all forms of illness (including COVID-19), to which some of those persons would not otherwise have been vulnerable. Formerly healthy persons may succumb to alcoholism, excessive drug use, and other forms of bodily harm and disease as a direct result of no longer having adequate shelter. None of these effects will have been caused by COVID-19 but by government policies implemented in response to COVID-19. Will the government administrators who created the conditions resulting in excess deaths be held responsible for the sudden spike in suicides, the cancer deaths caused by late-detection and the deaths from strokes and heart attacks which might have been treated? That seems unlikely, for politicians are busy appending immunity clauses to COVID-19 legislation underway.
When it comes to wars fought abroad, the populace tends to accept whatever their leaders say, so long as they profess to be acting with good intentions. We should expect, then, that the concept of “collateral damage”, invoked so often in excusing the inexcusable, the annihilation of innocent people by self-proclaimed good-doers who kill rather than protect them, will be dusted off in the case of COVID-19. Death is death, at the end of the day, and the dead have no interest in the intentions of their killers. But “collateral damage” is a trope devised to absolve those who kill, under the assumption that good intentions wipe the moral slate clean. In this way, the policies being implemented to combat the new virus raise a much more general question about the power of governments to destroy the lives of people whom they claim to be protecting. Now, however, in contrast to bombing campaigns abroad, it’s personal.
Why and how are governments being permitted to enact policies which endanger so many of their constituents in the name of the few? It’s no longer just a barrel of “bad apple” cops who kill some of the very people who summon them for help or are walking unarmed down the street or fall asleep in parked cars. Millions of citizens in countries all over the world are experiencing an unprecedented level of insecurity caused by the very governments whose raison d’ȇtre it is to protect them. Tragically, the people who could and should be protected have not been (see the case of Governor Cuomo in the state of New York), while those who never needed protection have had their lives upended, and some will die as a result. Citizens have no difficulty forgetting about the carnage committed in their name abroad, but what happens when the government wreaks massive havoc in the homeland? We are in the process of finding out.
The ongoing controversies swirling about COVID-19 continue to confound me. Not the fact that questions have been posed and “conspiracies” rejected but, rather, that many parties on both sides of every COVID-19 divide—regarding lockdowns, masks, vaccines, whether children should go to school and healthy people should go to work, etc.—appear to be thoroughly convinced that the truth is on their side and that those who disagree with them are “nut cases.” Of course, the same is true about most any dispute on social media today, but when it comes to COVID-19, the adherents to various “self-evident tenets” have achieved a new and more vicious degree of smug sanctimoniousness.
On the one hand, we have people who seem truly to be convinced that those who don masks are Jesus-like characters who engage in “radical acts of kindness,” as one person on my Facebook timeline characterized them, including, apparently, herself. On the other hand, we have people who guffaw at the sight of face-masked persons sunbathing on a vast expanse of sandy beach or while driving all alone in their cars, windows rolled up. Surely there are facts, grounded in science, to consider, but proponents of masks are so convinced that The ScienceTM is on their side that they facilely (and fallaciously) slide between interpretations according to which those who refuse to wear masks are evil, selfish, stupid and/or ignorant. Common sense would certainly seem to dictate that illnesses can be transmitted through saliva—is that not in fact why restaurants sterilize glassware and eating utensils? But the COVID-19 mask controversy was considerably exacerbated by the government’s own mixed messages on the topic. Even pandemic guru Anthony Fauci appeared in an early 2020 YouTube clip in which he stated that masks were unnecessary and mainly for show, serving to make people feel better psychologically. Later, after the video had already gone viral, Fauci’s claim was clarified as an attempt to mitigate a PPE shortage among health professionals.
I am less interested in questions such as whether masks diminish the incidence of disease (obviously surgeons wear “surgical masks” to prevent sepsis in the persons into whom they slice), or whether molecules do in fact disperse and diffuse rapidly in open volumes of air (see: Chemistry 101), than in why people are so vehement in their disagreement over whether and where masks should be required by law. From the beginning, the characterization of COVID-19 as a “pandemic” seems to have conjured in many people’s minds images of wheelbarrows rolling through the neighborhood to collect corpses. (I suspect that to this day some people continue to check their bodies for oozing boils.) Nothing of the sort has of course occurred, and the risk of death to anyone under fifty years of age is lower than the risk of death associated with all sorts of activities in which we regularly engage. No wonder young people are not worried. They are not being reckless at all when they go out with friends. Are they being selfish, as the mask brigade maintains?
At one point I attempted to reason with some people on Facebook who were denouncing as “evil” (in a refrain reminiscent of ancient Greek tragedy) those who do not wear masks. Among other things, I observed that, in fact, contrary to the apparent beliefs of the pro-mask chorus, not everyone who does not wear a mask lives in the United States and worships Donald Trump, who famously “opted” not to wear a mask for months. This was met with a flurry of denunciatory responses, until I revealed that I myself had in fact been wearing a mask, at which point I became “evil, stupid, ignorant, and/or selfish” for entertaining the possibility that other people might hold slightly different beliefs. RIP civil discourse in the twenty-first century world of social media. Alas, as virtual and physical reality converge, fueled by an amorphous blob of pseudo-information, fake news, propaganda memes, omissive charts, incommensurable data and, above all, emotive outbursts, the verbal violence has been acted upon by some. Mask shaming in the states now takes the form of people attacking people who call out the unmasked and, for their part, mask wearers joining forces to shout people out of stores who dare to enter without what are regarded as appropriate prophylactic coverings.
I was in Austria for more than half of 2020, at the height of the Coronapocalypse, where the incidence of the virus has been quite low and the death toll still hovers just under 700. I know, I know: 700 dead people who need not have died, if only… (If only what? If all men were not mortal, perhaps?) Why was the situation so much less dire in Austria than in Italy, Spain, or France? My best guess is that the powers that be effectively locked down their elderly care facilities and did not, as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo did, send persons infected with COVID-19 into nursing homes to convalesce, thereby directly causing thousands of excess deaths. No one intended to kill those people, of course, but given the precedents in Italy and Spain, where healthcare workers proved to be the primary transmitters of the disease, having not been tested unless they exhibited symptoms, it seems not unreasonable to characterize Cuomo’s action as negligent, at best.
Cuomo is not alone in having imposed government measures which will end by increasing the rate of death of some of the persons supposedly being protected. When for months hospitals refused to admit or treat any patients who did not exhibit acute COVID-19 symptoms, they were turning away thousands of persons with heart problems, minor strokes, and developing cancer whose lives will end earlier than they might have, had they received medical treatment in a timely way. In other words, not all of the excess deaths recorded will be due to COVID-19 itself; some will have been caused by government policies implemented in response to the disease. Small wonder that the latest U.S. stimulus bill will contain broad immunity clauses preventing lawsuits regarding COVID-19.
In Austria, the situation seemed to be largely under control by June, at which point the mask requirement in indoor places was lifted, allowing me to travel happily about the country as a tourist without having to deal with the usual summer mobs, as places of business were open, while the borders remained closed. Masks continued to be required on public transport, but it was plain to see by mid-June that many people in Vienna were not at all concerned about COVID-19, for they often stepped onto trains and trams with no mask anywhere near their face. They might take five minutes fumbling around finding their mask in their bag, then fumble around some more while getting their mask on. In some cases, they would then proceed to remove the mask, in order to eat a piece of pizza or some other snack. They talked and laughed and sometimes coughed with their friends as they entered the closed space (and while munching), with no apparent recognition that the whole purpose of the mask requirement was to prevent their saliva from infecting fellow passengers with the dreaded disease. I must say that I find it somewhat amusing that there were three simple ways legally to evade the mask requirement in Austria while avoiding the risk of a 50 euro fine: always be eating; always be drinking; or, oddly enough, always be smoking. So a non-smoker could always get around the mask requirement by spending time in a smoking area. I’ll leave that one for you to parse.
I also noticed that in the markets, museums, and shopping centers, almost no one actually observed the government’s ongoing recommendation to adhere to social distancing or “Abstand,” despite the brightly colored circles glued on the floor nearly everywhere to indicate how far people were supposed to be staying away from one another. (Does anyone have any idea where and how all of those circular floor stickers were produced and applied, apparently all over the world, during the lockdowns? Just curious.) I noticed the lack of adherence to social distancing guidelines especially on escalators, which are probably the easiest place to gauge whether anyone is making any attempt whatsoever to keep their distance, given that it is so straightforward to do in that case. I tend to mount an escalator two or three steps behind the person in front of me anyway, because I find it rude to breathe down someone’s neck, but in the midst of the “global pandemic” said to necessitate the closure of all European borders, both internal and external, people were there, right behind me on the escalator, unmasked and breathing down my neck. The idea that such persons might be evil, stupid, ignorant and/or selfish never crossed my mind. They simply did not believe that they were in any real danger, nor that they were endangering anyone else.
Even more strident than the “I am Jesus” mask wearers are those agitating for universal vaccination. This is another source of ongoing perplexity to me, as many of those who sing the praises of vaccines as the only solution to the crisis also vociferously maintain, sometimes in the very same breath (filtered through a mask), that herd immunity is not possible with COVID-19, because of its mutating quality. This is conclusively demonstrated, they say, by cases in South Korea where recovered patients became ill again with COVID-19 later on down the line. So let me get this straight: herd immunity is not possible, but the bars in Massachusetts will remain closed until such time as an effective vaccine exists? (Is this some sort of sly backdoor route to reinstating Prohibition, I have to wonder?) In pointing out that vaccines are in effect a fast-track to herd immunity, and so, if the latter is not possible, then the former is a pipe dream, I appear to have upset some people on Twitter, one of whom abruptly announced that he would no longer be continuing our discussion because he disagreed with my view on vaccines. What? Who knew that I had “a view” about vaccines? Is it really all or nothing? May I not express a modicum of skepticism about the prospects for a COVID-19 vaccine while simultaneously affirming that I am indeed glad that I got the yellow fever vaccine before going to Ghana (even though I was quite ill for about five days), because then once in Africa I knew I was safe from that disease? No, apparently a person who raises questions about the feasibility of an experimental vaccine for dealing with a virus for which some claim herd immunity cannot be achieved must be categorically denounced as an anti-vax “nut case.” My aim was not to denounce universally the very idea of vaccines, but to make a much more modest, purely logical, claim: not (p & not-p). Either herd immunity is possible, in which case the surge in cases across the United States suggests that we are well on our way to achieving it, or it is impossible, in which case the prospects for an effective vaccine seem quite dim, no matter how many dozens (hundreds?) of companies may be aggressively recruiting volunteers for experimental trials of what they hope to be the miracle eradicator of the dreaded disease.
In several contexts, I have heard seniors lashing out against “selfish” young people for congregating together in public places—at concerts, on beaches, in clubs and parks, and … at work!—which naturally raises yet another quandary in my skeptical mind. Who is being selfish here, really? My impression is that elderly persons, who are quite right to stay home in order to protect themselves, appear to misunderstand the nature of the world which they have created and are leaving behind for young people. What could be more selfish than to destroy the livelihood of millennials who have been eking out their existence in what has become a piecemeal gig economy—with no house or pension anywhere in sight, and short-term contracts to earn just enough money to survive while whittling slowly away at their quasi-eternal student debt? If all of the people attempting to go back to work had neither rent payments nor student debt, then it might be reasonable to ask them to take even more time off. But when financial insecurity reaches the point where even having a roof over one’s head becomes tentative, when the tent industry becomes a hot stock option, then that is where it seems time to draw the line.
To reiterate: those who are at a substantial risk of death from COVID-19 should, by all means, stay at home (which many of them do in fact own). They can freely decide for themselves whether visiting with young family members is worth the risk of being infected by the disease, given its specific targeting of advanced seniors. But how does preventing young people from living their lives offer any extra protection to those who are already in reclusion, terrified as they are (and in some cases rightly so) to step outside? Answer: it does not. If you are disinfecting everything which comes your way and refusing entry to anyone into your home, then why should you care whether other people go back to school and return to work?
Now it does sound as though I am taking sides. But what I have concluded after a great deal of reflection is that the extreme measures taken by governments the world over to protect a tiny portion of the population fly in the face of the more general ethos of modern-day Western society. For better or for worse, we have found ourselves in a world where people are held responsible for their failures and given credit for their success. We do not live in a communitarian society, where economic equality is imposed and maintained by the state or by mutual agreement of the group. In our liberal capitalist society, when the government itself prevents people from succeeding, by making their only possible source of gainful employment illegal, then those people are doomed to fail, not due to their own moral flaws but because they have been prohibited from doing what they would otherwise have done.
The untenable scenario in which young, healthy people have found themselves is what I take to be the best explanation for the magnitude and range of indiscriminately violent protests across the United States. People are not looting Chanel boutiques in search of bread or criminal justice. Rather, communities all across the United States are literally exploding under pressure. They have nothing to lose and so are striking out in outrage, not so much because of the murder of George Floyd (why did these riots not happen, to this extent, in response to the many African Americans killed by police officers before George Floyd?), but in an expression of frustration and anger and, above all, fear about their uncertain future. Millions of persons (hundreds of thousands in California alone) are at serious risk of being evicted from their homes. While some states have implemented measures which will allow rent and mortgage payments to be postponed, they will have to be paid eventually, which means that those who were only barely getting by will not be able to catch up.
Whose interests matter most, in the end? When the advanced seniors with empty vacation properties decide to share their resources (in “acts of radical kindness”) with the people being impoverished, and in some cases rendered homeless, as a result of government measures designed to protect those most vulnerable to COVID-19 at the expense of everyone else, then they will be practicing the communitarianism which they preach. I don’t see that happening in my lifetime.
One might have thought, with the advent of remote-control killing and combatant-free warfare, that it would be the easiest thing in the world to lure new recruits into the military in the twenty-first century, especially given the rapidity with which entire professions continue to disappear. Where in the world can a young person find a well-paying, salaried position with good benefits, a pension package—and even healthcare? Where else can one find a job guaranteed NEVER to disappear, no matter what future technology may bring?
All of those perks, and the progressive removal of soldierly risk from the war equation, have still not sufficed to fill the ranks, even as the Iraq fiasco fades fast from popular cultural memory. Witness the British Army’s recently launched, bold marketing campaign, which targets, well, anyone! You may be the Class Clown, a Me-Me-Me Millennial, an i-phone Zombie, a Selfie Addict, a Binge Gamer, or even a Snowflake! Sure, the personality traits often corresponding to those types–irresponsibility, narcissism, OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), ADHD (attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder), and excessive sensitivity–may have disqualified prospective enlistees in the twentieth century. But no more!
What used to be vices have become, in the Drone Age, reimagined as virtues!
It comes as no surprise, of course, that military recruiters are targeting gamers and i-phone zombies. What the twenty-first century warrior needs, above all, is the ability to stare at a screen in a small, dark room, for many hours a day. Binge Gamers have the added credential of having already spent thousands of hours of their life attempting to “light up” icons on their computer screens. Why not put this skill to work in lighting up real live human beings????
But there is room in the technologically advanced, twenty-first-century Killing Machine military for Me-Me-Me Millennials and Selfie Addicts, too! Who better to recruit to erase other people–designated by someone somewhere as “evil”–from existence? Why it’s a dream come true for any self-respecting narcissist: you can play God Almighty, possessing the power to wipe other people from the face of the planet with the push of a button!
And it’s always good to have someone on hand with a sense of humor–as “towel heads” and “Hadjis”, “rats”, “mice”, “rabbits”, and “bugs” are systematically snuffed out, or “splashed”–to remind stodgier types present that “This wasn’t a bake sale,” and “You know what’s going on in the BadaBing!” Hooaah!
The surest sign that things are not going so well in the recruitment departments of modern military institutions is that they are now reaching out, improbably, to Snowflakes as well! But there is an explanation for this, too. First, Snowflakes like safe spaces. What could be safer than a hermetically sealed metal shipping container located in a desert thousands of miles away from the battlefield? And should the Snowflake experience any compunction whatsoever about what he or she has done, that will be remedied immediately with a liberal dose of some of the latest and greatest pharmaceutical developments being lavished upon modern soldiers, both on and off “the battlefield”: antidepressants, anti-anxiety antidotes, antipsychotic meds used for off-label conditions such as insomnia, the sky is the limit–the list goes on and on!
I saw reported somewhere that 50% of books purchased are never actually read—at least not to the end. I have also noticed in my own reading of contemporary books that many of them start out strong but eventually fall off a cliff. My best guess is that the authors of such works managed to secure generous advances for agreeing to deliver a finished manuscript according to a strict deadline. With a looming due date, authors hoping to obtain future contracts may be more concerned with retaining good relationships with their agent and publisher than with taking the time necessary to produce a satisfying finish to a book filled with promise, at least judging by the query letter and opening chapter used to woo acquisitions editors. Many writers also know, however, deep down inside, that the best books, the ones which stand the test of time, rather than achieving momentary popularity as a result of dizzying marketing blitz campaigns, are not constrained by deadlines. They are finished when they are finished and not one moment before.
Why, you may be wondering, is any of this relevant to Drone Warrior: An Elite Soldier’s Inside Account of the Hunt for America’s Most Dangerous Enemies, by Brett Velicovich? Primarily because the glowing endorsements of this book by military professionals and administrators of the drone program such as Michael Hayden (who serves on the boards of multiple kill-for-profit companies) suggest that they may never have finished reading the book. Skimming through the opening chapters may well give the impression that Drone Warrior offers a defense of remote-control killing. The epilogue, however, tells a quite different story.
I wanted to read Drone Warrior, despite its endorsement by targeted killing profiteers, because I think that it is important to attempt to understand how anyone (sane) could possibly believe that hunting human beings is a worthy profession, and how, in particular, well-adjusted drone operators, sensors and analysts, those who do not suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), regard what they do. In many interviews over the past several years, we have heard the heart-wrenching testimony of drone program whistleblowers, and we know from a variety of sources that many operators and sensors do not renew their contracts, even when offered enticing bonuses to continue on. But this is not only (as the US military would have us believe) because the job involves long, eye-glazing hours of staring at a screen in a dark room.
Films such as Good Kill (2014) and National Bird (2016) have offered some excellent anti-recruitment advice to would-be enlistees. Eye in the Sky (2015), in contrast, attempts to defend the practice of hunting down and killing even nationals abroad by the British government (though capital punishment is prohibited under UK and EU law), and that film may have succeeded in persuading some young people to believe that contract killing can be a noble profession—or at least that it is not obviously murder.
A number of books, mostly by authors troubled by US foreign policy more generally, have offered scathing critiques of the rebranding of assassination as “targeted killing” and “just war” in places “outside areas of active hostilities” simultaneously (and illogically) deemed by the powers that be “battlefields” because of the perceived threat posed by some (usually a tiny fraction) of the residents. A few books have attempted unsuccessfully to defend the practice of remote-control killing (Brian Glyn Williams’ Predators: The CIA’s Drone War on al Qaeda  leaps to mind), but books written by drone operators, sensors, and analysts themselves have been few in number, no doubt in part because the works must be vetted by military bureaucrats before publication.
Matthew J. Martin’s Predator: The Remote-control Air War over Iraq and Afghanistan (2010), offers eye-opening but extraordinarily disturbing insights into how the people who spend the best hours of the best years of their lives hunting down and incinerating human beings by remote control manage to sleep at night. I discuss Martin’s memoir in some detail in We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, especially in chapter 7, “The Operators,” and Chapter 8, “From Conscience to Oblivion.” Martin killed men in Iraq whom he repeatedly ridicules and refers to in his memoir as rodents:
“Insurgents were like having a house infested with rats; the more of them you killed, it seemed, the more they bred.” (Predator, p. 252)
Martin cultivated a palpable disdain for his targets, even while acknowledging that many of them were “angry poor people” incensed by the invasion and occupation of Iraq by the US military in 2003. At the same time, in diaphanous attempts to rationalize what he was doing, Martin compares himself to the US troops who traveled to France to save its people from the German occupation in the 1940s. In fact, a more nuanced consideration of the two cases (beyond “USA! USA!”) reveals the role of the US invaders of Iraq to be much closer to that of the Germans than to the US troops during World War II.
Drone Warrior opens provocatively, with the author, a drone program analyst, explaining that this memoir has been approved by the US military, which censored some parts prior to publication. To my mind, the most surprising omission is the section where Velicovich briefly describes his encounter with “Mr. White” (not his real name), a recruiter who persuades him to go behind “a black door”. Velicovich proceeds, with an air of mystery, to explain that he is not permitted by those vetting his work to reveal how it was that he was converted to the hunter/killer life. His inability to explain what happened to him cannot help but evoke memories of Jason Bourne’s induction into the class of assassins who kill on command—no questions asked.
Whatever may have happened (if it wasn’t illegal, why in the world should it be classified?), Velicovich accepted the invitation, and from there set off for life in “The Box,” where, fueled by a steady diet of Rip It® energy drinks and Frosted Flakes, he spent long days spying on potential terrorist suspects from afar. He developed “pattern of life” folders on the men he surveilled and, ultimately, gave “his” Delta operators the green light when “a bad guy” had been confirmed as such (found and fixed) by him and his drones. That 90% of his targets were, as he claims, captured rather than killed stretches credulity, to put it mildly, given the near absence of detainees taken prisoner under President Barack Obama during the later years when Velicovich plied this trade.
While working for President George W. Bush, Velicovich, like Matthew J. Martin, never seemed fully to grasp that the ever-intensifying insurgency in Iraq was a direct result of none other than the US troops’ presence, and especially their increasingly brutal raids, interrogations, and executions of persons, some of whom proved to be undeniably innocent—not even being identifiable as military-age males. Perhaps it was a combination of sleep deprivation and excessive consumption of energy drinks and sugar-coated cereal which induced in Velicovich an inability to grasp that many of the able-bodied Iraqi males deemed “fair game” by the US invaders wanted nothing more than for them to leave their land.
Disturbingly, as the occupation of Iraq was winding down, Velicovich and his buddies received an order from on high to eliminate as many people on their hit lists as swiftly as they could—a murderous form of “scorched earth”. This “green light” from (dare I say?) Corporate headquarters inspired something of a killing spree as the hunter-warriors attempted to wipe out “the enemy” while they still had the chance. Even while acknowledging that the military-age men being killed were community members—sons, husbands, fathers and brothers—Velicovich leapt at the chance to eliminate them, having convinced himself that they were “bad guys”.
What I find most interesting about this memoir is that Velicovich openly acknowledges the effect that living as a hunter of human beings had upon his mind, his body, his relationships and, ultimately, his life. He became obsessed with his targets, and when he returned to the United States after a prolonged period in “The Box” abroad, working grueling hours, suffering bouts of insomnia and sleep deprivation, and losing 40 lbs as a result, his girlfriend frankly informed him that he had changed:
“Your eyes, they don’t look the same,” she said. … “They’re like stones. They just sit there.” (Drone Warrior, p. 151)
Velicovich freely owns that as a result of his profession he stopped experiencing emotions at the news of anyone’s death, and his relationship with his girlfriend ultimately fell apart. While working an office job stateside, the analyst wanted to feel the same rush he got from hunting his targets, and he attempted to mimic it through online gambling, but with no success. Velicovich returned to “the battlefield,” this time in Somalia, having found life as a civilian too humdrum. One is certainly reminded here of Staff Sergeant William James, the lead protagonist (played by Jeremy Renner) of Kathryn Bigelow’s 2008 film, The Hurt Locker.
In Somalia, Velicovich shared his “expertise” with locals in a very different context and one in which he himself faced significant danger, given the reigning instability in that land and what he perhaps rightly portrays as an environment ripe for a “Black Hawk Down” redux. His new girlfriend is distressed that he should prefer the hunter-killer life over their relationship, and eventually he renounces his position, though he insists in this memoir that, if given the choice, he would do it all over again.
The epilogue of Drone Warrior is not at all the paean to remote-control killing which one might have expected from a book lauded as “the definitive account of our nation’s capacity and capability for war in the modern age.” In fact, it reads more like a PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) infomercial. Velicovich, who became obsessed with his targets and returned to “the life” after having abandoned it once, finally decided to take a very different path. Inspired by animal rights activists in Kenya, he left the military and embarked on an entirely new career, establishing a company in which his prowess as a drone analyst can be used to stop poachers from destroying endangered species such as elephants and rhinos. Through this new venture, Velicovich appears to have achieved a kind of redemption, but in his own eyes, he is and always was one of the “good guys.” It surely takes some mental gymnastics to believe that elephants and rhinos have more significant rights to life than do human beings in a land under illegal occupation. (What did go on behind that black door?)
To be honest, I am somewhat surprised that this memoir was published, for the undeniable conclusion of the work—to anyone who makes it through the all-important epilogue—is that serving as a hunter-killer of human beings is not a tenable path to The Good Life. While deployed, and throughout his memoir, Velicovich takes great pains to convince himself (as did Matthew J. Martin in Predator) that he is a worthy warrior doing what must be done. The bereft survivors of the raids and drone strikes carried out in Iraq on the basis of his analyses would no doubt beg to differ—particularly in cases where the “bad guy” in question was attempting only to defend his territory from the invaders.
At one point, Velicovich details his benevolent use of drones to help a doctor whose wife had been kidnapped by ISI (the Islamic State in Iraq—before it expanded into Syria). But he declines to offer details on any of the cases where “mistakes were made” and never consciously faces up to the cold, hard, and grisly truth: that had he and his comrades not been in Iraq, then ISI would never have morphed into what became its murderous and virulent form. Following the call of Al Qaeda, Muslim men did indeed flock to Iraq for the opportunity to kill the heathen invaders, but all that the US soldiers needed to do to prevent most of the locals from attempting to kill them was to leave.
The fact that Velicovich needed to find a new profession in order to rehydrate his human capacity to feel emotion strikes me as just as important as the testimony of apostate drone program personnel suffering from PTSD that this frenzy to maximize lethality and to make body counts the be-all and end-all of US foreign policy was a horrendous mistake from the very beginning. As drone killing spreads around the globe, with petty despots following the lead of the self-styled “beacon on the hill,” defining their political enemies as “evil” before summarily executing them with drone-delivered missiles, the normalization of assassination by the sole military superpower must be recognized for what it is: a tragedy for humankind and a hideous assault on not only democracy and the rule of law but also simple decency.
Every two years, the Stimson Center Task Force on U.S. Drone Policy, directed by Rachel Stohl, issues a pamphlet of recommendations to the U.S. government on the use of weaponized UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) or RPAs (remotely piloted aircraft). Over the course of the past six years, it has become all too clear that no one in the government actually reads these reports, and the tone of the latest installment in the series, “An Action Plan on U.S. Drone Policy: Recommendations for the Trump Administration,” understandably conveys frustration.
The first report, issued in 2014, seemed to be filled with optimism and congeniality, and the second report (actually called by the Task Force a “Report Card“), issued in 2016, offered a gentle admonition of the Obama administration for its failure to make its policies and practices transparent or to produce anything even approaching international norms for the use of the new technology.
Now the task force seems to have thrown caution to the wind, recognizing that the Trump administration could not care less what the Stimson Center has to say. Despite the failures of the Obama administration to heed most of the recommendations of the first report, as reflected in that administration’s poor “grades” in the second report, it has become increasingly clear that the Trump administration has no intention even of showing up for school: “U.S. drone policy under the Trump administration has thus far been defined by uncertainty coupled with less oversight and less transparency.”
Critics of the U.S. government’s drone program (myself included), have explained in meticulous detail how the entire institution of premeditated, intentional, extrajudicial assassination of persons (usually able-bodied Muslim males) suspected of possibly plotting possible future terrorist attacks–or simply being potentially capable of doing so–rests upon a lamentable framework of linguistic legerdemain. People may despise President Trump, but no one with any familiarity with the history of the use of lethal drones can deny that the “killing machine” is President Obama’s lasting legacy.
What is good about the 2018 Stimson Center report is that the authors explicitly articulate criticisms diplomatically skirted in the earlier reports, particularly the first one, which was produced under the guidance of a variety of industry and military experts and expressed general agreement with them that the use of lethal drones was morally and legally permissible.
Four years later, perhaps out of exasperation, the Stimson Center has finally decided to voice some serious objections to what has been going on for the past sixteen years. Consider these examples:
Currently, the U.S. drone program rests on indistinct frameworks and an approach to drone strikes based on U.S. exceptionalism. Ambiguity surrounding U.S. drone policy has contributed to enduring questions about the legality, efficacy, and legitimacy of the U.S. drone program.
This one is buried in a footnote (#1), but is noteworthy:
Although not included in this report, the lethal targeting of U.S. citizens is a critical aspect of this conversation. In 2014, the Obama administration released a Justice Department memo articulating its legal justification for targeting an American citizen abroad, Anwar al-Awlaki. The memo, released to the public following lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and The New York Times, argues that U.S. citizenship did not make Anwar al-Awlaki immune from the use of force abroad and that the killing of a U.S. citizen by the U.S. government is authorized by the law of war under a public authority exception to a U.S. statute prohibiting the foreign murder of U.S. nationals.
Or consider this zinger:
By requiring some connection to an imminent threat, a “near certainty” of the presence of the targeted subject, and no perceived risk of civilian casualties, the PPG [Presidential Policy Guidance] was at least intended to minimize civilian harm. Nevertheless, some elements of the PPG — such as the requirement that a threat be both continuing and imminent — seem inherently contradictory, and many critics of U.S. drone strikes have questioned whether strikes outside areas of active hostilities are lawful.
The U.S. government’s refusal to release information about the targets of its drone attacks and the difficulty in accessing the locations where U.S. drone strikes have occurred have made it difficult for third parties to assess the legality of specific attacks.
While there is consensus that the United States is engaged in an armed conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, critics of U.S. policy and practice argue that U.S. drone strikes to conduct targeted killings outside these areas should be governed not by the law of armed conflict but by the stricter requirements of international human rights law, which permits killings of individuals only to prevent an imminent threat to life.
I am not sure why Syria is included in the list as a U.S. war zone, alongside Iraq and Afghanistan, but it is good to know that the Stimson Center is at least considering criticisms brushed aside by everyone in the government and given short shrift in the 2014 report. Better late than never. Perhaps they have been reading some of the critical books which have been rolling out in a steady stream since 2015?
Another possibility is that they no longer feel the need to hold back as they did during the Obama administration because, well, Trump is president. They may as well express all of their concerns so that at least they will seem to have been on the right side of history, even if no one in either administration took seriously anything they ever said. That may sound harsh, but I cannot help thinking that if the 2014 report had been less conciliatory, then perhaps it would have garnered more attention from the press, and there might have been some sort of public debate over the abysmal practice of assassination by remote control.
By now, euphemistically termed “targeted killing” is considered perfectly normal by nearly everyone (save radical book authors, antiwar activists, and libertarians), and rolling back Obama’s radical expansion of executive power will be all but impossible to effect, except, perhaps, if “The Resistance” somehow succeeds in removing Trump from office. But wait: then Mike Pence will be president! Does anyone truly believe that Pence would be more willing than Trump to cede power? No, it is the nature of power-seeking individuals (above all, politicians) to amass power until it is taken from them.
Given that “The Resistance” recently acquiesced in the bestowal upon Commander-in-Chief Trump of a $700+ billion defense budget, I don’t see the practice of drone assassination being curtailed anytime soon. Particularly since the Pentagon produces projections for funding which extend ahead for the next twenty-five years, effectively locking in place what they have done and are doing, thereby ensuring that there will be even more of the same. As missile-equipped UAVs continue to be produced and distributed in a dizzying flurry, and more and more operators are trained to kill, enticed by lucrative salaries and benefits packages, the hit lists will grow longer as well. Given the nature of lethal creep, I predict that some of the unarmed military UAVs already hovering in US skies will be weaponized for use in the homeland. Recall the case of Micah Johnson, who was blown up by the Dallas police using an explosive-equipped robot.
So, yes, things have predictably gone from bad to worse, for lethal creep leads to further lethal creep, with no real end in sight. The 2018 Stimson Center report observes that the Trump administration is currently rolling back “restraints” and “guidelines” said to have been implemented during the Obama administration. Among the changes being considered are:
Expanding the targets of armed strikes by eliminating the requirement that the person pose an “imminent threat,”
Loosening the requirement of “near certainty” that the target is present at the time of the strike to a “reasonable certainty,” and
Revising the process through which strike determinations are made by reducing senior policymaker involvement and oversight in such decisions and delegating more authority to operational commanders.
Hooah! MAGA! USA! USA!
In all seriousness, the Obama administration’s “restraints” were never anything more than an effort to quell criticism. Smile politely and gush about “just war theory,” and people will leave you alone, Obama learned from his targeted killing mentor, John Brennan. “Infeasibility of capture” was always a farce (see the cases of Anwar al-Awlaki and Osama bin Laden). And “near certainty”? Why don’t we ask Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto about that one? Or, for that matter: Abdulrahman al-Awlaki?
The fundamental point cannot be overstated: by redefining “imminent threat” as no longer requiring “immediacy” and asserting the right to kill anyone anywhere deemed dangerous by a secretive committee of bureaucrats using deliberations conducted behind closed doors and never shared with the public (invoking State Secrets Privilege), the Obama administration paved the way to the latest slide down a slippery slope to even more wanton state homicide.
During the first two years of Trump’s presidency, Obama has been reveling in portrayals of himself as some sort of saint by “The Resistance” and the adoration of throngs of people who find him dignified and “presidential” next to his successor. But Obama’s own erection of a U.S. killing machine, and normalization of the insidious policy of summary execution by lethal drone outside areas of active hostilities, even of U.S. citizens, will haunt humanity for decades to come.
It’s probably about time for film makers to stop naming their critiques of drone warfare Drone. But that’s just a quibble—more a piece of practical advice than a substantive criticism. This latest installment in the “movies called Drone” series is directed by Jason Bourque and manages to offer some new twists on the many trenchant works created by thinking people appalled by the “lethal turn” in US foreign policy since September 11, 2001.
Assassination has been normalized as a standard operating procedure, a feat accomplished not by President Trump but by his predecessor, Barack Obama, whose administration mounted and implemented a complex bureaucratic institution of intentional, premeditated homicide of persons (usually of color) who are either suspected of complicity in terrorism, or suspected of association with persons suspected of complicity in terrorism. That’s right: the people being intentionally killed under the auspices of the US drone program outside areas of active hostilities fall into one of two categories: guilty until proven innocent, or guilty by association of being guilty until proven innocent.
Nearly all of the victims of drone strikes have been brown-skinned and of Muslim origin. It’s really quite astonishing that the first black US president could preside over such a flagrant program of racial profiling, which denies persons of color not only their right to life, but also their rights to defend themselves against the charge that they deserve to die, without indictment much less trial, for hypothetical crimes to which only the killers are privy. One can only hope that future historians will be suitably shocked by the total discombobulation of Western administrators in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
In Drone (2017), a recent film version of the We Kill Because We Can story, many aspects of the US killing machine and how it has been used throughout much of the twenty-first century are highlighted, in the hope of provoking the viewer to reflect upon the significance of a paradigm of war which, despite being not only morally and legal but also strategically dubious, has come to be accepted by Western politicians and their voting constituents alike.
Sure, the drone warriors have managed to incinerate thousands of persons, mostly of unknown identity, but what have they really accomplished, beyond mass homicide and the enrichment of war profiteers? The Middle East is in shambles, Al Qaeda franchises have spored and spread, and the United States is fighting wars in at least seven different lands, while threatening others in various ways. Any sober assessment of US foreign policy over the past seventeen years can only conclude that the Global War on Terror (GWOT) has been an unmitigated failure. The primary tool of GWOT has been none other than the weaponized drone, which helped to usher in an era of executive war (formerly known as monarchic depredation, or tyranny) by allowing leaders both to wage war and deny that they are engaged in war at the same time and in the same place (for more on this, see the Libya intervention of 2011—or the bombing of Syria in 2018).
The drone operators whom we have learned about in a variety of films, not only in documentaries such as National Bird (2015) and Drone (2014), but also in works of fiction based on reality, such as Good Kill(2015) and Drone Strike(2013), have for the most part been young people recruited right out of high school or in their early twenties. In Drone (2017), however, the central protagonist, Neil Wistin, is a middle-aged man with a teenage son who spends a good deal of time playing hunt-and-kill video games and would in fact be a prime candidate for recruitment into the military as a drone operator. Instead, it’s his dad who spends his days stalking and snuffing out “bad guys” located on the other side of the planet. Wistin, a civilian, works as a contract killer for the CIA. He is not a soldier; he is an assassin. He is paid to eliminate persons nominated to kill lists by other private contractors based on circumstantial evidence (aka SIGINT) and bribed hearsay (aka HUMINT). His family has believed for years that he works in IT for a nonexistent company, but they eventually come to learn that Wistin spends his days not programming but hunting down and killing human beings in Pakistan at the behest of the CIA.
Along with the intended targets, Wistin has killed some unintended targets, which he and his co-workers perfunctorily label “collateral damage”. But the notion of collateral damage, dubious enough as it is, cannot truly be said to apply to cases of assassination. And no, it does not matter in the least that the implement of homicide is a military weapon. For in genuine combat contexts, where the lives of soldiers on the ground are at stake, collateral damage is said to be permissible because it is unavoidable, given military exigencies. The use of the category of “collateral damage” to excuse the people being mistakenly killed by weaponized drones outside areas of active hostilities is tantamount to asserting the right to kill anyone, anywhere, at any time, for whatever reasons the killers themselves deem sufficient. It is also a categorical denial of human rights.
The utter lawlessness of this paradigm will become more and more apparent as lethal drones spread around the globe and are used by leaders according to their discretion and caprice after kill committee meetings conducted behind closed doors and with neither transparency nor due process, following the example of mentor governments Israel and the United States. The drone killers act with complete impunity, for they are physically protected by their geographic distance from the places they fire on, and the secrecy of the program ensures that they remain anonymous, not only to their victims, but also to their family members and friends, as in the case of private contractor Wistin, who essentially leads a double life like any regular spy.
But is it really true that there are private contractors serving as drone operators and firing missiles upon people? If there were, we would not be told, for the citizens paying for this institution of death know as little as possible about the facts on the ground and the inner workings of the killing machine. This carefully maintained state of ignorance among the very people paying for the drone program is rationalized under State Secrets Privilege.
In a series of carefully plotted scenes, Drone (2017), like other films produced on this controversial topic in recent years, illuminates some of the lesser known and morally unsavory aspects of what has been going on:
Wounded survivors of initial strikes are taken out in double tap strikes, what can only be a violation of the Geneva Conventions. Of course the “quaint” idea that unarmed persons may not be summarily executed is ignored in the first strikes as well.
Persons are being spied on as though they had no rights or dignity whatsoever—whether or not they are suspected of terrorism.
The persons left bereft after strikes mourn the loss of their loved ones, who were, in reality, fathers, brothers, sons and, in the case of collateral damage victims not even suspected of complicity in terrorism: altogether innocuous women and children.
The killers are themselves never at risk of death when they fire on targets thousands of miles away, rendering dubious the rationalization used by combat soldiers throughout the history of warfare: that they must kill or else be killed.
The rebranding of assassination as targeted killing in warfare (dismissing innocent victims as collateral damage) but not really warfare (when it comes to oversight and congressional mandate) makes it nearly impossible for the citizens paying for this institution of premeditated homicide to understand what is going on. They are told that this is all a matter of national defense, and naturally throw their support behind anything carrying that label.
The military-age men killed—whether intentionally or unintentionally—are assumed to be terrorists, while the cases of collateral damage killing of women and children are systematically denied as “unconfirmed”, when not outright dismissed as terrorist propaganda.
These features of the drone program are variously highlighted in the film when a Pakistani businessman, Imir Shaw, whose wife and daughter were destroyed by a drone strike, travels to the United States to confront their killer. The unsavory truths being conveyed in Drone (2017) are easily verified, but the specific scenario devised to press these points is highly implausible for a variety of reasons. First, the Trump administration immigration gatekeepers would be unlikely to admit through the golden arches a military-aged male from Pakistan. Second, the man manages to locate his wife and daughter’s killer through hacking into the drone intelligence network, which, while possible, would be very difficult. Third, the layers of secrecy used to protect the perpetrators, including the very use of private contractors, makes it not at all obvious how such a victim could identify the precise person who pushed the button in any given case. The use of private military companies in the real-life drone program—if not in the acts of killing, at least in the generation of kill lists—makes it improbable that the name of the killers of any given victim will ever be revealed, even if the system is hacked (which is far more likely to be done by a whistleblower within the system than an outsider), and information is shared via an outlet such as Wikileaks.
But Drone (2017) is a work of fiction, which admirably attempts to reveal what is invisible to people in the West: the reality of the drone program for the victims and their bereft survivors. The story explores what could happen if one of the grieving victims ever encountered the person physically responsible for his grief. Imir Shaw shows up at Neil Wistin’s home, feigning interest in the boat with a “for sale” sign in the driveway. He then proceeds to befriend the Wistin family, having been invited to stay for dinner, before explaining that his own family, a wife and daughter, were destroyed by a US drone. As the evening progresses, the conversation becomes strained when Shaw and Wistin begin to wrangle over the US drone program and the war on terror. Eventually, the Pakistani dinner guest spills his guts, explaining that it was Wistin himself who killed Shaw’s wife and daughter.
Shaw also informs Wistin that his wife has been having an affair, which he has learned by spying on her prior to the visit, and that the wife and son have no idea what it is that Wistin does for a living. By pretending that his briefcase contains a bomb which he plans to detonate right then and there, Shaw ultimately drives Wistin to attempt to save his wife and son, which culminates in Shaw’s death.
In some ways, this is a disappointing turn in the story, for it follows the standard Hollywood template according to which the Americans always prevail. But the twist here is that Wistin finally undergoes a conversion to become a whistleblower and make public the true workings of the drone program, including the use of private contractors as assassins. Drone (2017) ably predicts what would in all likelihood be the administration’s response to such a “defection”, which is to denounce Wistin as a traitor, along the lines of the whistleblowers tried and convicted of crimes under the Espionage Act in recent years.
The first half of Drone (2017) runs very slowly and seems a bit meandering, but serves to set the stage for the second half, which becomes more and more suspenseful as the viewer is drawn into the tense conflict between the American drone operator and the grief-stricken Pakistani man. The admittedly heavy-handed points made as the rather contrived plot unfolds are nonetheless important and need to be stressed, which is why I would like to see more people watch this film, despite its cinematic flaws. For the creators of this film are absolutely right about this: Until US taxpayers come to understand the reality of what they are funding under the label of “national defense”, these sorts of abominable crimes will continue to be committed.
The fact that the drone program has been so thoroughly shrouded in secrecy is not, as its administrators claim, itself a matter of national defense, but a means by which to secure compliance when, if presented with the facts, many proponents of drone warfare would withdraw their support. In the case of the US government’s killing machine, the American people have been hoodwinked to the point of coercion, which has undermined the democratic basis for the government’s alleged authority to act on their behalf. The apparent support of a policy or practice which is garnered through the use of deception willfully intended to sow ignorance is devoid of any legitimacy whatsoever. Nearly everyone opposes murder and supports justice, so when people are told by government officials that acts of murder are not acts of murder but instead “just war”, they have been horribly duped, no less than the drone operators seduced to enlist in the military using mythic images of the “noble warrior”, when in fact they will be transformed into contract killers.
Available among recent releases to watch for free on Sky Movies right now is Insyriated (2017), a Belgian film directed by Philippe van Leeuw, which is set in the midst of the current civil war raging in Syria. The film could just as well have been called “Iniraqated” or “Inlibyated” or “Inyemenated”, or just substitute the name of any other country where war is currently raging.
This is a story about each and every war zone, for it depicts the lawless world into which all citizens are plunged once the powers that be, whether at home or abroad, decide to opt for war as a way to resolve conflict. Some will doubtless see in Insyriated a pretext for continued international intervention in Syria. The clearly identified bad guys are two government security agents who search terrified families’ homes and commit crimes along the way. The good guys here are the rebels, who we are made to believe fall into the category of “appropriately vetted moderate rebels” embroiled in a protracted and bloody conflict with the government of Bashar al-Assad.
In reality, we know nothing about the rebels depicted in this film, beyond the fact that they have families. Are they affiliated with Al Qaeda, ISIS, Al Shabaab, Al Nusra, or other official enemies of the West? It may not matter in the least. Certainly the “appropriately vetted moderate rebels” in Syria have more in common with “unvetted radical rebels” than some in the US government supposed when they unwisely opted covertly to bestow upon the former some 600 tons of weapons from 2012 to 2013. The result was plain for everyone to see: a massive expansion of ISIS across both Syria and Iraq. Groups such as ISIS are non-state entities, devoid of any form of military industry. They are able to take up arms only when formal military institutions provide them with the means to do so. Seems so obvious, and yet the flow of weapons to the Middle East from the West continues unabated.
It also may not matter all that much from the perspective of the civilians “Insyriated”, trapped in a terrifying war zone where bombs are falling all around and snipers are shooting all day long, that the government of Syria is not staffed primarily by saints (in contrast to Western governments!). The family and those whom they shelter depicted in this film are confined to a small apartment, unable to go outside, whether to work or to school. All that these people seem to want is for the war to end, so that they might finally resume their normal lives. Recall that in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq, many Iraqis voiced their considered opinion that, for ordinary people, the quality of life under dictator Saddam Hussein was far better than any time since he was deposed.
It would be a non sequitur of gargantuan proportion to conclude from the fact that some government security agents are thugs, rapists and thieves (in this film, two of them are identified as such) that we must jump into the ring and help to eject the Syrian government. For the truth is that the dynamics displayed in this film are more about the reality of wartime than about any particular context. Throughout history, men on both sides of every conflict have seized the opportunity to conduct themselves as though “Everything is permitted,” as though they had been flung back into the state of nature, where the law of the jungle is the only one which matters: Might makes right. Only the strong survive.
The tendency of wars to spiral into vicious, horrifying scenes of murder and mayhem has been witnessed over and over again, throughout history, and should, therefore, be regarded as a foreseeable consequence of any decision to go to war. In the twentieth century, World War II and the US intervention in Vietnam were particularly grisly examples of what can happen when young men are told that the proscription to homicide no longer applies, but every other war has also involved similar atrocities, if on a somewhat smaller scale.
Most recently, we know that during the US occupations of both Afghanistan and Iraq, many crimes were committed by US troops and privately contracted security forces, all paid for by well-intentioned US citizens. There is nothing unique about the horrific situation in Syria, where women and children are terrorized, raped, maimed and killed because the rules are no longer thought by some to apply. Nor does it matter in the least that some of the people fighting may have good intentions.
In fact, all of the parties to this conflict believe in what they are doing. The government forces believe that they are defending Syria from terrorists. The moderate rebels believe themselves to be rising up against the oppressive government. The radical rebels wish to establish a permanent Caliphate. “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” makes every military conflict difficult to grasp, but in Syria the situation is about as complicated as they ever get. There are no clear heroes and villains, for murder and rape and destruction have been committed on all sides. This is a multifaceted conflict with a long history, and it is sophomoric to suppose that “We are good and they are evil” tropes might somehow apply. (See Reese Erlich, Inside Syria (2014) for a detailed account of just how multifaceted this conflict is.)
The question, then, remains: what to do? And the answer should be obvious: not more of the same. Sending more troops to Syria, continuing the flow of arms to the region, and lobbing missiles and bombs on territories thought to harbor either terrorists or the central government is the worst policy of all, as should be evident from the outcomes of the stupid wars in both Iraq and Libya. Unfortunately, the latest chemical attack in Syria is being used to drum up support, once again, for more Western engagement in Syria. But what we know about this most recent attack is only that it occurred. We know that both the rebels and the government of Syria have had access to chemical weapons and may well have used them in the past. It is naive beyond belief to assume that every time chemical weapons are used, this constitutes the crossing of a proverbial red line which necessitates intervention.
It is, needless to say, highly suspicious that the latest attack occurred only shortly after President Trump’s announcement of an intention to remove troops from Syria. But would Western powers be so pernicious as to perpetrate a false flag chemical attack, effectively torturing and sacrificing innocent people for the purpose of perpetuating US involvement in the civil war? They’ve done it before, and it seems safe to say that they’ll do it again. After the abject failure of US intelligence agencies in the build-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, I find it remarkable that anyone continues to pay any heed to what they say. Yellow cake, aluminum tubes and chemical attacks all sound like reasonable pretexts to Joe Q. Public for Western governments to get involved. But only assuming that the stories being told to promote war are not based on falsehoods or, even worse, lies.
Injecting more weapons and troops into Syria will result only in more families being raided, more children being terrorized and more women being raped. If the central government is overthrown, then there will be more, not less, drowning of people in cages. The chaos to ensue, as rival factions rush in to fill the government void, might even, as in postwar Libya, fling open the door to slavery.
In the light of the recent history of the Middle East, Insyriated is most plausibly interpreted as a call to end the slaughter in Syria. It’s time to bring all of the troops home. From everywhere. Now.
*Note: “Totalitarian Tendencies in Drone Strikes by States” was published in Critical Studies on Terrorism on March 30, 2018, and is provided here, with the publisher’s permission, in manuscript form. (Citation: Laurie Calhoun (2018) Totalitarian tendencies in drone strikes by states, Critical Studies on Terrorism, DOI: 10.1080/17539153.2018.1456726)
Lethal drones or unmanned combat aerial vehicles have been used to kill thousands of persons suspected of complicity in terrorism. Despite concerns aired by legal scholars that drone strikes outside areas of active hostilities violate international law, the US government contends that targeted killing is distinct from assassination, and has persisted in the practice to the point where it has become normalised as a standard operating procedure and taken up by other nations as well. Drone strikes have been championed by Western politicians as a “light footprint” approach to war, but the institutional apparatus of remote-control killing rests on totalitarian, not democratic principles. Secretive targeting criteria and procedures are withheld from citizens under a pretext of national security, resulting in a conflation of executive with judicial authority and an inversion of the burden of proof, undermining the very framework of universal human rights said to be championed by modern Western states. Moreover, lethal drones hovering above in the sky threaten all persons on the ground with the arbitrary termination of their lives and as such represent a form of terrorism no less than the suicide bombings of jihadist groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS.
KEYWORDS: Drones, UCAVs, totalitarianism, democracy, dissent, justice, human rights, presumption of innocence
The perpetrators of the 11 September 2001 attacks were non-state actors, devoid of any form of military institution or industry. Nonetheless, the idea that a military attack against identifiable state sponsors of Al Qaeda would be an appropriate response, rather than criminal investigation and pursuit of the individuals directly responsible, was embraced by politicians and the populace traumatised by the events of 9/11. In October 2001, Afghanistan was invaded on the professed grounds that the Taliban had provided a safe haven to Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. In March 2003, Iraq was invaded as well, with many high-level US officials insisting that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and was somehow associated with Al Qaeda. Neither turned out to be true. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people who not only had nothing to do with 9/11 but in some cases knew nothing about it (Trofimov 2011).
The increasingly common practice of remote-control killing using unmanned combat aerial vehicles, or lethal drones, crept in through the back door of this “global war on terror” (GWOT) in the early twenty-first century. Israel was the first drone-killer nation, having fired missiles from drones against suspected Palestinian terrorists, primarily in the Gaza strip.1 But the most geographically widespread use of lethal drones has been by the US government, which began dispatching suspects during the Bush administration’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Only about fifty drone strikes were conducted outside those declared war zones over the course of the two terms of the George W. Bush administration (from 2000 through 2008), which favoured extraordinary rendition and “enhanced interrogation techniques” in dealing with suspected terrorists (Bergen 2012). The avowed aim at that time was to gather information which might lead to the apprehension of Osama bin Laden, widely regarded as responsible, whether directly or indirectly, for the nearly 3000 deaths caused by Al Qaeda operatives on 11 September 2001.
Years later, it was determined that many of the suspects apprehended during the Bush era and rounded up by bounty hunters had no connection to radical Islamist groups such as Al Qaeda or the Taliban (Ball 2011). Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, promised to close Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba but never did, having faced vigorous opposition from legislators who feared electoral retaliation by their voting constituents should suspects be relocated or brought to trial in their vicinity. Some of the early detainees, despite having been cleared for release years ago, continue to be held without charges in Cuba to this day.
Over the course of eight years in office, the Obama administration imprisoned very few suspected terrorists located in the Middle East, opting instead to kill them using missiles launched from drones.2Legal scholars and activists have argued that in contexts where compatriot force protection is not at issue, such “targeted killing” is intentional and premeditated homicide, the equivalent of illegal assassination (Heyns 2013). Before the Drone Age, analogous targeted killings – indistinguishable in structure from summary executions – would likely have been categorised as war crimes, particularly when they involve stalking before dispatching unarmed persons, refusing them the opportunity to surrender, eliminating them when no one’s life is directly at risk, and in some cases targeting even first responders in follow-up “double tap” strikes (Kelley 2012).
Unfazed by such concerns even on the part of special rapporteurs on extrajudicial execution for the United Nations, the Obama administration adopted remote-control killing as a primary counterterrorism tool, claiming that the firing of missiles from drones on persons located outside active war zones was distinct from assassination and in fact permitted by international law as a form of national self-defence. In effect, the administration defined battlefield broadly enough to encompass not only active war zones but also places where suspected jihadists were believed by analysts to be located. Territories acknowledged to be “outside areas of active hostilities” were considered, for targeting purposes, war zones in those cases where the local government authority was either unable or unwilling to take action to deal with perceived potential threats to US interests.
Self-defence, secrecy and the normalisation of assassination
One curiosity of the US administration’s targeted killing programme is that government officials sought permission from the leaders of Yemen and Pakistan to operate freely in those lands while also claiming that the concept of legitimate self-defence formalised in Article 51 of the UN Charter sufficed for drone strikes fired on lands where US force protection was not at issue. An inherent right of self-defence does not require permission from anyone, so the fact that permission was solicited arguably impugned the self-defence rationale. But the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was running the drone programme outside active war zones, as a result of which the targeted killings were covert and, therefore, not subject to effective public scrutiny. One rationalisation for the cloak of evidential secrecy, even in cases where deaths were publicly acknowledged (such as that of US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, killed in Yemen), was State Secrets Privilege, said to be necessitated, again, for national defence – to prevent the enemy from benefiting from revelations about the programme.
A less lofty reason for the administration’s refusal to acknowledge the effects and nature of its drone programme for so many years (from 2002 to 2012) was that the drone killers were thereby shielded from potential confrontations over their mistakes, reported by human rights groups and investigative journalists to be numerous (Scahill 2013). Over the course of the Obama years, from 2009 through 2016, locals on the ground, most vocally in Pakistan, mounted vigorous protests to the killing of their compatriots by US drones (Common Dreams 2012). The policy of secrecy served effectively to shield Western citizens from the truth, but the people near drone strike sites directly witnessed the physical destruction, even when no one claimed responsibility for the cratered houses and the incinerated, maimed, and traumatised victims of drone strikes.
Secrecy was arguably a major contributing factor to the normalisation of remote-control killing, for the refusal even to acknowledge the reality of drone strikes to the citizens paying for them served to suppress dissent. Far from defending democratic states and their most fundamental principles, the insistence on secrecy functioned as a form of state propaganda, impeding citizens’ ability to be fully informed about the policy initiatives tacitly condoned by taxpayers. In the CIA drone strikes, participants in the “kill chain” – from the president himself, to the analysts who mine intelligence for target selection, to the operators who launch the missiles – have been protected by the covert quality of their operations, for they are not subject to the far more robust congressional oversight required of military personnel in regular war contexts.
By early 2016, Obama had authorised more than 800 lethal drone strikes, more than half of which were conducted outside areas of active hostilities, where US force protection was not at issue (Serle and Purkiss 2017). Obama’s approach to counterterrorism and his accelerated schedule of drone strikes, which commenced upon his assumption of office in January 2009, appears to have been decisively influenced by men such as John Brennan (promoted in 2013 to be the CIA director), who, under Bush, had worked for the CIA during the period of “enhanced interrogation techniques”.3 In addition to denouncing torture and detention without charges, Obama had campaigned on the promise to avoid what he derided as “dumb wars”, notably the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which led to the deaths (in combat or by suicide) of thousands of US troops, along with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Drone killing was apparently presented to the foreign policy neophyte as a tactic consistent with his desired “light footprint” approach. President Obama’s rallying cry became “no boots on the ground”, and he did make some effort to avoid deployments of combat soldiers.
While openly admitting that “We tortured some folks”, Obama declined to prosecute the Bush-era torturers and somewhat remarkably replaced harsh interrogation techniques and indefinite detention of suspects with summary execution by remote control, made possible by the new drone technology.4 “Drone warriors” Obama and Brennan repeatedly portrayed their decisions to dispatch suspects as perfectly in keeping with the requirements of just war theory, claiming that the strikes were “proportional” and a “last resort” (McGreal 2013). Along the way, they assumed that their “good intentions” absolved them for mistakes made, as implied by their interpretation of the “Doctrine of Double Effect”, a maxim about moral intention credited to mediaeval scholar and Catholic theologian St Thomas Aquinas. This principle has been highly influential in rationalising and excusing the killing of innocent people by self-styled “just warriors”, who maintain that easily foreseen negative consequences, even the deaths of children, are permitted during the prosecution of a just war, so long as they are intended neither directly nor indirectly, as a means to another objective.5
Drone-delivered “justice” and human rights
Twenty-first century linguistic innovation in foreign policy matters began with US President George W. Bush’s provocative pronouncement that “our best defense is a good offense” in preparing the populace for the 2003 invasion of Iraq (US Government 2002). The Obama administration followed in the Bush tradition by giving old words and expressions new meanings and by basing institutional killing policy on those neologisms and redefinitions. Despite vigorously denouncing the preemptive war on Iraq, Obama unwittingly embraced the Bush concept of “preemption”, albeit one missile at a time.6
In fact, Obama went even further than Bush, by conceiving “imminent threats” posed by individual suspects as legally equivalent to acts of war by rogue states and hence appropriately countered by military force. Attorney General Eric Holder defended in public forums the position of a Department of Justice White Paper, that “immediacy” was not required of an “imminent threat” in order for military action to be undertaken in accordance with Article 51 of the UN Charter, not only against belligerent nations and state sponsors of terrorism, but also against individuals suspected of complicity with jihadist factions (US Government 2011). This new, vaguer definition of “imminent threat” opened up the possibility of targeting small groups or persons who might possibly, sometime in the future, be capable of carrying out terrorist attacks.
Obama’s zealous use of lethal drones to execute thousands of suspects without warning, much less indictment or trial, warrants scrutiny in the light of the statistics from Guantánamo Bay prison, where the majority of the prisoners were discovered after years of detention to have been erroneously apprehended. Bribed informants, who have been the primary source of human intelligence, or HUMINT, in the drone programme as well, are obviously subject to mercenary corruption. This fact was confirmed by the plight of suspects such as British resident Shaker Aamer, who was finally released from the prison in 2015, 14 years after having been detained without charges and tortured (Norton-Taylor et al. 2015). Aamer and the other detainees were denigrated at the time of their capture by Bush administration officials as “the worst of the worst”. In reality, many of them had no connections whatsoever to terrorist groups.
Rather than heed the most important lesson of what happened at Guantánamo Bay prison, that the intelligence and methods being used to finger suspects were themselves suspect, President Obama dealt with the political problems posed by the prospect of detaining new suspects by using drones to terminate their lives. Had Shaker Aamer been pegged as a terrorist suspect in 2011, rather than 2001, he would, in all likelihood, be dead, inked into the official story as an enemy killed in action, or EKIA, along with the thousands of other suspects slain under Obama’s authority (Scahill 2015). Some named, purportedly high-value, terrorist suspects have been eliminated, but many more unnamed military-age men located near the intended targets’ locations have been killed. Moreover, it is important to bear in mind that even some of the intended targets killed may well have been innocent, given the means by which they were selected for execution: fallible human sources, video surveillance captured by drones, and metadata derived from cell phone usage and SIM card analysis.
Equating individuals with states and removing the immediacy requirement on “imminent threats” was tantamount to asserting a right to kill anyone anywhere who might possibly decide, even in the remote future, to undertake terrorist attacks against the people of the United States. Every able-bodied person is capable of committing crimes, so the result of these innovations was effectively an inversion of the burden of proof. In the eyes of US government administrators, persons suspected of possible complicity in terrorism were no longer “innocent until proven guilty” but “guilty until proven innocent”. Somewhat surprisingly, the ultramodern innovation of networked lethal drones was thus accompanied by a roll back to pre-Magna Carta times in matters of procedural justice.
Before 1215, monarchs could capriciously decree “Off with their heads!” and dispatch anyone with impunity. Only in the thirteenth century did the absolute authority of political leaders come under effective scrutiny. Full rights were not extended to all human beings – regardless of class, race, or gender – for many centuries, but it all started with the Magna Carta and the path-breaking idea that the arbitrary justice handed down by kings up until that time needed to be moderated. Small concessions led to larger ones and were incorporated in the republican constitutions of many Western democratic states, including the United States of America.
Eventually, in the mid-twentieth century, universal human rights were made explicit in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 11 of which asserts that suspects are to be considered innocent until proven guilty – not the other way around (United Nations 1948). Little more than half a century later, in the Drone Age, the idea of universal human rights has come under attack by modern democratic states themselves, the elected officials of which have been seduced by the successful marketing of remotely piloted aircraft technology as tools of “smart war”. Thousands of persons never indicted, much less tried, for crimes have been annihilated in the twenty-first century under the authorisation of leaders of ostensibly democratic states.
In response to concerns aired by legal scholars and civil libertarians about its drone programme, the Obama administration claimed that the requirement of due process enshrined in the US constitution implies only that the executive must carry out a procedure of some kind, the implication being that secret meetings held behind closed doors sufficed even in the case of US citizen suspects such as Anwar al-Awlaki. Civil libertarians denounced Obama’s use of drones to assassinate US citizens in what they regarded as an outrageous display of executive branch overreach. But very few Westerners have been incinerated by Hellfire missiles. Most of the victims have been military-age Muslim men located in regions in the Middle East or Africa and designated “hostile” by their killers. When military-age Muslim males located in the vicinity of intended targets are perfunctorily eliminated based on behavioural cues alone – looks like a terrorist, walks like a terrorist, talks like a terrorist – the spectre of racial profiling cannot be ruled out.
Transparency and terrorism
Transparency is a modern innovation being undermined in the Drone Age no less than the idea that suspects should be considered innocent until proven guilty. For nearly a decade, from November 2002 to January 2012, the US government refused even to acknowledge its drone killing programme, much less provide any insight into targeting criteria or casualty figures. The potential for danger arising out of the precedent set by the US government has much to do with the drone programme’s impenetrable apparatus of secrecy, which leaves all important matters of interpretation to the imagination of drone-armed leaders and those whom they delegate to kill. Yet the well-known adage continues to ring true: “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”
After years of silence, the Obama administration finally acknowledged that it had been killing people using drones but persisted in its refusal to disclose any of the evidence regarding even cases petitioned in courts of law. The most detailed information released has been the oft-rehearsed and vague refrain that the targets posed “imminent threats” to the people of the United States and were destroyed by missile strikes because capture was “infeasible”. Most of the persons killed have been unnamed (Ackerman 2014). What is known about them is only that they were suspected by anonymous analysts of associating in one way or another with terrorist groups.
In June 2014, the US government-commissioned Stimson Center Task Force on US Drone Policy issued a detailed report and several recommendations to the drone warriors, highlights being the need to perform a strategic review and cost-benefit analysis, to improve transparency, and to provide international norms for lethal drone use consistent with US values (Stimson Center Task Force 2014). The Center’s follow-up “report card”, issued in 2016, concluded that nearly no progress had been made on any of these fronts since its initial report (Stimson Center Task Force 2016). Near the end of Obama’s presidency, his administration released, under court order, some documents, including presidential policy guidance statements, which reiterate many of the vague and essentially non-prescriptive “guidelines” referred to by officials in public addresses, such as that strikes are not to be undertaken without “near certainty” that no civilians will be killed (Wheeler 2016). But people who are not suspected of posing any threat to anyone are being harmed and terrorised by lethal drones, even when they are located outside the missile’s radius of physical destruction. Future possible innocent victims located through no fault of their own in areas under surveillance are maintained in a state of near uncertainty as to whether they can expect to survive.7
Many of the pages released by the US government ostensibly to clarify its drone programme have been heavily redacted, with no explanation or definition of multiply interpretable concepts such as “near certainty”, “infeasibility of capture”, “imminent threats”, and “high value targets”, which in 2016 documents are variously termed “high value terrorists”, despite the fact that all of the targets of drone strikes are in fact suspects. Selection criteria for nominees to the government’s kill list have been entirely omitted, precluding the possibility of ascertaining why thousands of suspects located outside areas of active hostilities were deemed so dangerous as to warrant the extreme measure of state execution.
What we do know about the evidence compiled, which serves as the basis for what is equivalent to summary execution without trial, is that video footage taken from drones and metadata from cell phone and SIM card use play key roles. When there are assets in the field, information may be provided by bribed informants on the ground, who are mercenaries no less than the bounty hunters who rounded up the innocent men thrown into Guantánamo Bay prison. Using a variety of algorithms and heuristics such as “disposition matrices” of what are considered “typical” terrorist behaviours, lists are drawn up of people to be eliminated as opportunities arise. In its 1 July 2016, “Summary of Information Regarding U.S. Counterterrorism Strikes Outside Areas of Active Hostilities”, the US government openly admitted to having killed somewhere between 2372 and 2581 of these persons located “outside areas of active hostilities”, which is to say, nowhere near US troops (US Government 2016). The threat which the strike victims were said at the time of their deaths to pose was therefore clearly not immediate (US Government 2011). Instead, the danger envisioned by the drone killers was a type of potential future threat, which may or may not ever have materialised, had the persons been permitted to live.
Such persistent opacity obstructs efforts to assess what is being done by the US government allegedly in the name of national defence and has resulted in a marked expansion of the executive’s lethal power. In 2011, having already authorised the killing of suspects with drones outside Afghanistan and Iraq for more than two years, President Obama boldly asserted that he had no need to consult with the Congress – as required by the US Constitution – when he opted to fire hundreds of missiles on Libya, because, he said, it was not a war, given that no US soldiers’ lives were being put on the line (Savage, C., and M. Landler 2011).
In 2015, the Obama administration dropped more than 23K bombs on countries in the Middle East, during missions for which the president sought no authorisation but merely assumed the ongoing validity of the 2001 AUMF (authorisation for use of military force) granted to George W. Bush by congress so that his administration could pursue the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks as he saw fit. In 2016, five years after the elimination of Osama bin Laden, the number of bombs dropped under Obama’s authority exceeded 26K, including those within and outside areas of active hostilities (Welsh 2017). When missiles are fired from drones on territories allegedly harbouring “hostile” actors but outside areas of active hostilities – typically remote and difficult to access places inhabited by tribal groups – the sites suddenly become “battlefields” in one sense: the civilians mistakenly killed are referred to as “collateral damage” rather than victims of murder or manslaughter. In such contexts, the remote-control killers have succeeded, at least in the eyes of the populace paying for the drone strikes, in having it both ways. They are at war, and they are not at war. When it comes to oversight, it is not really war. When it comes to the permissibility of killing civilians, dubbed “collateral damage”, it must be war. That is because the only way the killers can excuse the deaths of innocent people living in their own civil society, during the pursuit of intended targets “outside areas of active hostilities”, is by redefining those areas as “war zones”. But this is flatly a contradiction. A place cannot both be and not be a war zone at the same time.
Collateral effects and the control of the official story by the killers
In July 2016, the US government officially reported that only between 64 and 116 civilians were killed by 473 drone strikes in territories unoccupied by US troops from January 2009 through December 2015. The explanation given for the large disparity between the government’s own civilian death toll and those of NGOs, whose numbers range from hundreds to thousands, is that everyone but the killers themselves has been fooled by the propaganda of terrorist factions. No matter that many of the victims have been named – the US government stands firm in denying that most of those civilians were in fact civilians (Friedersdorf 2016).
A principal reason for the large disparity in drone strike civilian casualty numbers would seem to be the ongoing categorisation of military-age males in lethal drone zones as guilty until proven innocent – which is all but impossible to do, since the suspects are not warned before they are killed. The military-age males destroyed by drone strikes are considered Enemy Killed in Action, or EKIA, according to classified documents released by the Intercept (Scahill 2015), confirming reports made earlier by anonymous officials commenting on the status of the unintended targets in what are termed “signature strikes” (De Luce and McCleary 2016). A footnote near the opening of the July 2016 report denies this to be the case, but the presumption of guilt in the government’s ongoing use of drones to target persons of unknown identity in signature strikes would seem to provide the best explanation of the fact that so few civilian casualties have been acknowledged by the US administration.
Even in the years since 2012, when President Obama openly acknowledged the reality of the drone programme, the second- and third-order effects of the killing campaigns continued to be ignored, as though “collateral damage” were exhausted by body count.8 The total omission of the deleterious psychological effects on persons living under drones is highly ironic given that the rapid expansion in the use of remote-control killing technology was galvanised by the violent actions of non-state factions identified as evil for their complicity in terrorism, beginning with the dramatic attacks of 11 September 2001. The government killers have written the history of what has transpired since then, effectively dismissing other versions of the story as erroneous while ignoring the psychological effects on survivors.
The choices are painted by advocates of targeted killing in simpleminded utilitarian terms, as though the killers know what will ensue if they do not choose to launch missiles. Such projections appear to be grounded in the dubious underlying assumption that every angry militant in a remote tribal region is operationally capable of orchestrating the next 9/11 attack, even though most of them are poor tribesmen who may not even possess passports. Political dissidents and suspected international jihadists are being assimilated in vexed contexts such as Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Syria, when in fact they may share only the willingness to take up arms for what they believe to be a just cause.
A key factor which helps to explain why US officials have become smitten with the practice of targeted killing is that they know nothing about what it is like to experience the constant, continual spectre of unpredictable death threatened from the sky at arbitrary times and for unknown reasons. The similarity between state-inflicted terrorism and factional terrorism wrought by non-state actors has been largely ignored by commentators in the West, who tend to accept the version of the story promulgated by the killers themselves. This control of the narrative by those who kill – and the concomitant suppression or dismissal of the perspectives of bereft and terrorised survivors of missile strikes – has been instrumental in the successful marketing of targeted assassination as “smart war”.
But if terrorism is the arbitrary threat of death, then the innocent persons located in areas where missiles are fired from drones have surely been terrorised (Alkarama 2015). Civilians living outside areas of active hostilities have been maimed, left bereft of family members and property, and psychologically traumatised by lethal drones no less than the victims of the terrorist attacks of suicide bombers.9Because, however, even the first-order collateral effects are rarely acknowledged by the officials who report in the aftermath of drone strikes, the targeted killing of suspects has been successfully marketed in the West as a surgically precise way to contend with the problem of factional terrorism while minimising collateral damage. Meanwhile, the pages of the catalogue of Western-inflicted atrocities used by jihadists to recruit new converts – Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay, and Bagram prisons; attacks on weddings, funerals, and other gatherings of civilians – continue to proliferate.
In 2011, the Obama administration hunted down and killed Osama bin Laden. A few months later, the president set an entirely new precedent by targeting US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, an outspoken opponent of US militarism. Al-Awlaki had been a voice of moderation in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks but later came to advocate jihad, having concluded that the US government was engaged in a war on Muslims.10 The fact that the paradigm-shifting decision to execute US citizens without indictment, much less trial, was taken only months after the demise of Osama bin Laden may explain the tendency of many people at the time to give Obama the benefit of the doubt.
In the years leading up to Al-Awlaki’s assassination, when it was known that he had been placed on a US government kill list, it became more and more difficult to distinguish fact from fiction about the cleric, for the media obediently replicated and disseminated the official story put out as the government sought assiduously to eliminate him. By the time of his death, many people appear to have come to believe that, in addition to being an operational leader of Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP), Al-Awlaki had something to do with the 9/11 attacks.11 Two weeks after killing Anwar al-Awlaki, the US government killed his sixteen-year-old son, Abdulrahman, yet another step down a slippery slope of nihilistic homicide and a blueprint for what could become, under leaders more vicious and assiduous than Obama, a programme of genocide. In January 2017, newly elected President Trump authorised a Special Forces operation in which Al-Awlaki’s eight-year-old daughter was slain, among other civilians in Yemen (Ackerman, Burke, and Julian 2017).
What Obama initiated, a policy of state execution of suspects without indictment or trial – rebranded as war, to excuse the obviously innocent victims as “collateral damage” – is bound to grow worse under successors to the US throne, given the tendency of politicians to try to outdo their predecessors in what are claimed to be matters of national defence. Remote-control technology has made it possible to eliminate targets without risking the lives of compatriot soldiers, and this makes it much easier for drone-armed leaders to kill. President Obama normalised targeted killing outside declared war zones, and the practice has now been taken up by other Western governments as well. The intentional drone killing of not only US, but also British citizens illustrates that the lethal power of the state has dramatically augmented in the Drone Age.
Especially noteworthy was the British government’s use of lethal drones in Syria to kill British nationals in 2015, after the parliament had voted down Prime Minister David Cameron’s call for military deployment in that land (BBC 2013). It was in fact during the year of the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, penned in Runnymede, West of London, that Cameron emulated US leaders Bush and Obama in one fell swoop by authorising the Royal Air Force to preemptively dispatch British citizens Ruhul Amin and Reyaad Khan (Khomami and Ross 2015). Prime Minister Cameron lacked even the AUMF ratified in 2001 by the US congress and cited by Obama as the primary legal basis for launching drone strikes in lands where there were no US troops on the ground to protect.
Cameron’s action was all the more surprising because capital punishment is forbidden by both British law and the EU charter (European Union 2010), to which the United Kingdom was fully committed at the time (before the Brexit vote in 2016). By following the example of the US “drone warriors”, the British prime minister strengthened the precedent set by Obama and helped to clear the way for political leaders all over the globe to use drones to spy on and kill their own compatriots without any judicial process whatsoever, as has already happened in both Nigeria and Pakistan (O’Grady 2015).
More than fifteen years after the global war on terrorism was waged by George W. Bush, the disturbing conflation of “insurgents” and “dissidents” with “terrorists” persists, as though there were not a world of difference between a rifle-bearing tribesman with the potential to rise up against his central government authority and someone like Osama bin Laden, whose aspirations were clearly international. Such nuances continue to be ignored, with all “evil-seeming people”, generally dark-skinned, able-bodied, “angry” Muslim males, lumped into the same category of “unlawful enemy combatants” to be eliminated from the face of earth before they have the chance to perpetrate terrorist attacks.
The complicity of the press in the suppression of dissent
An important contributing factor to the normalisation of targeted killing as a standard operating procedure has been the lax critical climate in the West in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks, with many people, including journalists, hesitant to question the government’s various efforts to protect the homeland. Despite a steady stream of disturbing reports by NGOs and human rights groups, mainstream media outlets have persisted in promoting the government line that drone killing is a form of “smart war”. Throughout GWOT, many journalists have gone out of their way to accommodate the US government in an understandable, albeit perilous, show of patriotism in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Those habits of compliance, and practices such as clearing stories with State Department staff members before publication12 transformed the Fourth Estate for the worse in the twenty-first century.
Readers who only scan the headlines, naïvely digesting them as “news”, may uncritically accept whatever is being reported about “national defence” by the government and dutifully parroted by mainstream media journalists. For example, on 29 May 2012, the New York Times published a “President-as-Godfather” feature entitled “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will” (Becker and Shane 2012). The article revealed to Americans for the first time the reality of “Terror Tuesdays”, when Obama and his fellow “kill committee” members would meet to consider “nominees” for execution, wilfully choosing to annihilate persons located on the other side of the planet on the basis of analysis collected and interpreted by private contractors. The title of the article strongly suggested that the president’s hand wringing over whether to order deadly strikes against such suspects was somehow honourable.
In a February 2016 edition of the Sunday New York Times, another pro-lethal drone piece appeared, this time an op-ed by former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden, who personally authorised 48 drone strikes resulting in 532 deaths, at least 144 known to be civilians (Zenko 2016). Those abysmal statistics, like most mass media reports of what transpires in the drone campaigns, ignore altogether the nonlethal harm to the survivors, including psychological trauma and physical maiming. Once again, the title of the piece was highly misleading: “To Keep America Safe, Embrace Drone Warfare”.13
A rare exception among mainstream newspapers, the Guardian has made some effort to offer criticism of the drone killing campaigns.14 Among other features, was a disturbing report on the findings of Reprieve (a UK human rights group), that in pursuit of 41 named targets, a total of 1147 persons ended up being destroyed (Ackerman 2014). The landmark study demonstrated that lethal drones are not the “smart weapon” they have been successfully marketed to be, for potentially many innocent people are being slain in connection with counterterrorism initiatives. The guiding logic appears to be that the unintended targets were obviously “up to no good”, since they were somehow associated with the intended targets – otherwise they would not be located in the same place. In truth, all victims of drone strikes, whether intended or not, are being assumed guilty until proven innocent. Only when they are too young or too old, or Western non-Muslims, or female rather than male, are they occasionally admitted to have been innocent by their killers. Most reports of civilian victims have been casually brushed aside by officials as “unconfirmed”.
To this day, when Westerners read in the headlines “Six Suspected Militants Likely Slain” they are apt to conclude that their government is working hard to keep the homeland safe. In the twenty-first century, news outlets compete for attention with sources of entertainment and have become far more eager to focus on uplifting news. They are certainly ill-inclined to follow up erroneous reports with emended versions of tragic targeting errors when the “suspects” exultantly claimed to have been killed turn out not to have been the intended targets. In fact, because the press has depended so heavily on the government for its source of information, the deaths of some named targets have been reported multiple times, with little attempt to acknowledge, much less retract, the earlier mistakes.
The drone warriors wave aside all of the many very real concerns about the inefficacy of remote-control killing in quelling terrorism, and the palpable danger of future blowback, insisting instead that the strikes are “proportional” and “discriminate”. Those kinds of words are chosen carefully, talking as warriors always do, the “just war” talk about their own missions of mass homicide. But assassination, the hunting down and killing of specific human beings, did not suddenly become “warfare” because of the development of unmanned aerial systems. Why should the implement of homicide matter when the intent is clearly the same? When pressed, supporters of targeted killing express the requisite regret at the Western civilians killed, as in the case of hostages Warren Weinstein (an American) and Giovanni Lo Porto (an Italian), for whose deaths President Obama publicly apologised (Baker 2015). Yet the drone warriors continue to insist, without substantiation (invoking State Secrets Privilege), that “drones have saved lives”, even though the sheer length of the war on terror should be a cause for pause. If the drone killing programme is so effective, then why are there so many more radical jihadists today than there were in 2001? And why are they now spread over such a vast expanse of land?
In reality, the likelihood that any of Obama’s many victims outside areas of active hostilities would ever have made it to US shores seems minuscule. To such criticisms, drone advocates reflexively retort that such persons are nonetheless capable of wreaking havoc from abroad, citing examples such as the US government’s version of the Anwar Al-Awlaki story. What seems difficult to deny, particularly when immigration from strife-ridden areas of the world is closely monitored or even forbidden (as under President Trump), is that persons already located in the West – in Paris, Brussels, Nice, San Bernardino, Orlando, Berlin – who sympathise with communities abroad under siege are far more likely to perpetrate revenge attacks against what they may regard as the US and allied governments’ “vicious, calculated, and despicable” campaign of murder, to use Obama’s own characterisation of the slaughter of Dallas policemen by military veteran Micah Xavier Johnson (Liptak 2016). In a vicious vortex of violence, the more terrorist attacks undertaken in response to the US government’s revved-up killing machine, the more lethal drone advocates claim that it needs to be revved up even more.
The thinking among the drone warriors appears to be that the only solution to the problem of factional terrorism is to destroy anyone who expresses sympathy with groups such as Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Al Shabaab. This approach nihilistically assumes that the only way for human beings to correct their mistaken ways is by preventing them altogether from existing. Rather than attempt to win over “hearts and minds”, Western leaders have chosen to incinerate them in a ghastly devaluation of human life. As drone strike targets have become younger and younger, the question must be posed whether eliminating such young men, seduced by the propaganda of factional jihadist groups, is not to deny their potential for a change in view. Cases such as Jessie Morton, a US citizen who became radicalised but eventually renounced his jihadism, suggest that there may be many others who need the support, not the drone-delivered Hellfire missiles, of Western governments.15
Each new “No. 2” ISIS or Al Qaeda or Al Shabaab leader to emerge from the ranks of younger and younger foot soldiers can be facilely incinerated by missile through the push of a button. But, even setting to one side the moral and legal issues, the ongoing danger to the West of these campaigns of summary execution should be clear from cases such as those of Ruhul Amin, Junaid Hussain, and Reyaad Khan, who fled Britain for Syria before being destroyed by lethal drones. What of the angry young persons who fall prey to the propaganda of jihadist groups but opt not to undertake a journey to the Middle East from their Western homeland?
Politicians have thrown their support behind the drone programme, vaunting their “toughness” on terrorism and “strength” on defence, while at the same time claiming to spare the lives of the sons and daughters of voters. On occasions when “high value” named targets are eliminated, the news is lauded as a great victory in the war on terror and proof that lawmakers deserve voters’ support. Rather than inquire why the US wars in the Middle East have persisted for more than sixteen years, and have expanded to include several different Muslim countries beyond Afghanistan and Iraq, the populace has exhibited obliviousness to the fact that the “No. 2” leaders of groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS are regularly replaced by younger and younger persons, most of whom were mere children at the time of the attacks of 11 September 2001.
Judging by the words of jihadists themselves, men such as Humam al-Balawi and Nidal Hasan, who explicitly claimed to undertake terrorist plots in direct response to Western military killing in the Middle East, the means used by Western warriors post-9/11 have had exactly the opposite effect of their avowed intention. The result of the wars on Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya; the exportation of tons of weapons to rebels in Syria; and the drone campaigns in Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan has been a massive mobilisation of angry jihadists – including the creation of new groups such as ISIS and AQAP, and a renewal and expansion of interest in radical Islam in countries where its presence had been minor before US military intervention.
Since 2001, the US government has struck deals with monarchic regimes in Yemen and elsewhere to effectively cede their country’s sovereignty, allowing the drone “warriors” to kill targets in exchange for military aid. Tribesmen pegged for death with the assistance of local intelligence operatives are often political dissidents who openly oppose their central government authority, which explains foreign leaders’ ready accession to requests by the US government to eliminate them using lethal drones. One thing is beyond dispute: in all of this frenzy of killing, the very human rights which the drone warriors proudly claim to champion are being denied whenever a person is stalked and slain. In addition to habeas corpus and the rights to life and a fair trial, the right to express dissent from government policies is also being denied whenever and wherever dissidents are summarily slain.
Propaganda lines such as “they hate us for our freedom” are much easier for people to accept than that their taxes are being used to destroy families and terrorise entire communities with the ominous threat of death delivered from the sky. But the potential for tyranny inherent to the drone programme is very real, as evidenced by the US government’s heavy reliance on redaction to avoid answering substantive questions about what they are doing. The announcement in 2011 by the Pentagon that it would counter cyberattacks using military means reflected a broadening of targeting criteria to include nonviolent dissidents who undertake only to expose war crimes and do not call for jihad (Gorman and Barnes 2011).
Calls for all of Anwar al-Awlaki’s sermons – many of which did not advocate jihad – to be taken down from the internet do not bode well at all for the future of democracy (Shane 2015). The new CIA director, Mike Pompeo, has gone even further than his predecessor, John Brennan, by denouncing Wikileaks and its founder, Julian Assange (Gonzales 2017). Does preventing people from knowing the facts protect the people of the United States? Evidently not. It should be obvious by now that if not only Osama bin Laden and Anwar Al-Awlaki, but also British nationals Junaid Hussain, Reyaad Khan, and Ruhul Amin, were enraged by the war crimes of Western powers, then the only way to prevent the radicalisation of other, even younger people just like them will be for the offending actions to stop.
What radicalises young men and women is not calls for homicide in the name of justice – for that they have the clear and ever-present example of Western governments’ ongoing killing campaigns. Without halting the bombing which drives young people to seek retaliation, the tide of angry jihadists will never subside, if we are to take seriously the words of radicalised persons themselves (including bin Laden, Al-Balawi, Al-Awlaki, et al.), rather than hegemonically assume that we know better than they why they have undertaken and promoted jihad. Advocates of targeted killing may prefer to believe the caricatures of jihadists as intrinsically evil, but that is the logic of thinly veiled racism, for all people, whether Muslim or not, are born without ideological commitments. Preventing access to the truth about what has been and is being done serves no purpose beyond short-term political expediency, making it impossible for average citizens to find out the true answer to the question “Why do they hate us?”
The Drone Age is a remarkable period in human history, not because intentional, premeditated killing with the express aim of annihilation is somehow new; before the Drone Age, such homicide was considered murder, tout court. And political murder has been going on for as long as there have been societies. The targeted killing of thousands of human beings who did not pose an immediate threat to their killers, nor to any other person when they were destroyed, is surprisingly carried out by governments which claim to defend human rights. It is in some ways even more surprising that so few people appear to be shocked – or even mildly bothered – by the fact that their tax dollars are being used to hunt and kill persons for reasons as vague as that they appear to be associated with radical Islamist groups. With the aid of the press, most of the populace in the West has come to view the use of a government-run lethal drone “killing machine” to serially destroy human beings abroad as perfectly normal. There seems to be very little awareness of the fact that the drone campaigns terrorise entire communities of people, just as did the plane attacks of 11 September 2001.
It seems safe to say that the primary legacy of Barack Obama will be none other than the increased propensity of leaders in the West to strike first and suppress questions later, as President Trump’s enthusiasm for bombing has already borne out. The short-term apparent efficacy of bureaucratic, remote-control killing and its evident political appeal to lawmakers has prevented people from recognising what are likely to be the long-term negative consequences, not only for monarchic societies, where democratisation will be prevented as dissent is squelched, but also for seemingly stable democracies such as the United States and Britain. Most obviously, the promiscuous use of drones to kill suspects all over the Middle East has significantly lowered what was formerly the high barrier to war.
By 2016, the US government had been on a permanent war footing for fifteen years and was bombing seven different Muslim-majority nations simultaneously. Under Obama, record numbers of weapons were exported to nondemocratic regimes, above all Saudi Arabia (Aljazeera 2012). More than 600 tons of weapons were also supplied covertly to “appropriately vetted moderate rebels” in Syria from 2012 to 2013, exacerbating the brutal civil war already underway between the government of Assad and a motley assortment of dissidents, some of whom are known to be allied with ISIS and Al-Qaeda, sworn enemies of the United States (Erlich 2014). The result of these various initiatives has been mass murder throughout the Middle East, with the exodus of millions of refugees, primarily to Europe.
The irony of the remote-control killing campaigns is patent: the victims and bereft family and community members living under drones – the persons on the ground – are being terrorised in an effort to prevent future potential terrorists from attacking people in the West. This form of state terrorism – the arbitrary threat of death to persons living outside areas of active hostilities, in their own civil societies – is dealt out as a way of preemptively thwarting possible future terrorist acts by Muslim persons who may or may not ever have harmed anyone, whether at home or abroad. The certain infliction of terrorism upon civilians in the Middle East and Africa is being chosen over the uncertain possibility of future terrorist attacks in the West.
With the drone industry boom well underway, the new technology is spreading rapidly around the world, with the precedent for its use well established by the US government. But the danger presented by lethal drones far transcends the tragic death of innocent persons. By undermining the Fourth Estate, by indulging in linguistic legerdemain, by withholding evidence from citizens, by calling for censorship of the words of the suspects being killed, and by stigmatising nonviolent whistle blowers as criminals, Western officials assault the liberties essential to a flourishing democracy, which the separate branches of republican governments were established specifically to protect. Modern Western institutions of justice and concepts such as the presumption of innocence were developed in order to guard against the very tyranny which the first remote-control killers have held up as an example for leaders all over the world.
Totalitarianism, in contrast to democracy, is a form of government in which the state recognises no limits to its authority and tolerates no dissent from its rule. Obvious examples include the Third Reich under Hitler and communist regimes such as the former Soviet Union. The use of lethal drones to eliminate suspects at the behest of a small group of central government bureaucrats smacks of totalitarianism, though this comparison escaped attention for years because the first full-fledged drone warrior was also the first black president, US President Barack Obama. Leftists, traditionally outspoken war opponents, tended to give Obama the benefit of the doubt. But as other, less scrupulous leaders use lethal drones to eliminate their political enemies and suppress dissent, the potential of remote-control killing as the perfect totalitarian tool may become all too clear.
1. See Moreh (2012), The gatekeepers [a film] for insightful interviews with retired administrators and officers who worked in Israel’s targeted killing drone programme during its formative years.
2. Some of the suspects cleared for release were eventually granted their liberty, while other detainees were transferred to facilities in their country of residence. For more on the political difficulties encountered by the Obama administration vis-à-vis Guantánamo Bay prison, see Klaidman (2012).
3. In Naudet and Naudet (2015), The spymasters: CIA in the Crosshairs [a film], an engaging Showtime documentary in the spirit of Morris (2003) and Moreh (2012), former CIA director George Tenet points out that John Brennan (Tenet’s employee at the time) never voiced opposition to the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques”, denounced in a scathing Senate report as “torture”. In his own interview in the film, Brennan claims that he opposed the Bush administration programme. It is worth pointing out that, before becoming Obama’s top counterterrorism advisor, Brennan was the president and CEO of The Analysis Corporation, a private firm involved in terrorist targeting analysis.
4. Obama’s new counterterrorism chief Brennan was given an office in the White House, and he orchestrated the “Terror Tuesday” meetings during which the president sat down with his advisors to consider “nominees” to the US government’s kill list. In 2013, Brennan was promoted by Obama to be the director of the CIA, thus ensuring that targeted killing would continue to dominate the Agency’s efforts.
5. Calhoun (2013) and the Appendix of Calhoun (2015) offer much more extensive treatments and critiques of just war theory.
6. Scholars have extensively debated the distinction between “preemption” and “prevention” but however these terms are defined, Obama, in authorising the targeted killing of suspects, followed the Bush example, albeit one missile at a time. See Calhoun (2004).
7. Several scholars have argued in a special issue of Peace Review journal that human beings have a right to live in peace, without the continuous threat of death represented by lethal drones hovering above their heads. See: Peace Review, Volume 27, no. 4, 2015.
8. Obama first revealed the fact that his administration was killing people with drones in a response to a question about the efficacy of the drone programme during a Google+ Hangout conversation on 30 January 2012.
9. Predictably enough, factional rebel groups such as ISIS have already begun using drones in their jihadist efforts (O’Connor 2017).
10. Scahill (2013) relays the disturbing chronology leading up to the execution of Anwar al-Awlaki and his son, Abdulrahman, in 2011. The once moderate cleric transformed into an advocate of jihad in direct response to FBI harassment followed by detention without charges in Yemen for more than a year at the US government’s request.
11. According to Johnsen (2013), however, the Al-Awlaki narrative was penned by John Brennan, to explain the increase in terrorist chatter coming out of Yemen. The story according to which Al-Awlaki was operationally involved in the 2009 Christmas Eve plot of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab does not explain why Al-Awlaki was targeted the day before Abdulmutallab was apprehended (Gardner 2013).
12. This was revealed by Wikileaks through its document dump of DNC emails.
13. Patriotic citizens may be inclined to sympathise with US administrators who have killed so many people, including obviously innocent civilians, while attempting to defend the nation. Officials such as Michael Hayden and John Brennan certainly have strong psychological and emotional reasons to convince themselves that what they have done is right – if only in order to be able to sleep at night. But before automatically applying interpretive charity to outspoken advocates for assassination, it is essential to be aware of the drone programme’s potential for profit. Upon retiring from government service, Michael Hayden, along with many other military officers, went on to serve as the principals and board members of drone programme–affiliated private companies.
14. Spencer Ackerman and Trevor Timm are two journalists who have consistently and assiduously challenged the US drone programme in the pages of the Guardian.
15. Jesse Morton’s story is relayed in Ellwood (2017).
Laurie Calhoun is the author of We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age (2015), War and Delusion: A Critical Examination (2013), and You Can Leave (2018), along with many essays on war, morality and politics.
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