For all the talk of drones and extra-judicial killing this past week, I’d like to offer the following as an exercise considering arguments that you might not hear from the Department of Justice or the U.S. Senate or even the New York Times, for that matter.
The reader will no doubt be aware of the fuss that has been made over the killing of U.S. citizens without due process. For starters, let’s remember that Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son, the two U.S. nationals whose deaths are the cause of so much debate, are but two people among thousands killed by drones around the world.
Without question our society needs to hold accountable an executive who resembles a king in many instances, especially when authorizing the killing of U.S. citizens. However, should we not hold the same office equally accountable for authorizing the killing of innocent human beings, or anyone for that matter?
Earlier in the year, when the use of drones in the “War on Terror” was first made known to the public on a widespread basis, the totalitarian nature of this tactic was made clear. At that time, we learned that any male human being of ‘military age’ seen with a target or who happened to be near a target at the time of a strike was deemed a combatant unless strong evidence to the contrary was found — usually posthumously. Even if the innocence of people living in a foreign country who fit a certain phenotype — one that has come to be branded as “terrorist” — is admitted, it is typically after such persons are already dead.
Through such tiptoeing, the president proudly boasts the small number of civilian casualties suffered since the drone came to be our favorite tool of counterterrorism. But he can only do so after redefining the word “civilian” to exclude, well, a great unknowable number of civilians labeled ‘combatants’ as a result of the fact that they happened to be near a target at the time of his execution — guilt by virtue of existence.
It is also argued, notably in the white paper recently leaked by the Department of Justice, that America’s drone warfare is justified by the perceived existential crisis that the U.S. has been dealing with since 2001 which holds that the U.S. acts in defense of its sovereignty. Remember though that in doing so, the U.S. disregards the sovereignty of other states by executing military operations in their territory and killing their citizens. If that is the case, then is sovereignty to be understood as what the U.S. truly values? For itself, maybe. But that privilege is not extended to other states, and we would be more apt to understand sovereignty as a rhetorical tool useful in justifying massive violence for whatever end.
There are important arguments to be made about the lawfulness of drone warfare and about the implications of their use in U.S. airspace (some 30,000 fly over us each day) in tandem with attempts to lawfully justify using those drones to kill American citizens, not to mention the blowback the U.S. is likely to experience as a result.
More deeply, the moral implications of drone warfare deserve serious consideration by a society that considers itself civilized. The creation of an “other” so evil and inhuman as to warrant not only the blatant disregard of our society’s social contract, but more importantly, the destruction of thousands (millions if we consider the broader context of the War on Terror) of people who were unfortunate enough to be born one of them and not one of us in the name of defeating such an “other” has to be one of the most sinister developments of our time — a continuation of violence thought unique to the 20th century.
Michael Dean counts the drones in the night sky when he can’t sleep.
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