One of the most horrific aspects of current US foreign policy is rarely reported by US media and even more rarely discussed by the leading presidential candidates. I’m talking about our military’s increasingly dangerous and unaccountable use of drone strikes, where a remote unmanned aircraft fires a missile on suspected terrorists in Middle Eastern countries like Pakistan and Yemen.
In theory, the use of drones is a great technological advance that allows us to eliminate dangerous individuals without putting our own soldiers at risk. But despite the Obama administration’s assurances that it’s a precisely-targeted mechanism with very few civilian casualties, the evidence is beginning to mount that it’s a woefully flawed program that is severely disrupting the lives of entire nations in ways that are not only counter effective, but also downright despicable.
What makes these drone strikes so evil?
1. The Kill List. The executive branch has asserted that it has the right to authorize the assassination of any person on the planet, including American citizens, without any oversight by a judge or other accountable force. If your political bias keeps you from being frightened that Obama claims that power, imagine it in the hands of Mitt Romney or, say, Sarah Palin.
2. Signature Strikes. Not only does the administration assert the right to target any individual it deems a threat, it asserts the right to do this without even knowing who that person is, making a judgment solely based on suspicious patterns from general surveillance. If the Kill List doesn’t seem potentially error-prone already, how about when they don’t even know the names of the people they’re killing?
3. Double-Tap Strikes. Not only does the administration authorize missiles to strike anonymously suspected militants, but they frequently strike the same place a second time after civilians have rushed to the scene to check for injured survivors. I find this the most disturbing detail of all. Pakistani citizens live in constant terror of missiles dropping from the sky, and when they do drop, they are even terrified of daring to rescue their loved ones from the rubble.
4. Manipulated Civilian Death Tolls. As if all of that wasn’t bad enough, the administration is engaged in propaganda to disguise these terrors from the rest of us. To keep down the civilian death counts, they count all military-age males as “combatants,” even if they have no information about their connections to terrorism.
I would find these atrocities almost unbelievable were it not for the steady stream of well-documented and reliable sources. The New York Times reported on the kill list several months ago, and the incorrigible Glenn Greenwald highlighted a Stanford-NYU report compiled from over 100 detailed interviews. The details are so outrageous that The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf explained why he refuses to vote for Barack Obama again. There are plenty of links in both Conor’s and Glenn’s pieces, if you want more information or proof (Wired has been excellent on the topic as well.)
This is the kind of executive power grab that was started by George W. Bush, expanded by Obama, and likely to be continued by Romney, if elected. As such I find the unwillingness of either candidate to reject or even discuss these things to be a compelling reason to vote for Gary Johnson. If you’re a liberal, how can you pretend to be anti-war and concerned about the poor when your commander-in-chief is ruthlessly slaughtering hundreds of peasants in another country and trying to downplay it? If you’re a conservative, how can you pretend to support limited government when you support presidents who claim the power to monitor anyone or even have anyone killed with no oversight to handle mistakes and abuse?
Are these drone strikes a new level of evil?
I will admit that there’s a tendency among libertarians to freak out about an increasingly interventionist government that is constantly rising to new levels of statism. To be fair, civilian casualties are not something new in the history of the American military. It’s also hard to argue that drone strikes aren’t worse than say, murdering thousands of Native Americans and herding the survivors to reservations, or enslaving millions of Africans and their descendants for a couple hundred years, or locking up thousands of Japanese during World War II. (Were there libertarians back then, shouting, “If the government can do it to them, they could do it to you”?)
The fog of war is used to justify many things. No one knows how many civilians have been killed by these drone strikes, but it can’t be anywhere near the casualties of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Of course, there’s the sticky little fact that we’re not really “at war” with Pakistan – but that’s just a detail to the government; the point is that atrocities have been condoned by and even perpetrated by the American government for the length of its existence. But we’re supposed to be better now. How can we say we’re sorry for the sins of our past when we commit new ones without remorse?
Surely there’s a reason for these drone strikes?
There’s also a tendency among libertarians to project motivations of totalitarianism onto the perpetrators of government atrocities. John O. Brennan is the secretive adviser who seems to be behind most of these strategic advances, but I don’t believe he’s an inherently evil statist – or at least I don’t want to.
I want to believe that these people are more concerned with preventing future terrorist attacks than conjuring up public support to keep the war machine running, and that they just don’t care if they shred the Constitution or a few civilians in the process. I can see how a naive professor could be swept into office and see his ideals melt away in the face of conservative attacks that he was soft on terrorism on the one side and the political risk of presiding over another terrorist attack on the other.
But the details of these drone strikes are stretching that credibility pretty thin, particularly the double-tap tactic, which I find to be incredibly despicable. Even if the just motivation theory is true, it fails as a justification. First, it’s just wrong. How can you defend terrorizing a people so much that they’re afraid to rescue their loved ones when the missile strikes for fear that they might be struck again, and then they’re even afraid to go to the funeral because missiles have struck “suspected” militants at funerals? Second, it’s not even effective. There’s a good argument that we’re creating more terrorists than we’re killing. It’s easier to hate America when their drones are constantly flying overhead and murdering people you know, and it’s easier for terrorists to convince people to join them when they’re losing education and jobs because everyone’s too afraid to go to school or the store!
Now it’s easy for me to sit behind a computer and criticize the things our military is doing. I don’t know who came up with the double-tap idea, or why they felt it was worth the chance of killing more terrorists despite the increased risk of civilian casualties, or what intelligence leads them to strike the people they strike, or how many actual bad guys they’re knocking out in the process. But I’m not sure it matters. I think it’s despicable and unjustifiable, and probably ineffective, to boot. Furthermore, I don’t think the government should have the authority to do these things without oversight or accountability. And finally, I don’t think I can support anyone that does.
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