At Least We're Not Measles: Rationalizing Drone Attacks Hits New Low

U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Robert R. Carrasco/Released
A U.S. Marine Corps RQ-7B Shadow Unmanned Aerial Vehicle is launched in Afghanistan.

Read an absolutely amazing article today. Entitled "Droning on about Drones," it was published in the online version of Dawn, Pakistan's oldest and most widely read English-language newspaper, and written by one Michael Kugelman, identified as the Senior Program Associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

In this piece, the author's thesis is that all this fuss about America's drone policy is overdone and perhaps a little hysterical. Yes, he admits, there are some figures that suggest that as many as 900 civilians have been killed in drone strikes between 2004 and 2013. But, he notes, that only averages out to about 100 civilians a year. Apparently, we need to put that number in perspective:

Now let's consider some very different types of statistics.

In 2012, measles killed 210 children in Sindh. Karachiites staged numerous anti-drones protests last year, but I don't recall them holding any rallies to highlight a scourge that was twice as deadly for their province's kids than drone strikes were for Pakistani civilians.

Nor do I recall any mass action centered around unsafe water. More people in Karachi die each month from contaminated water than have been killed by India's army since 1947 . . . 630 Pakistani children die from water-borne illness every day (that's more than three times the total number of Pakistani children the BIJ believes have died from drone strikes since 2004).

So I'm reading this and thinking, he's not really going to go there, is he? But he does:

I am not minimising the civilian casualties from drone strikes. Nor am I denying that drones deserve rigorous debate in Pakistan (and beyond). Still, it's striking how so much less is said about afflictions that affect – and kill – so many more people than do drones.

The reason, of course, is the allure of anti-Americanism. It's easier – and more politically expedient – to rail en masse against Washington's policies than Pakistan-patented problems (I also acknowledge the deep concerns about drones that go beyond civilian casualties – like radicalization risks and psychological trauma).

So there it is, folks. Welcome to the honor of American citizenship. Should we replace E Pluribus Unum with We Don't Kill as Many Children as Measles? Of course people aren't mad about bombs being dropped on them from space without reason; they're mad because anti-Americanism is alluring!

It's been amazing, watching the histrionics and mental gymnastics some people have resorted to in their efforts to defend this infamous drone program. Extralegal murder is not an easy thing to manufacture consent around, and the signs of strain in the press have been pretty clear all around.

The drone-strike controversy briefly sizzled when it came out last week that even American citizens against whom the government does not have concrete evidence of terrorist complicity may be placed on the president's infamous "kill list."

The news that the executive branch had claimed for itself the power to assassinate Americans managed to very briefly raise the national eyebrow, but for the most part, the body politic barely flinched. I got the sense that most of the major press organizations sort of hoped the story would go away quietly (aided, hopefully, by the felicitous appearance of some distractingly thrilling pop-news/cable sensation, like Chris Dorner's Lost Weekend).

Some politicians, like Maine Senator Angus King and Oregon's Ron Wyden, tried to keep the story alive, but others just shrugged. Senator Lindsey Graham's response, incidentally, was to propose a formal resolution praising the president for using drones to kill American citizens, Graham being concerned that the president was all alone out there, taking criticism from "libertarians and the left." It's an interesting footnote to this controversy, that it's one of the few areas outside of the non-policing of Wall Street where there's solid bipartisan agreement.

Meanwhile, it also recently came out that the New York Times, among other papers, sat on knowledge of the existence of a drone base in Saudi Arabia for over a year because, get this, the paper was concerned that it might result in the base being closed.

As old friend David Sirota noted, Times ombudsman Dean Baquet blazed a burning new trail in the history of craven journalistic surrender when he admitted the paper's rationale in an interview. "The Saudis might shut [the base] down because the citizenry would be very upset," Baquet said. "We have to balance that concern with reporting the news."

As if to right this wrong, the paper today ran an editorial, "A Court for Targeted Killings," which proposed that the government create a (probably secret) tribunal to which intelligence services would have to present evidence before drone-bombing a suspected enemy combatant.

The paper, which originally proposed the creation of such a court in 2010, suggested that the new court be modeled after the secret court created in the wake of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The FISA court was designed to give a fig leaf of judicial review to secret wiretaps of suspected foreign agents without having to make the government's evidence public.

But the paper itself noted the comical record of the FISA court as a check on governmental power – in its entire history of 32,000 wiretap applications between 1979 and 2011, it rejected only 11. Still, the paper said, the creation of such a court would "ensure that the administration's requests are serious."

So the newspaper's bold proposal to right the moral wrong of killing people not only without trial but without charge is to create a secret court that they themselves admit would be little more than a rubber-stamp. Hilariously, the Times editorialists seemed afraid even to propose this much, reassuringly adding, toward the end of their commentary, that the court they propose to create would not actually have any power at all or curtail executive power in any real way:

The court would not be expected to approve individual drone strikes, and the executive branch would still be empowered to take emergency actions to prevent an impending attack.

Thank God for that!

The Times editorial is a kind of moral lunacy that Joseph Heller, the author of Catch-22, captured in his play, We Bombed in New Haven, which was about an American Air Force commander instructing a squadron to bomb a series of ridiculous targets. There's a great scene where some of the men ask "Captain Starkey" why they've been asked to bomb Istanbul:

Starkey: Because we're a peace-loving people, that's why. And because we're a peace-loving people, we're going to bomb Constantinople right off the map!

Bailey: Why don't we just bomb the map?

What the Times proposes is the same sort of thinking. In their minds, the problem with our drone program isn't that we're murdering masses of people, it's that we're doing it without the appearance of legality. It looks bad on paper – so let's leave the problem, but fix the paper. Bomb the map, in other words.

This whole thing is crazy. In our own country, we don't allow the government to torture criminal suspects and/or kill people without trial – because it's wrong. If it's wrong here, it's wrong in Yemen or Iraq or Afghanistan; if it's wrong to do it to an American citizen, it's wrong to do it to a Pakistani. Our failure to recognize that and our increasingly desperate attempts to rationalize or legitimize this hideous program gives the entire world an automatic show of proof of American bigotry and stupidity.

And cowardice, by the way. What kind of a people kills children by remote control? If you're going to assassinate someone, you'd better be able to look him in the eye first – and not hide behind some rubber-stamp secret court that tells you it's okay.

Editor's Note: I've received some letters about this last "look them in the eye" line, which was written poorly, because people are taking to mean something I didn't intend it to mean.

I'm not trying to be tough and say you should be Clint Eastwood and look 'em in the eye before you blow 'em away. I'm saying you'd better be able, morally, to look him and everyone else in the eye when you do it – or else don’t do it. If you're going to pass the ultimate sanction on someone, it had better be a decision you’re comfortable making before everybody, including the target, his family, your family, the world in general.

It’s too easy to kill people when they’re just dots on a screen. It’s unpleasantly easier when you’re not even looking at the screen, but just giving an order to someone who is – like the officers in Iraq who told Apache pilots to light up a whole street full of civilians just because one of the pilots thought he saw a gun (it turned out to be camera equipment). And it’s even easier than that when you’re just a politician here at home, taking part by casting a vote in favor of this lunacy, or dreaming up justifications for it.

Would Lindsey Graham be able to look the mother of some dead Pakistani child in the eye and still call for a resolution praising the president for braving the criticism of “libertarians and the left” to kill people by remote control? I doubt it. But that’s what the standard should be. You’d better be able to cast that vote with that grieving mother hanging on your shirt, or else don’t do it. The farther away you are from the blood and the agony of the actual death, the easier it is to endorse the policy. And it shouldn’t be easy, that was all I was trying to say.

I’m not talking about physical bravery, I’m talking about bravery in the sense of being willing to stare directly at the consequences of your decisions, and we’re cowards because we do just the opposite, we work hard to avoid looking, and we build machines that help us do that avoiding.

x