Noam Chomsky has called the drone strike campaign “”the most extreme terrorist campaign of modern times,” and he’s right. When we look at the appalling numbers of innocents killed, the lies used to conceal their murders, and the terrible human cost–not just to the communities we’re bombing and to the world but to the people we ask to commit these robot-assisted mass-murders, it is impossible to see the campaign as anything but cowardly, illegal and damnably immoral. These drone-strike-enabled assassinations have taken a toll on par with the weapons of mass destruction of the past, and they should be just as illegal.
Justifications for their use include that they are an effective tool in the war on terror, that they are legal and that these are humane, accurate weapons. But the reality is just the opposite. Assassinating people is illegal, the policy directing their use has increased terrorism and the weapons themselves kill inordinate numbers of innocents.
In fact, the crimes are so great the government has to lie to cover them up, and it has no compunction doing so. Just look at former Senior Counterterrorism Advisor John Brennan’s cynical claim that drone strikes don’t cause “…a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities that we’ve been able to develop.”
Brennan was able to make this claim because it is military policy to designate people it killed in targeted strikes as EKIA—“enemy killed in action”—even if the people killed were not the intended targets of the strike. Unless evidence posthumously emerges to prove those killed were not terrorists or “unlawful enemy combatants,” EKIA forever remains their designation.
Thus the government can label people terrorists for the “crime” of being in the wrong place when US bombs strike. In this context, the government can literally prove an innocent person guilty by murdering them. There are thousands of these kinds of deaths at the very least, and they’re exactly the kind of clear cut crimes against humanity Brennan’s lies are designed to conceal.
In Pakistan, for example, 24 men specifically targeted in Pakistan resulted in the death of 874 people. All were reported in the press as “killed,” but on multiple occasions, meaning that numerous strikes were aimed at each of them which were unsuccessful and killed innocent, unintended targets. An estimated 142 children were killed in the course of pursuing those 24 men, only six of whom died in the course of successful drone strikes.
Similarly, David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum wrote in the New York Times that at one point drone strikes “killed about 14 terrorist leaders. But, according to Pakistani sources, they also killed some 700 civilians. This is 50 civilians for every militant killed, a hit rate of 2 percent.”
Tragically, these kinds of massive civilian casualties appear to be the norm.
In Afghanistan, leaked documents on Operation Haymaker show that between January 2012 and February 2013, more than 200 people were killed by US drones hunting just 35 approved targets. During one 5-month period of the operation, more than 90% of the victims were not the intended targets.
The fact is, assassinations often depend on highly suspect intelligence. Human Rights Group Reprieve found a case in which attempts to kill 41 men resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1,147 people. “There is nothing precise about intelligence that results in the deaths of 28 unknown people, including women and children, for every ‘bad guy’ the US goes after,” said Reprieve’s Jennifer Gibson, who spearheaded the group’s study.
So why have tens of thousands of innocent lives been sacrificed? Have their deaths made the world in any way safer?
The answer again is a resounding no.
According to Reader Supported News, terror attacks have jumped by a stunning 6,500% since 2002, while the number of casualties resulting from terror attacks has increased by 4,500% over this same time period. These colossal upsurges in terror took place despite The US waging a 16-year global “War on Terror”.
The analysis, conducted with figures provided by the US State Department, also shows that from 2007 to 2011 almost half of all the world’s terror took place in Iraq or Afghanistan – two countries being occupied by the US at the time.
Also dubious is the legality of strikes which, under international law, would usually be classified as “extrajudicial killings,” a war crime under international law.
Tellingly, the legal justifications for drone strikes do not come from the US constitution or the UN, both of which outlaw extrajudicial killing. The laws are secret, written by executive branch lawyers behind closed doors, withheld from the public and even from Congress, and shielded from judicial review.
This makes it impossible for civil society to determine whether its government is committing war crimes in its name and with its tax dollars. And citizens aren’t the only ones concerned. Every country on Earth that looks to international law–especially those laws created after WWII to prevent illegal aggression and world war–to protect them from attack and ensure global stability are similarly concerned.
As former CIA director Michael Hayden put it, “…there isn’t a government on the planet that agrees with our legal rationale for these operations, except for Afghanistan and maybe Israel.”
Drone strike assassinations are, in fact, a direct threat to global security and the rule of law. They haven’t just failed to protect anyone, they are entirely counter-productive–one of the primary causes of the very terrorism they are meant to eliminate. From military service people, to human rights organizations, to the relatives of those killed, there are a multitude of voices out there trying to warn us of the danger.
In an open letter to President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and CIA Director John Brennan four servicemen named Brandon Bryant, Cian Westmoreland, Stephen Lewis and Michael Haas wrote to Obama that drone strikes are the most “devastating driving forces for terrorism and destabilization around the world”
Young Yemeni writer Ibrahim Mothana told Congress in 2013 that “… drone strikes are causing more and more Yemenis to hate America and join radical militants.” When we look at the devastation and loss, can we really be surprised?
Just look at 8-year old Nawar al-Awlaki.
She was shot in the neck by Navy seals conducting an operation in Yemen and bled out slowly over the course of two agonizing hours. Take a good look at her face, because this is the argument our leaders are making.
They are saying we are entitled to savagely murder innocent children because we feel threatened. But are we really? Imagine someone shot your kid because they claimed to feel threatened, why? There’s a remote possibility your child might become a terrorist some day! In our society we’d call that cowardly murder.
Nawar wasn’t the first in her family to die in the “War on Terror.” Her Colorado-born 16-year old brother Abdulrahman was killed first. Abdulrahman was not charged with a crime, nor had he ever committed one, he was described as “a gentle boy,” and the US assassinated him with a drone. We’d argue dropping a bomb to kill a child is an act of moral depravity, but that wouldn’t be a view the government would share. Their view is nothing short of spine-chilling.
Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs offered a sociopathic justification for killing the Colorado-born teenager. He blamed him for his own killing by saying he should have “had a more responsible father,” who was an extremist cleric. The fact the government had just killed a US citizen without trial was apparently not even worth mentioning.
Can we really think killing thousands of innocents like Nawar and Abdulrahman will win hearts and minds? When terrorists kill innocent children we call them inhuman savages, When we do the same, how are we different?
And can we blame the victims for their rage? How would we respond if the government bombed our family to kill a suspected criminal? Could we feel anything but outrage? It’s exactly the feeling terrorist recruiters depend on to recruit their next wave of suicide-bombers. From Rolling Stone:
“Taliban leaders have said that every drone strike gets them more suicide bombers… As we speak, there is an operation taking place in North Waziristan where the Taliban are handing out free DVDs containing footage of drone strike victims.”
Former Central Intelligence Agency director John Brennan said as much when he testified that “Every bomb recruits more supporters.” Top Defense and Intelligence officials like 3-Star General Mike Flynn say the same.
But it’s not just the victims that suffer, it’s those we ask to do the killing. Brandon Bryant, one of the four servicemen mentioned above, said that he had been made to violate his military oath by being assigned a mission that killed a fellow American. “We were told that al-Awlaki deserved to die, he deserved to be killed as a traitor, but article 3 of section 2 of the US constitution states that even a traitor deserves a fair trial in front of a jury of his peers.”
“We waited for those men to settle down in their beds and then we killed them in their sleep,” Bryant told the newspaper. “That was cowardly murder.”
“We came to the realization that the innocent civilians we were killing only fueled the feelings of hatred that ignited terrorism and groups like (the Islamic State group), while also serving as a fundamental recruitment tool.”
When he left the service, Bryant was given an envelope containing a report card with the number of killings he’d been involved in — that number was 1,626. Bryant developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Ask yourself how you’d feel if you thought you might have killed 1,000 innocent people. It’s hard to imagine living with guilt like that, and many can’t. Drone operators develop PTSD in alarming numbers and some commit suicide, though the government conspicuously refuses to report suicide statistics for drone operators.
Bryant and others like him are people who were ordered to destroy thousands of innocent lives and made to live with unbearable guilt. Whereas the people compelled into committing horrific crimes suffer debilitating emotional and psychological consequences, those that create the policy and give the orders walk completely free. In fact, at present there is nothing in the way of future leaders putting future youth through the same traumatic, life-destroying experience.
Ultimately, the terrorism we compel our young military service people to carry out serves nobody but war profiteers and the terrorists themselves. Scott Atran, one of the most insightful researchers on jihadi movements, calculates that “the 9/11 attacks cost between $400,000 and $500,000 to execute, whereas the military and security response by the US and its allies is in the order of 10 million times that figure. On a strictly cost-benefit basis, this violent movement has been wildly successful, beyond even bin Laden’s original imagination, and is increasingly so.”
These are all reasons drone strikes must be banned. They kill countless innocents, turning millions more against us and into the arms of organizations like ISIS and Al Nusra. They turn killing into a video game, burdening the conscience of those compelled to murder with debilitating guilt that too often leads to suicide. Their secret legal justifications give the government the power to assassinate its own citizens without due process. They are an affront to international law. They subvert the US’s moral legitimacy and they are war crimes.
They are indefensible, cowardly, counterproductive and criminal; they must be banned. For the exact same reasons, the entire “War on Terror” which has killed at the very least 1.3 million people so far, must also end. The best way to stop terrorism is to stop participating in it.
In this possibly terminal phase of human history, one in which humanity is already faced with multiple threats of annihilation from nuclear war and climate change, we simply do not have the luxury to continue fueling pointless conflicts. Simply said, if we continue down this path of murderous lawlessness humanity stands very little chance of surviving the next 100 years.
As citizens of democracies we are all complicit in the crimes of our governments. Citizens must hold their leaders accountable, jail their war criminals and work to ensure that we can live in a world where the law is respected by the powerful and the meek alike. Not only is it the only way to achieve peace, it is quite literally the only way to survive.