This will probably be the last piece I post on Open Salon, so I want to make it count by writing about something I consider far more important than most Americans realize: our disastrous drone policy. Most Americans support this policy because--I believe--they don't fully understand what's going on or haven't considered it carefully enough.
My argument against the United States’ use of drone-strikes is two-pronged, the first having to do with efficacy and the second with morality. I’ll start with the claim that President Obama is using drone-strikes in a way that is counter-productive to the goal of weakening the terrorists, followed by the claim that his use of drone-strikes against American citizens violates not just the Constitution but the very principles this nation was founded on.
Drone-strikes harm American interests.
Let me start by clearing up the most common misunderstanding about those of us who are opposed to drone-strikes. Most of us have no problem with the technology itself but with how the technology is being used. When they ask us, “Would you rather put our soldiers at risk by having them fly the planes manually?” the answer is “Of course not.” That’s beside the point. The fact that the drones are unmanned and remotely piloted is only relevant insofar as it encourages more casual use of them. But we’d be just as opposed to what these drones are doing if they did contain living pilots.
Thanks mostly to our pitiful mainstream media, most Americans are unaware of how drone-strikes are actually being employed, believing they are used only to make pinpoint precision strikes against high-ranking members of Al Qaeda. If this were actually the case, only the most radically left-wing lefties would be opposed to it. I would be in favor of them and almost every rational person would, which is why the majority of the American public still expresses support for our drone policy. But this support is based on a misperception which those in Washington and the establishment media are happy to let endure.
How many people know that there are two main categories of drone-strikes? There are “personality strikes” and “signature strikes”. Everyone knows about personality strikes—a drone drops a bomb on an identified Al Qaeda terrorist, something almost no one has any qualms with. But very few people know about signature strikes—a drone drops a bomb on a group of unidentified people who may or may not be terrorists but who appear to be engaging in suspicious activity. “Suspicious activity” could be nothing more than a handful of military-age males standing around together. Our drone bomb might have stopped them from plotting the next 9/11, or it might have just stopped them from chatting about last night’s soccer game.
There’s also a drone-tactic called a “double-tap” which would (or at least should) make most people sick if they knew about it. In a double-tap, after a drone-strike hits and people rush in to help the victims, a drone drops a second bomb to wipe out the responders. The justification behind this brilliant idea is that any people rushing in to help terrorists are probably terrorists themselves. If not, at least it discourages anyone from attempting to help drone-strike victims, thus increasing the likelihood that the victims will die. Maybe you’re just a good Samaritan and didn’t even know that the victims were Al Qaeda, but what could we do? We’re trying to defend our Christian Nation from you Muslim extremists, after all, and I’m sure Jesus would approve of the “double-tap” strategy if it were explained to him.
Those who continue to approve of the drone strategy even with the knowledge of how it’s actually being executed will argue that the United States is at war, and there is always collateral damage in war. You just have to keep killing the bad guys until there are so few of them left that the enemy is forced to surrender. If civilians are killed in the process it’s unfortunate but unavoidable.
This argument might be valid in a conventional war, but it doesn’t hold water when it comes to our operations in places like Pakistan and Yemen. We’re not at war with Pakistan or Yemen. We’re not fighting a nation-state capable of surrender. We’re fighting against an ideology—that America is evil and must be destroyed at all costs—that can either grow and spread or shrink and decline but never be rooted out entirely. It’s a gross oversimplification to imagine a finite number of “bad guys” out there, and believe that if we just keep killing them we keep subtracting from that number until it eventually becomes negligible. If executed intelligently and carefully, drone-strikes could reduce the total number of terrorists in the world, but if done recklessly the strikes will cause that number to multiply.
The question we must be asking is whether the way in which the president is employing the use of drones is reducing the number of terrorists or creating more of them. I believe common sense alone suggests that our current strategy is making more terrorists. All you have to do is imagine yourself in the other man’s shoes. If a foreign military power had drones buzzing about your skies all day and occasionally dropping bombs that occasionally kill innocent people, you’d be in a constant state of fear. Of course you’d be more receptive to anyone preaching that the nation responsible for the drones is evil and must be stopped. Even if you understood intellectually that they were doing it for their own protection, your constant state of fear would trump that understanding. If one of those drone-strikes then happened to kill someone you cared about, perhaps a family member, it wouldn’t matter at all what that foreign power’s justifications were—you’d want revenge.
Also bear in mind that when civilians die in drone-strikes, Al Qaeda gives money to the victims’ families. It’s impossible to imagine that doesn’t have a powerful effect on their thinking.
If common sense isn’t enough to sway you, perhaps you’d be more inclined to trust Robert Grenier, former top counter-terrorism official for the CIA, who witnessed firsthand the counter-productive nature of drone-strikes in Pakistan and is speaking out about it now.
Or you could simply trust the numbers. When Obama launched his first strike in Yemen in 2009, there were estimated to be about 300 members of Al Qaeda in that country. After several years of continued strikes, that number has already swelled to 700. You don’t have to be a military expert to realize that something isn’t working.
Barack Obama once famously said that he’s not against all wars—he’s just against “dumb wars”. I’m not against all drone-strikes, Mr. President, but yours seem pretty dumb.
Drone-strikes destroy American ideals.
The United States of America began as a loose conglomeration of British colonies and remained that way until declaring independence in 1776. In his famous declaration, Thomas Jefferson enumerated our reasons for breaking free of the monarchy.
One of the grievances against the King was this: “He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.”
Another was this: “For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury.”
When drawing up a Constitution for this new nation, the framers considered the right of due process to be sacrosanct, and they made it the sixth amendment to the Bill of Rights: “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury.”
It’s no secret that the Obama administration has used drone-strikes to take out American citizens suspected of engaging in terrorism. Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son are the most high-profile examples that we know about, but there are almost certainly many we don’t. Awlaki might have been a “bad guy”, but he was a citizen and was therefore protected by the same constitutional rights as the rest of us. That’s just a fact—whether or not you believe he ought to have had those rights, he did have them and the president knowingly and deliberately violated them. Not only that, but he violated the rights of his 16-year-old son, whom it’s a lot harder to argue didn’t deserve them.
Awlaki was an advocate of jihad against the United States, but there was no evidence that he had ever actually carried out a terrorist attack or even been responsible for the loss of a single American life. We usually reserve Capital Punishment for those guilty of the most heinous murders, but in this case the president handed down the death penalty to a citizen for spouting propaganda the government didn’t like.
Most drone supporters don’t care about the civil liberties issue because they believe it could never happen to them. Any citizen the government decides to execute without a trial must be the worst kind of terrorist scum, an imminent threat to national security. But in a memo released last week we learned that the White House’s definition of “imminent” doesn’t actually mean “imminent”. It means that an “informed” official within the U.S. government has reason to believe that the suspect has recently been involved in activities that might pose a threat to the United States at some point in the future. Basically, if the government doesn’t like you and thinks you’re up to no good, it has all the authority it needs to drop a bomb on your head without consulting a single judge.
Still, most people don’t care as long as the activities the government doesn’t like involve words like “Allah” and “jihad” but once you start stripping people of their constitutional rights there’s nothing to stop the floodgates from tearing apart altogether. Next those “threatening activities” will include selling drugs, buying too many guns, not paying your taxes, and so on. An awful lot of “activities” can be considered “threatening” and if that’s all the executive branch needs to justify murdering you then we might as well just declare the president a King and be done with it.
You might not have a problem with what the president has done specifically in executing American citizens with ties to terrorism, but only the most willfully blind Obama supporters or willfully blind war hawks could possibly fail to have a problem with what the president has done in principle.
Twice now President Obama has placed his hand on the Bible and sworn to protect and defend the Constitution. By depriving U.S. citizens of the right to a trial by jury he has violated that oath and violated the principles this country was founded on—the principles that are a part of the very reason this country exists in the first place. It sounds like hyperbolic rhetoric to call this treason but that’s exactly what it is. If our representatives were men of principle they would be calling for his impeachment.
If President Bush had executed American citizens without a trial, the left would have been in an uproar, but because it’s Obama and Obama is “on their side” they remain silent. If President Obama had executed right-wing extremists without a trial, the right would have been in an uproar, but because it’s been Muslims and those are “the bad guys” they remain silent. It’s a tragically perfect formula for the destruction of the moral core of America.
Concerns over liberty are often in conflict with concerns over security, but the way we’re currently using drone-strikes is diminishing both.