The bad news, truly discouraging, is that a strong majority of the American people approve of the government’s use of drones, even when their targets are American citizens living abroad. While the general figure is 65 percent, even among Democrats it’s a majority. The Sunday editorial page of New York Daily News cheered them on.
This is particularly sad because this is a human life issue and our reverence for human life is supposed to separate democratic countries like our own from allegedly less moral regimes.
It’s an issue where a pop culture mindset can easily dominate: perhaps the citizen already bored and fed-up with the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan imagines these “surgical” strikes zipping down from heaven and zapping a carefully targeted bearded bad guy in a turban about to bomb a cathedral. The strategy is “cost free.” The drone “pilot” sits all day in front of a computer screen in Colorado and simply follows orders. At the end of the day he or she goes home, unbothered by death caused but not seen, to the family and watches “Star Wars” or “Star Trek.” Who can complain about that?
What about the 2011 drone strike on Malik Daud Khan, a Pakistani tribal leader, which also killed dozens of innocent tribal leaders during their council meeting in North Waziristan. (New York Times 1/31/13)? Or, in August, in Yemen, a 40-year-old cleric, a father of seven, who had stood up in his mosque and condemned Al Queda, agreed to meet with three Al Queda representatives. As five of them began to argue in a cluster of palm trees, a volley of missiles from a remotely controlled drone, smashed in from the sky and incinerated them all, plus a nearby camel. Seven children without a father and the kind of local leader Americans desperately need blown to nothing (New York Times 2/6/13).
If the American public knew those stories perhaps they would think differently. Perhaps.
Most of the opposition comes from intellectuals, prominent journalists and columnists whose professionalism demands they do the research and say the unpopular thing when their conscience says to. The New York Times, Commonweal, the New York Review of Books and America (2010) have spelled out the legal and moral problems. Meanwhile last week’s Senate testimony of John Q. Brennan, the White House’s counter terrorism adviser nominated to head the C.I.A., did little to calm the critics.
Georgetown law professor David Cole in the New York Review listed 13 questions the Senate committee should ask Brennan: What are the full facts about harm to civilians? Don’t you think there should be clear procedures before we start killing human beings? Why so many killed and so few captured? What are “signature strikes” that kill unidentified individuals because of behavior patterns? You claim not a singled civilian death in 2011; but the Bureau of Investigative Journalism counted 45 civilians killed, including 5 children. You consider “all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants.” Doesn’t the rule of law presume all civilians innocent unless there is proof to the contrary? The hearing shed little light on these issues. Several articles pointed out that the government’s norm that assassination was warranted when an attack was “imminent,” the term had been stretched from meaning “in the immediate future,” or “about to occur” to some unspecified possibility in the perhaps distant future.
Notre Dame law professor Mary Ellen O’Connell, who wrote “Drones at War,” (America, 3/15/10), reports in a New York Times op-ed (2/7/13) that the total number of persons killed in drone attacks was 3,000 to 4,500, including over 200 children. She points out that the only true armed conflict today is in Afghanistan, yet drone attacks are carried out in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan and maybe soon in Libya Mali, and Nigeria.
Other evidence obliterates the notion that attacks are surgical. The missiles destroy much more than the intended target. The blast from a Hellfire missile can go 15-20 meters, killing through incineration, shrapnel, and blasts that can crush internal organs leading to amputations blindness and deafness. Meanwhile, only 2 percent of the victims are high-level “militants” and about 10 civilians are killed for each leader (Huffington Post 9/28/12).
Since every drone attack is allegedly a careful individual decision that this particular person must die at this time and in this way, there are, it would seem, over 3000 files at the CIA justifying each death. Could we please see them?
Yet, the American public supports all this. While 97 percent of the Pakistanis, who are dying, oppose it. And we wonder why the Pakistani do not love us, why they allowed bin Laden to hide in their country. As one Pakistani journalist told researchers from NYU/Stanford: “When people are out there picking up body parts after a drone strike, it would seem very easy to convince these people to vote against America.”