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Do only American deaths matter? The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence thinks so. During last Thursday’s confirmation hearing for John O. Brennan as CIA Director the Committee’s exclusive focus was on American deaths from drones. Not one Committee member asked about the hundreds of innocent Pakistanis, Afghans, Yemenis, Libyans, and Somalis, many of them children, who have lost their lives as “collateral damage” in U.S. drone strikes.
U.S. execution of its own citizens is a serious matter. Keep in mind, though, that only three Americans have been killed by drone strikes. The best-known is the American-born radical cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki, a member of Al-Qaeda who was killed in Yemen in September 2011. Al-Awlaki was referred to repeatedly on Thursday. (Al-Awlaki’s 16-year old son, also killed in a drone strike, went unmentioned.)
The most charitable explanation for the Committee’s failure to ask about foreign deaths is that the Committee members accept assurances by the President and Brennan that the U.S. has done its best to keep civilian casualties low. The United States paints drones as surgically precise weapons which kill terrorists while taking few civilian lives. Speaking publicly in June 2011, Brennan said that no civilians had been killed by drones for nearly a year. When that claim raised eyebrows, Brennan backpedaled, telling the New York Times a few days later that there had been no “credible evidence” of civilian casualties for the past year. (The independent Bureau of Investigative Journalism contends that at least 45 civilians were killed by drones during that period.) What does Brennan think now? All Brennan would say on Thursday, in answer to a question from Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), is that Administration use of drones is “very judicious” and that drones are used only as a “last resort” to save lives when capture is impossible.
Drone strikes have killed a few high-ranking members of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. On August 5, 2009, a U.S. drone killed Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistan Taliban. Mehsud is believed to have been behind the assassination of former Pakistan premier Benazir Bhutto in December 2007. However, the drone which killed Mehsud and his wife also obliterated the entire building they were in, killing nine other people. According to Medea Benjamin, this was the United States’ fifteenth attempt to kill Mehsud. Along the way, U.S. drones killed between 204 and 321 people. Were all of them terrorists?
The White House refuses to say how many civilians have been killed by drones. Instead, the White House inflates kill figures by deeming every male of military age in a target area a militant. Conflicting figures on civilian deaths abound. The New American Foundation think tank which monitors drone attacks estimates that 16% of those killed by drones are noncombatants. Many victims are children: 176 children in the period from 2004 to mid-September 2012 according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Estimates from within Pakistan are considerably higher: as high as 90%, according to the Pakistani government. The independent Pakistani NGO Pakistan Body Count claims civilian casualties of from 75% to 80% since the drone strikes began.
High numbers of civilian casualties are to be expected given how U.S. drone strikes are conducted. Hellfire missiles are fired into wedding parties and funerals. “Secondary” strikes are launched on rescuers who rush to aid the injured following an initial drone strike. The Senate Intelligence Committee asked about none of these practices.
Drones have killed so many Pakistanis that they have become the number one recruiting tool for the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Anti-American feeling in Pakistan runs high. Asked why, Pakistani Foreign Minister Rabbani Khar’d answered with one word: “Drones.”
I know several Pakistanis and have learned this: Pakistanis are human beings. Earlier, I offered one explanation of why the Committee may not have asked about civilian deaths among Pakistanis (and among Yemenis, Afghans, and others): the Committee believes the Administration when it says that civilian deaths have been kept low. That’s the charitable explanation. An alternative, ugly explanation, is that the Senate and the Administration don’t believe foreigners are human beings. Or maybe they just don’t believe Muslims are.
There’s an exchange in Huckleberry Finn where Huck tells a woman a fabricated story about a boiler explosion on a riverboat. “Was anyone hurt?” the lady asks. “No, ma’am,” Huck says: “Killed a nigger.” “Well, I’m glad no one was hurt,” the lady says. Twain’s point was that to White Southerners Blacks did not count as people. The death of a Black isn’t the death of anyone: it doesn’t even register. The same psychopathology was at work in the Nazis’ extermination of Jewish untermenschen—subhumans. It was at work at My Lai. And I am afraid that it is at work every time a drone hits.
Are Americans more important than non-Americans? This is an odd position to take in a nation which can’t stop gassing about how Christian we are. Philosopher Richard Rorty talks about a “circle of sympathy.” At the lowest level of moral development we care only about our own family or tribe. As conscience develops, we are able to extend our concern to also encompass our nation, race, or co-religionists. That’s the stage Americans are stuck at now. When Al-Qaeda and the Taliban take innocent lives we rightly condemn them. Yet we ourselves have yet to move on to the highest moral stage where every human being receives our respect. It’s well past time we made that leap.
Charles Pierson can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.