The Washington Post recently justified the use of drone strikes by the US government in combatting what it determined was an Islamic Jihadist “threat in at least half a dozen countries”. In the Post piece, titled “Drone Strikes are bad; no drone strikes would be worse”, the editors set out general and ill-defined reasons that drone strikes should be continued. In an astounding statement prompted by the accidental deaths of an American and Italian hostage in Pakistan, the Post writes, “What shouldn’t be up for review is whether drone attacks will continue to be a weapon in the U.S. counterterrorism arsenal.” This is precisely the issue American citizens and policy makers should be discussing as a drone program shrouded in secrecy has allowed two US presidents to assassinate between 2449 – 3949 individuals according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. These numbers include 423-962 civilians and six US citizens. The Bureau cites the depressing figure of 172-207 children killed. This is proof that the “signature strikes” the Post lauds are not always killing terrorists.
Rather than make vague and contradictory statements about the success of drone strikes in eliminating the jihadi threat, journalists should concentrate on the concrete damage drones are doing to both US security and rule of law. It is necessary and natural that a nation that opposes tyranny and advocates for the rule of law would examine the danger inherent in giving the president the power to determine life and death based on questionable intelligence. But the Post confirms without a hint of indignation that signature strikes “do not require a finding that the targets pose an imminent threat to the United States, though they must still involve a judgment of ‘near certainty’ that no civilians will be killed.” In the least US citizens should demand what “near certainty” means and to whom the term “civilian” applies. The slope becomes very slippery when the president labels those targeted and all military age males collaterally killed as terrorists. A 2014 analysis conducted by The Guardian found that 41 targeted drone assassinations had led to 1,147 deaths. Contrary to limiting the terrorist problem, these numbers would indicate that terrorist ranks might be filled with those seeking revenge against arbitrary US assault.
The sour fact is that the many innocents killed by drone strikes are dark skinned Muslims that generate little sympathy even if their deaths are reported. For example, the targeted killings of six US citizens overseas – legal according to the Obama Administration’s notions of justice – have also not elicited much of a response. Why? One explanation is that the men killed were Muslim-Americans though last I checked Muslim-Americans’ rights, like all Americans’ rights, are protected under the US Constitution. But Anwar al-Awlaki, Samir Khan, Jude Kenan Mohammad, and Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, Ahmed Farouq, and Adam Gadhan were never officially charged with a crime, given a lawyer, or presented with the evidence against them. Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was the 16-year-old son of Anwar and, seemingly, guilty for the alleged sins of his father. Even a cursory understanding of US constitutional law would demand that drone strikes should be up for review.
As an Arab-American working overseas I have been following the legal justification for the extrajudicial killing of American citizens carefully. In fact, discussing this issue at the Istanbul International Community School, where I teach International Baccalaureate History, has given students a greater understanding of the threat strikes pose and the Orwellian language used to justify them. Many of our discussions center on the fact that I am a potential target for assassination and my teenage students of “military age in the strike zone” would be classified as terrorists. According to Jameel Jaffer, ACLU’s deputy legal director, the US government “has the authority to carry out targeted killings of US citizens without presenting evidence to a judge before the fact or after, and indeed without even acknowledging to the courts or to the public that the authority has been exercised”. This should make US citizens cringe and demand more accountability from the Obama Administration and papers like the Post that recklessly support such policies.
Lastly, the argument that drone strikes make us safer is fraught with danger. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, when one gives up his liberty for security he often ends up with neither. It appears that the US populace and mainstream media are fine with this as long as unnamed terrorists and those hapless souls who happen to be in the vicinity are killed. They also seem content with American Muslims being killed without the writ of habeas corpus. Presently, we are willing to let our government take this right and our lives away as well as the lives of thousands of other innocents in the troubled lands of the Middle East and South Asia. US citizens need to ask if the assassination of individuals without due process is a policy any nation that purports to be free should champion.
Dana E. Abizaid teaches European History at the Istanbul International Community School I have written extensively about Eurasian Affairs, including articles in the San Francisco Chronicle, Baltimore Sun, and Moscow Times.