The recent news that a US bombing strike in Pakistan resulted in the death of Abu Yahya al-Libi, the number two ranking al-queda member, was received enthusiastically here in the US. We are told there is a war on terrorism and that a terrorist was killed, so this is widely seen as a good thing. Even here on the liberal pages of Daily Kos, that was a large amount of enthusiasm for this remote-controlled killing.
There shouldn't be. The emergence of “the Obama doctrine” to use the military to engage in extra-judicial sanctioned killings of persons in sovereign countries is fundamentally flawed in a number of ways. This article attempts explains some of those flaws.
1. Ethically – The taking of life is wrong, even when we know the one we kill has done something wrong. The taking of life is opposed by every major organized religion around the world. A reverence for human life is a central tenet of all religions. Thou shall not kill” is one of our very own Christian ten commandments. Similar laws exist in the Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Sihk, and Buddist religious traditions. A reverence for human life also figures prominantly in our US constitution. We are right when we condemn terrorists for murdering people; but the efforts of terrorists to murder people does not give us permission to murder people. Ethically, the bad behavior of the terrorists is never an excuse for our own bad behavior.
2. Strategically – Has anyone noticed that we have now killed “the number 2 leader of al-queda” at least three times in the past couple of years? Our strategy looks more like a game of “whack-a-mole” than a war-winning attack, and is ultimately about as effective. We are told that al-queda is now crippled and no longer effective because of our war efforts, yet the war continues. That is because it is not enough to defeat al-queda, we must likewise defeat the proliferation of al-queda-affiliated groups, al-queda-linked groups, and anti-American terrorists groups unrelated to al-queda. Terrorism is not a nation-state that can be conquered through warfare; terrorism is an idea that will survive bullets and bombs. If we are going to defeat terrorism by killing off anyone who practiced terrorism, or may practice terrorism in the future, we are going to have to kill off a lot more people. The English did not defeat terrorism by killing Irishmen, and the Israelis did not defeat terrorism by killing off Palestinians, and the US will not defeat terrorism by killing Muslims. Hence, the endless attempts to stamp out “the number 2 leader of al-queda”, even as our military leaders assure us that al-queda crippled and no longer effective. In Whack-a-Mole, the game never ends because the little furry critters stop popping up, it ends when you run out of quarters..
3. As a matter of government policy – As a matter of government policy, the drone strikes on “terrorists” is entirely without accountability. The program is carried out in secret, so we the people and the tax-payers have no way to know how many drone strikes have been carried out, at what financial cost, and to what effectiveness. We only hear what government officials want to tell us: that a strike occurred and that it was successful. We never hear about the strikes that missed the terrorists, we never are told how many non-combatants were killed, and we have no way of verifying that an actual terrorist was in fact actually killed. We are forced to rely on the say-so of our military-industrial complex, the same people that told us about the threat of WMD in Iraq and attacks in the Gulf of Tonkin.
4. Geo-Politically – Pakistan, where the majority of drone strikes occur (that we are told about), is in the unique position of both simultaneously abetting and opposing the bombing attacks. We know that Pakistani police and intelligence are used in the planning of drone missions, and as recently as 2011, drone aircraft were maintained, armed, and launched from Pakistani air-fields. So the Pakistani government aids the drone missions. At the same time, the Pakistani government publicly condemns the bombings, and has used the bombings to stir up popular anti-American feeling as a way to increase support among the populace for the unpopular Pakistani government. The Pakistani government has used the bombings as an excuse to withdraw support from US military efforts – closing bases and supply routes – and is now involved in an effort to extort more money from US tax-payers. Our important ally in the war on terrorism is blocking our war-making efforts and adding to anti-American feelings that forms the basis for more terrorist activity. This is an unstable dynamic that increases the likelihood of a poor outcome, for both Pakistan and the US.
5. Racially – The drone bombings have strictly targeted poor brown-skinned people. No locales in which wealthy white people reside have ever been targeted for this treatment. It is easy to excuse civilian deaths when they only occur among poor brown-skinned people.
6. Judicially – Western civilization is in part predicated on the ideas of individual civil rights and the rule of law. Extra-judicial killings subvert these important traditions and indeed our very laws, by denying the accused the opportunity to hear the accusations against them and to face their accusers in a public trial, to speak in their own defense, and to be judged by someone other than those bringing the prosecution. Instead, we have reverted to a more medieval system whereby one person or a group of persons decide in secret who is guilty and then carry out a sentence. Guilt is presumed, and innocence must be proven, but only posthumously. This brings our judicial system more in line with those of China, N. Korea, and Iran, who we once derided.as the “axis of evil”.
7. Hearts and Minds Overseas – Increasingly, as we decide in secret who is guilty and then carry out a terrorist attack to punish them, more and more we come to act like a terrorist state. To those who live in the areas where the drone strikes are occurring, these look very much like terrorist attacks. The bombing occur at random, at anytime, at anyplace. Civilians are killed, including women and children. Like the terrorists themselves, we who do the killing justify the deaths of these non-combatants as necessary to “send a message” to the local populace to avoid associating and supporting those we oppose. Yet history has never recorded an instance where the bombing of civilians worked to turn the civilians against their own. The 9/11 attacks did not turn New Yorkers against George Bush; US bombing in Hanoi did not cause the North Vietnamese people to rise up against their government; German bombs did not cause Londoners to oppose Churchill. In each of these instances, the resolve of the people to fight their attackers was strengthened, not diminished. Rather than convincing Pakistanis to stop associating with and supporting anti-American terrorists, we are increasing the number of people ready and willing to step into that number 2 spot in al-queda. It is entirely likely that each bomb creates more terrorists than it kills.
The primary justification for our bombing of civilians is that terrorists are bad people who want to harm us. This is true and we are right to oppose them, but not with a policy that targets an entire populace in a region or a country where terrorists are thought to reside. Apologists say civilian deaths occur because the terrorists use civilians as human shields, further evidence of the terrorists' inhumanity and evil. It is true that some terrorists use human shields but it is not true that we have to target the shields to get the terrorists. Apologists say that if the terrorists win, we will not be able to speak out for our nice ideas of western civilization and our Judea-cristian values, and our actions are justified by the very dangers the terrorists represent to our institutions and values. The correct response to this argument is that one of the dangers that terrorism poses to our institutions and values is that we ourselves will overturn those institutions and values to further the fight against terrorism, and that is exactly the position we as a nation find ourselves in today.