I doubt that anyone would or could have predicted it a century ago, but today the US government has a generously funded program for hunting down and killing human beings. The program’s aim is not to stop aggressors in their tracks, to trap or apprehend them and thereby prevent them from causing harm to others. No, the aim is to annihilate these people on the spot before they have the chance to act on ideas in their mind, to hatch what teams of analysts believe may be evil schemes.
The personnel who identify targets for obliteration do this by looking at signals intelligence (SIGINT), video footage taken from drones and metadata from cellphone and SIM card use. When there are assets in the vicinity of the prospective targets, SIGINT is sometimes supplemented by human intelligence, or HUMINT, information provided by bribed informants on the ground. Using a variety of algorithms and heuristics such as “disposition matrices” of typical terrorist behaviors, lists are drawn up of people to be eliminated by lethal drones.
This is a remarkable development in the history of humanity, not because the intentional, premeditated killing of human beings with the aim of annihilation is somehow new—that’s just the definition of murder, after all. Nor is political murder somehow unique or new to the Drone Age—it is not. The targeted killing of thousands of human beings who did not pose a threat to their killers nor to any other person when they were destroyed is surprising because the practice is being championed by a government which claims to defend human rights.
It is in some ways even more shocking that so few people appear to be shocked—or even mildly bothered—by the fact that their tax dollars are being used to stalk, hunt down, and kill persons for reasons as vague as that they appear to be associated with radical Islamist groups.
The US government’s “Summary of Information Regarding U.S. Counterterrorism Strikes Outside Areas of Active Hostilities,” released on July 1, 2016, openly admits to killing thousands of these persons located “outside areas of active hostilities”, which is to say, nowhere near US troops. They are said to pose “imminent” threats, where “imminent” no longer implies “immediate” (see the Department of Justice White Paper of June 2010), but rather connotes a type of potential future threat which may materialize, if the person is permitted to continue to live.
When missiles are fired on these places, which are usually remote and difficult to access territories inhabited by tribal groups, they suddenly become “battlefields”—well, sort of. The reason why the CIA runs the drone program in countries not under occupation is because they are protected by the covert status of the operations and have no obligation to explain much of anything to anyone, as is well illustrated by the recently released report.
At the same time, the only way the killers can excuse as “collateral damage” the deaths of innocent people who perish during missions intended to kill “bad guys” is to redefine “outside areas of active hostilities” to mean “war zones”. This is flatly a contradiction. A place cannot both be and not be a war zone at the same time. As though to insulate the killers from logic mongers and critics more generally, the report claims that only a tiny proportion of the civilian casualties found by independent sources—human rights groups, activists, investigative journalists—were in fact civilians. The explanation is supposed to be that these well-meaning advocacy groups have all been taken in by terrorist group propaganda. No matter that many of the victims have been named—the US government stands firm in denying that most of those civilians were in fact civilians.
One reason for the large difference in the numbers appears to be the ongoing categorization of military-age males in targeted areas as “Enemy Killed in Action” or EKIA, which was revealed in classified government documents made public by the Intercept. There is a footnote near the opening of the July 2016 report denying this to be the case, but the assumption underlying the government’s ongoing use of “signature strikes”, that is, the targeting of persons of unknown identity, would provide the best explanation for the fact that so few civilian casualties are acknowledged by those running the US drone program.
Without being provided with a list of the names of the civilians destroyed, it is impossible to know whether, for example, Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki, who was killed two weeks after his father (Anwar Al-Awlaki), was considered a “combatant” or not. The younger Al-Awlaki was killed with a group of friends, who, if admitted to be civilians would have used up a fair proportion of the estimated range of from 64 to 116 noncombatant casualties during the period from January 20, 2009, to December 31, 2015. The Al-Awlakis were killed in 2011.
In any case, the disturbing conflation of “insurgents” and “dissidents” with “terrorists” persists, as though there were not a world of difference between a rifle-bearing tribesman with the potential to rise up against his central government authority and someone like Osama bin Laden, whose aspirations were clearly international. But these subtleties are brushed aside as so much nitpicking, with all “evil-seeming people”—generally dark-skinned, able-bodied Muslim males—lumped into the same category of “enemy combatants” to be eliminated from the face of earth before they have the chance to harm somebody in the United States.
The likelihood that any of Obama’s victims would ever have made it to US shores seems miniscule. Instead, persons already located in the West who sympathize with Obama’s victims—in Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino, Orlando—are far more likely to perpetrate revenge attacks against what they rightly regard as the US government’s “vicious, calculated, and despicable” campaign of murder.
The more such terrorist attacks are undertaken in response to the US government’s revved-up killing machine, the more lethal drone advocates claim that we need to kill even more. No need to win over “hearts and minds” when each new No 2 ISIS or Al Qaeda or Al Shabaab leader who emerges from the ranks of younger and younger foot soldiers can be incinerated with a Hellfire missile.
One hopes that, with time, more and more people will begin to awaken to the execrable nature of what is being done in their name. If the species still exists in 100 years, perhaps the president of the United States will eventually own up to the truth: “We murdered some folks.”