Brown Lives Matter, too. (Book Excerpt)

Excerpt from We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age., chapter 6: “The New Banality of Killing,” pp. 133-154. References (in parentheses) are available in this free audiobook supplement.


‘The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy. Not just for his family, or for any one community, but for America. I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken.’

–US President Barack Obama, 14 July 2013 (142)


‘“Due process” and “judicial process” are not one and the same, particularly when it comes to national security. The Constitution guarantees due process, not judicial process.’

–US Attorney General Eric Holder, 2009–14 (143)


ONLY LEGITIMATE SELF-DEFENSE exonerates a killer within civil society. Consider the controversial case of George Zimmerman, who was acquitted in a Florida criminal court on all charges of wrongdoing in the death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black adolescent shot dead during a fight with the defendant on 26 February 2012. The details of the case were hazy – whether Zimmerman had pursued and provoked Martin, which then led to a scuffle that culminated in Zimmerman’s firing of his gun.

Whatever errors of judgment Zimmerman may have made in the moments leading up to the death, the ultimate question for the jurors came down to this: Did Zimmerman intend to kill Martin, or was he acting only in self-defense? Zimmerman was working as a neighborhood watch patrolman, out on the prowl for suspicious activities. Recent perpetrators of crimes in the area had reportedly been young black males. The family and supporters of Trayvon Martin portrayed him as an entirely innocent teenager who was not violating the law in any way but only walking home from a store. The defense attorneys maintained that Martin attacked Zimmerman, and the ensuing fight resulted in the tragic drawing of the killer’s gun to shoot the victim. By following Martin and getting out of his vehicle to confront him, Zimmerman disobeyed the police, who had instructed the neighborhood watch scout to stay put, as they were on their way. By the time the police arrived on the scene, Martin was already dead, and Zimmerman’s head was dripping with blood. Who was at fault in this case?

The overwhelming fogginess of what transpired on the day of Trayvon Martin’s death is precisely why the jury returned a not guilty verdict. A murder suspect tried in a US criminal court is not to be sentenced unless his culpability has been established in all of the jurors’ minds beyond a reasonable doubt. There were open, unanswered questions in the Zimmerman case. Photographs showed that the defendant had suffered head injuries, presumably caused by what became his victim. There have been cases in history where killers inflicted injury upon themselves in order to establish a pretext for a plea of self-defense. Barring that possibility, only the survivor’s version of the story remained, which appeared to be confirmed by the physical evidence. According to Zimmerman, Martin bashed his head against the concrete ground. It can hardly be denied that the physical fight between the two young men was made possible by Zimmerman’s decision to leave his truck rather than wait for the police to arrive. Nonetheless, the defendant’s plea of not guilty and the explanation given for his use of deadly force in self-defense were accepted by the jurors after weighing all available evidence.

The ‘Stand Your Ground’ policy said to justify Zimmerman’s use of a gun in the state of Florida bears some similarity to the felony murder rule. If a policeman mistakenly shoots an innocent bystander during an armed robbery, then the criminal, not the policeman, is said to be responsible for the death. If the robber had not been in the process of committing a crime, then the policeman would never have reached for his gun. The Trayvon Martin case was highly controversial because the victim was not committing any crime, but his pursuer suspected that he might be, given reports of recent thefts in the area. To many people, Zimmerman’s behavior smacked of racial profiling, a notorious problem for African Americans, as they have often been singled out for special scrutiny solely on the basis of the color of their skin.

In the aftermath of the acquittal of George Zimmerman, President Barack Obama soberly observed to the American people that ‘Trayvon Martin could have been me thirty-five years ago.’(144) What the US president appears not to have recognized is that he might also have been the son of Anwar al-Awlaki, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who was killed under Obama’s authority by a Predator drone-delivered missile on 14 October 2011. Both slain teenagers had brown skin, and they were about the same age – Abdulrahman was sixteen years old; Trayvon was seventeen. At the time of his death, Anwar al-Awlaki’s son was with a group of friends at an open-air barbecue in Shabwah, Yemen. All of them were obliterated. Why did this happen?

When asked about the killing of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, blurted out: ‘I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the well-being of their children. I don’t think becoming an Al-Qaeda jihadist terrorist is the best way to go about doing your business.’(145) This glib and in some ways nonsensical response well illustrates what has become the banality of killing inherent to the Predator drone program. Gibbs’ reply seemed to imply that the crimes of the elder Al-Awlaki were the reason for the killing of his son. Would the reason, then, for the deaths of the others present at the time be, according to Gibbs, that they should have chosen a friend who had chosen a more responsible father? Several innocent, unarmed, brownskinned teenagers were destroyed by a Predator drone-delivered missile as they prepared to eat their dinner. Any one of those adolescents might have been Barack Hussein Obama.

Various theories about the case of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki have been floated. Unfortunately, the most plausible is simply that Obama’s secret ‘kill committee’ – the small group of men who convened behind closed doors on ‘Terror Tuesdays’ for meetings chaired by targeted killing ‘czar’ John Brennan to watch PowerPoint presentations on ‘nominees’ to the US government hit list – decided to squelch a possible burgeoning terrorist before he had the chance to become one.(146) Abdulrahman’s father had recently been hunted down and killed by the CIA, and if anything can drive formerly non-violent young men into the arms of anti-American groups such as Al Qaeda, it is their personal experience of having lost a close friend or family member to a US missile. The young Al-Awlaki had only just turned sixteen years of age at the time of his death. Was this coincidental? Or was Al-Awlaki’s son deemed fair game for targeting, having suddenly come of military age, as stipulated by his killers? What explains the silence of Barack Obama on the fate of brown-skinned Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, when it was every bit as tragic as the death of Trayvon Martin?

In truth, it is difficult to imagine why a committee capable of defining all males from the ages of sixteen to fifty in ‘hostile’ territories as combatants worthy of summary execution might harbor any scruples about snuffing out the progeny of men long on the government’s hit list. That the Predator drone program administrators may have intentionally assassinated the son of Anwar al-Awlaki becomes even more plausible in view of the fact that Khalid, the unarmed son of Osama bin Laden, was executed along with his father during the May 2011 raid on the Bin Laden compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. No attempt was made to capture Bin Laden’s son, nor to incapacitate him.(147) Was Bin Laden’s son guilty of any crimes? The world may never know. He was ‘guilty’ of being Osama bin Laden’s son, just as Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was ‘guilty’ of being Anwar al-Awlaki’s son. One thing is certain: neither son had anything whatsoever to do with what transpired on 11 September 2001, as both were children at the time.

The George Zimmerman–Trayvon Martin case is an apt metaphor for both preemptive war and targeted killing, for the latter is essentially micro-preemptive war. Zimmerman’s explanation for having fired his gun on the unarmed Martin was that he was afraid that Martin would reach for and use the gun. If Zimmerman, a neighborhood scout in a Florida program designed to counter local crime, had not been in possession of a loaded gun, then Martin would not have been killed on that day. Likewise, if not for the advent of a new technology, the Predator drone, the son of Anwar al-Awlaki and his friends in Yemen would not have been slain. Would any of them ever have developed the desire and found the means to attack the people of the United States? It seems unlikely and is a matter of pure conjecture. The vast majority of people who dissent from US military practices never end up wielding deadly violence against any other human being, whether American or not.

President Obama did not devise the policy of ‘signature strikes’, which involves ending the lives of persons who fit the criteria of a ‘disposition matrix’. In ‘crowd killing’, all military-age males in ‘hostile’ areas are defined as fair game for targeting. What is surprising is that Obama, a brown-skinned male very familiar with the problem of racial profiling in the United States, somehow failed to recognize that signature strikes and crowd killing are essentially forms of racial profiling. The signature strike practice was developed by the CIA near the end of the Bush administration, but Obama accepted and proceeded vastly to expand the Predator drone killing program. Under Obama’s leadership, thousands of people were destroyed by Hellfire missiles. The morally dubious definition of all military-age males as combatants in designated areas of the world – persons who happen also to have brown skin – may not have achieved the magnitude of a full-scale genocide, but the logic bears an eerie resemblance to that of genocidal killers.

To see the parallels between signature strikes and racial genocide, it suffices to consider how a Nazi administrator such as Adolf Eichmann might take the reasoning of the US Department of Justice White Paper to ‘justify’ the annihilation of the Jewish people. Simply substitute ‘the Jews’ for ‘Al-Qaeda’ and ‘Germany’ for ‘the United States’, and a ‘legal pretext’ for the Holocaust emerges:

Der Führer has authority to respond to the imminent threat posed by the Jews and their associated forces, arising from his constitutional responsibility to protect the country, the inherent right of the German state to national self-defense under international law … As detailed in this White Paper, in defined circumstances, a targeted killing of a German citizen who is a Jew or collaborates with the Jews would be lawful under German and international law. Targeting a member of an enemy force who poses an imminent threat of violent attack to Germany is not unlawful. It is a lawful act of national self-defense. Nor would it violate otherwise applicable federal laws barring unlawful killings … Moreover, a lethal operation in a foreign nation would be consistent with international legal principles of sovereignty and neutrality if it were conducted, for example, with the consent of the host nation’s government or after a determination that the host nation is unable or unwilling to suppress the threat posed by the individual targeted.
Were the target of a lethal operation a German citizen who may have rights under the German Constitution, that individual’s citizenship would not immunize him from a lethal operation.

All of the justificatory work in the White Paper is underpinned by the assumption that the evil enemy is hatching schemes to destroy the nation claiming the right to self defense. The ‘imminent threat’ is an idea in the mind of administrators and not subject to denial. The Nazis denigrated the Jews as wicked threats to their nation and the German people. If such a Nazi reading of the White Paper would not legitimate the Holocaust, then the pretext is equally bogus for the extermination of brown-skinned suspects who ‘behave’ as terrorists might.

Genocide involves defining entire classes of people as worthy of execution not for anything which they themselves have done, but because of identifying properties which they share. Obama’s shortterm political success at appearing ‘strong on national defense’ by expanding the Predator drone program can be expected to serve as a long-term precedent to be invoked by leaders even more thorough and determined than the current US administration to ‘wipe out’ their enemies as defined by themselves. If the world is a battlefield, as advocates of targeted killing maintain, then why not eliminate all Islamists between the ages of sixteen and fifty? Why stop with the males? Do not brown-skinned females in that same age group give birth to all of these evil terrorists?(148) And why focus only on the people of Third World nations? What about Canadian and European Islamists? What about American Islamists? Most of those people have brown skin.

The rebranding by the Obama administration of assassination as a military practice (dubbed ‘targeted killing’) was undoubtedly intended as part of the new president’s endeavor to avoid the sorts of full-scale wars in which his predecessor had embroiled the nation, particularly in Iraq. The ‘light footprint’ strategy has been seen by commentators in Obama’s decision to use drones in hundreds of cases to kill rather than capture suspected terrorists. The long-term, global consequences of this policy will eventually become clear when other nations and groups point to the US example in executing without trial their avowed enemies one by one. Among the burgeoning non-US drone warriors, heads of state will follow their role model in insisting that such killing is permitted by the ‘self-defense’ clause of the Charter of the United Nations.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that no one in the US administration appears to have recognized that normalizing a practice formerly considered to be taboo – and prohibited by international law according to two successive United Nations Special Rapporteurs on extrajudicial executions, Philip Alston and Christof Heyns – will embolden and fortify factions and ‘lone wolf’ operators much more than military states.(149) Subnational and transnational factions have access to neither state-supported military institutions nor formal judicial systems. By transmitting the message that assassination has suddenly become morally permissible, a part of ‘just war’, it seems quite likely that jihadists, too, will be spurred on to conduct themselves more along the lines of assassins than soldiers. If even the soldiers of well-established, formal military institutions have become snipers at a distance, hiding in the shadows and dispatching their victims without warning and with no provision for the possibility of surrender, then there would no longer seem to be any distinction between those killers and the sorts of persons who undertake to assassinate heads of state.

If the most militarily powerful nation on the planet is permitted to have its ‘Terror Tuesdays’, it is difficult to see why the leaders of nondemocratic nations and dissenting factions might refrain from doing the same. The apparent short-term tactical success of the Predator drone program is likely to prove illusory and may well lead to longterm strategic failure, just as has happened in Israel, where targeted killing was also normalized by the government. Without formal declarations of war, the targeted killings perpetrated in several different lands could not have taken place in the twentieth century – at least not according to the official story of what the US government does. Assassinations of leaders regarded as hostile to US interests were attempted before the drone age, but under a cloak of secrecy in deniable missions or black ops. The rebranding of assassination as a standard military practice has resulted in untoward side effects far transcending the execution without trial of persons mistakenly believed by their killers to be guilty of capital crimes. In Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya and other countries with which the United States is not officially at war, the lives of other people, known to be innocent, have been ruined – the so-called collateral damage inevitable during wartime – despite the fact that they do not inhabit declared war zones.

The category of collateral damage has been at once expanded and contracted by a technological development conjoined with linguistic artifice. As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq dragged on, and ‘highvalue targets’ became more and more scarce, the drone program executors began working with yet another new definition. This time, civilian was defined to exclude males from the ages of sixteen to fifty. The very fact that the killers themselves should redefine a term integral to the concept of collateral damage so as to exculpate themselves from wrongdoing suggests that the concept of collateral damage, invoked in military reports of the deaths of innocent people, may itself have been suspect all along.

In reality, there are two forms of collateral damage: first-order collateral damage, which destroys innocent people; and second-order collateral damage, which is the resultant harm to survivors on the ground.(150) The Predator drone killing program is said by its promoters to ‘project power without projecting vulnerability’, but the true price paid in blood spilled can be measured in the perspectives of those who survive the drone attacks but are deprived of their loved ones and community members. By 2012, 74 percent of Pakistanis surveyed described the United States as their enemy.(151) The northwestern provinces have been beset by hundreds of missiles delivered by drones which lurk menacingly above the homes of suspects and innocent persons alike.

In terms of their deleterious psychological effects, Predator drones offer the same pseudo-discrimination as other weapons of war. According to Usama Khilji:

Drones produce a monotonous buzz, almost like the sound of a generator, which together with the uncertainty that comes with the perpetual fear of missile strikes have had an immense psychological impact on the population … Local doctors have
declared many adults mentally unfit due to the effect drones have had on them.(152)

Even if they are not eventually going to be killed by them, all of the people on the ground are terrorized by drones. Some among the survivors will find violent outlets for their sorrow, fear and rage. The case of Pakistan is in some ways even more perplexing than Afghanistan and Iraq, because there are no US troops on the ground (wrongly or not) who can be said to require the protection provided by weaponized Predator drones. There appears to be no recognition among US leaders (whether military or political, which were conflated in both the Bush and the Obama administrations) that what supposedly made killing in war, including collateral damage, permissible was that it had become – or at the very least seemed to be – a last resort. Killing men in possession of firearms in lands far away, men who pose no direct threat to US citizens and who in fact share the American belief in the right to bear arms, is hypocritical to say the least.

The Trayvon Martin–George Zimmerman case is relevant in this regard as well. Far from strengthening potential victims’ state of security, ‘Stand Your Ground’ policies expand what is said to be the reasonable use of deadly force in every case where a gun is present and the person who fires the weapon feels in some sense threatened. The policy ends by inverting the burden of proof while simultaneously endangering unarmed and innocent people. Rather than having to demonstrate that he was justified in wielding deadly force, the defendant needs only to demonstrate that he lacked the intention to murder his victim. The burden of proof favors the killer, since it is much more difficult to establish an intention to murder than to prove that the use of deadly force was not unreasonable from the shooter’s perspective, invariably skewed by the state of fear in which he was laboring, as evidenced by the very fact that he drew his gun.

Policies such as ‘Stand Your Ground’ reveal that the military’s lethal centrism has seeped into domestic law, transforming the criteria for what constitutes the justifiable use of deadly force even within civil society. Any doubts about what might be termed the ‘military turn’ in law enforcement were put to rest by the events in Ferguson, Missouri, after the shooting of another young black male, Michael Brown, by a white police officer on 9 August 2014. Massive protests were met by a police force empirically indistinguishable from a military corps.(153) Police departments all over the United States have been the recipients of equipment fit for the ‘boots on the ground’ battles so unpalatable to Americans, including President Obama. With drones at the commander in chief’s disposal, and a willingness to dispatch suspects anywhere at any time, the hardware of ground warfare, such as armored tanks and grenade launchers, has become less and less necessary, if not irrelevant, to most conflicts abroad. As a result, much of this battle-ready equipment has been transferred to local police departments for their use in maintaining law and order in the homeland. Martial law is very different from domestic criminal law.

Police officers dressed and equipped as combat soldiers may come to conduct themselves as though fighting on a battlefield, not protecting the citizenry – and all the more when some among the force happen also to be veterans, as they often are. Just as in drone strikes, in a domestic case such as that of Trayvon Martin, what comes to matter is not the reality of who the person was, but the perception of him by his killer. Zimmerman accosted Martin under the assumption that he was a criminal, when in fact he was nothing of the kind. But because this was Zimmerman’s belief at the time when he fired his gun, he was acquitted of wrongful killing. His legal team succeeded in persuading the jury that the defendant had acted not with malicious intent but out of fear for his own life. True, he might have shot Martin in the foot, not the chest, but the fearful state in which Zimmerman acted is said to explain that faulty judgment, too.

A wave of anger spread across the United States in response to the not guilty verdict in Zimmerman’s trial because Trayvon Martin was not a robber at all, nor was he armed. Had Martin been engaged in violent criminal activities, then any death caused, including his own, would have been his fault, following the felony murder rule. Instead, Trayvon Martin was just a teenager walking peacefully down the street. In the absence of witnesses with competing narratives, the survivor’s, not the victim’s, version of the story prevails, just as in warfare: the victors write history. A neighborhood watch program which results in the slaughter of innocent residents has reflections also in the deaths of civilians caused by blowback retaliation against military practices abroad, such as occurred on 11 September 2001. It can be reasonably predicted that further such crimes will arrive later on down the line as a direct result of the Predator drone program applied with such ruthlessness and zeal in places thousands of miles away from the US homeland.

* * *



What’s Conspicuously Missing from the Big Bad Brexit Debate Drama?

As the drop-dead October 31, 2019, Brexit date approaches, I offer my thoughts from the day of the 2016 referendum:

We Kill Because We Can

BreakingPointMy informal survey yesterday of a random sample of the good people of the village of Burnham, Buckinghamshire, and my short random exit poll survey this morning both revealed a strong outpouring of support for Brexit. None of the people with whom I spoke struck me as racists, and most did not even mention the topic of immigration, though all signs point to immigration as one of the most important factors in voters’ decision-making on this historic day. Yes, for the first time in more than forty years, the British people are being permitted to weigh in on the wisdom of their country’s membership in the European Union.

One of the most interesting things I noticed in chatting with these people was that they often began revealing their preference for “Leave” in a hesitant, hushed voice. Once they realized that I was not a Remain Shamer, some of them began…

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Is the Downing of a Drone a legitimate Casus Belli? (book excerpt)

Excerpt from Chapter 6: ¨The New Banality of Killing,¨ We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age (paperback edition, 2016), pp. 150–154. (Notes and references are available in this free audiobook supplement)


¨During World War II, US soldiers did in fact kill some innocent French citizens while attempting to dislodge the occupying German forces from France. Those collateral damage casualties seem closer to accidental killings or, if analogous to domestic cases, then the blame for the deaths would fall on the Germans, who were prosecuting a criminal war without which US troops would not have been in the position of wielding deadly weapons in France. According to the felony murder rule applied in domestic contexts, a criminal is responsible for the deaths that occur during his commission of a crime, even if he does not kill other people and had no intention of doing such a thing, and even if his heartfelt desire was only to feed his family.

After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which had been based on faulty and fabricated intelligence, the occupying soldiers had no more right to be in that land than did the Germans in France.155 All of this implies that the drone strikes intended to protect soldiers on the ground in Iraq were really no different in moral essence from drone strikes used to kill suspected terrorists in countries with which the United States is not even at war. The closer one examines the situation in Iraq, the more the cases start to seem alike, and this may help to explain why many supporters of the use of drones do not distinguish between the two ostensibly distinct deployments, within countries with which the United States is or is not officially at war. However, rather than it being the case that both uses are legitimate, it seems more plausible that neither is.

‘The world is a battlefield,’ US military supporters retort, enthusiastically endorsing the Bush administration’s claim – and the Obama administration’s continuation of the same – to be at war with terrorists all over the globe and willing to hunt down and kill suspected enemies wherever they may hide. By their account, every act of killing committed by the US government and its agents (including the CIA) is now an act of self-defense. But does this make any sense? In Yemen, the permission to use drones to kill people was granted by President Ali Abdullah Saleh. In the storied tradition of the petty despots of many a Third World nation throughout the Cold War and since, Saleh accepted large amounts of military aid as payment for effectively ceding his country’s sovereignty to the United States. The question, then, is this: Do such leaders have the right to trade away the lives of their compatriots in order to shore up their own power?

In the deployment of weaponized drones against the inhabitants of other lands, what is starkly absent is the urgency involved in the use of lethal means by killers whose lives are directly at risk – and who  have the right to be where they are at the time. If acts of war are to be legitimated by the standard line – according to which killing is a last resort, and all other avenues have been blocked and all other options exhausted – then it is difficult to see how any of these missile strikes might be regarded as legitimate. In contrast, the attempt to shoot down drones threatening death from above seems to be a perfectly rational and morally acceptable practice. The story, then, was inverted in Iraq. The persons attempting to defend themselves from menacing planes and drones above, or from the troops on the ground who conducted violent raids – often killing innocent people or spiriting them away – were exercising their right to legitimate self-defense. When someone invades our home or neighborhood, we have the right to defend ourselves from them, do we not? If so, do not the people of other lands have the same right?

What began as yet another Bush administration excess – the summary execution of unarmed suspects by Predator drone – has come to be a preferred ‘tool’ in the seemingly interminable ‘Global War on Terror’. To the surprise and consternation of the antiwar activists who labored diligently to elect Barack Obama in 2008, the new president’s solution to the Bush administration policies of extraordinary rendition and enhanced interrogation techniques, censured by human rights advocates the world over, was to step up the drone killing program, essentially eliminating the problem of human rights abuses by defining the executed suspects as guilty. These people have been ‘convicted’ and executed by the US government on the basis of bribed hearsay, in most cases for possible future terrorist acts.

By now, targeted killing, through sheer repetition, has become normalized to such an extent that most Americans are inured to the practice and appear not even to have entertained the possibility that there might be something morally awry with the execution of suspects without trial, even though the practice blatantly violates every principle for which the United States presumably stands. Due process and transparency, and the necessity of establishing guilt beyond a reasonable doubt before punishing (much less executing) a suspect have all been abandoned. Americans ask only that they be protected from harm on US soil, and if that requires executing scores of persons abroad who might possibly one day consider traveling to the United States to attempt to undertake jihad, then so be it, they say.

The stated policy goal for a time was to decimate Al-Qaeda, to win the war by attrition of the enemy’s forces, and to bring the perpetrators of 9/11 to justice. When Osama bin Laden was finally located, Obama ‘made the call’, ordering the summary execution of the Al-Qaeda leader, which was carried out by a Special Forces team under his command. Bin Laden was not assassinated by drone, but in cold blood by a group of Navy SEALs acting on information gleaned through the use of a drone. By killing rather than capturing Bin Laden, did the United States defeat the person said to be most directly responsible for the crimes of 11 September 2001? Or did the infamous international terrorist ironically succeed in creating his sworn enemy in his image?

After the Al-Qaeda mastermind’s execution, the drone strikes in Pakistan and beyond continued with frightening regularity, despite claims by administration figures, including both President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, that the program would be curtailed. The official implementation of a ‘Kill don’t capture’ policy has ultimately revealed not only that collateral damage was a rhetorical trope all along, but that the notion of last resort no longer has any relevance in what is claimed to be modern warfare, notwithstanding the just war rhetoric parroted from centuries past. Those who view Predator drone targeted killing as a form of warfare perhaps recognize, on some level, that war, like black ops, has always promoted the tyrannical agenda embraced by terrorist factions. Political killers are united in their belief that a small number of human beings possess the right to decide who must die and what would be an acceptable price to pay in other people’s lives in the quest for a sought-after goal.

The grandest irony of all is that twenty-first-century war as conducted by a First World nation has become asymmetrical and irregular, in seeming emulation of the architects of 9/11. Rather than pursue and prosecute the criminals within the bounds of the law, the Bush administration essentially adopted the modus operandi of post-Munich Mossad, while attempting simultaneously to sail along on its post-World War II laurels, as though no one would notice how in occupied Iraq the US soldiers looked much more like the Germans than the Allied troops. Prisoners were ‘rendered’ and tortured, and suspects identified as such on the basis of bribes were sniped – along with anyone else unfortunate enough to be by their side. Under Obama, the World War II parallels remain in place, and in some ways have grown even worse. Killing campaigns have ramified throughout several countries beyond Afghanistan and Iraq, degrading the security of people throughout the Middle East and Africa as well. In the drone strikes authorized by Obama on ‘no boots battlefields’ in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and Syria, human beings have been denied the right to surrender and executed point-blank and in cold blood, not for threatening US soldiers on the ground (there are none), but for being members of a group defined by the killers themselves as intrinsically evil.¨


Excerpt from Chapter 6, ¨The New Banality of Killing,” in We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, by Laurie Calhoun, pp. 150-154. Endnotes can be accessed online here.


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Why whistleblowers are essential to democratic societies (book excerpt).

Excerpt from Chapter 5: ¨Strike First, Suppress Questions Later,¨ We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age (paperback edition, 2016), pp. 124-128. (Notes and references are available in this free audiobook supplement)


Whistleblowers such as Private Bradley Edward Manning (whose name was legally changed to Chelsea Elizabeth Manning in 2013) and former National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden who step forward to reveal crimes committed by the US government to the citizens paying for them are branded by officials as traitors, and thereby arrayed in the same category as Anwar al-Awlaki. But to reinterpret non-violent dissidence as a form of treachery is to step onto a continuum at the end of which only totalitarianism lies. Under fascist regimes, those who sympathize with dissenters come to be branded as traitors by extension. The concept of associate, crucial to the White Paper, is notoriously vague, and does not bode well for the future of an open society. It is precisely through this sort of bureaucratic neologism that governments initially supported by the populace can devolve into dictatorships, as happened throughout postcolonial Africa and Latin America during the Cold War.

Those who would suppress dissent from all US policies, even when they are demonstrably criminal, fail to recognize that the laws of democratic societies have progressed morally only as a result of the willingness of some people to stand up for what they believe to be right and to protest against what they believe to be wrong. Is it even conceptually possible, in a genuine democracy, to decry as ‘enemies of the state’ persons who oppose US military practice, when it is the right of every citizen to have opinions and to express them? Dissidents such as Manning and Snowden – and soldiers such as Camilo Mejía who refuse to redeploy to what they have come to believe are criminal wars – are cast as traitors not for their potential or intention to kill US nationals but because they supposedly ‘inspire’ others to do so, just as Anwar al-Awlaki did.

When the soldiers of formal military institutions demur from the campaigns in which they have been deployed, as did Private Manning, who disseminated hundreds of thousands of classified cables and video footage documenting war crimes, they are castigated as criminals by those who perpetrated the very crimes illuminated. Manning was not executed but sentenced to thirty-five years in prison for attempting to reveal to US taxpayers what their money was being used to fund. The fact that the revelations painted the US government in a negative, even evil, light was perversely blamed upon the whistleblower, when in fact the fault lies only with those complicit in the scandals exposed.

With millions of persons holding high-level security clearances in the private-contracting age of the military, there is no way to guarantee that state secrets will be kept, as was demonstrated unforgettably by the disclosures of Edward Snowden in June 2013.133 Surely another dissident will pop up again in the not-too-distant future out of the many people potentially capable of accessing and sharing classified documents. Aggressive covert foreign policy initiatives are shortsighted and misguided in that they commence from the assumption that no one will ever find out – or if they do, they won’t care. But the people on the ground, the victims, find out immediately, and the bereft survivors do care, and some among them decide to retaliate violently against what they take to be crimes.

Assuming that these mass exposures of the dark side of US foreign policy will continue on the current schedule (every two years or so), the US government would do better to change its ways than to lock up the whistleblowers and throw away the key. Such dissidents are easily replaced – as readily as insurgents and fledgling terrorists – whenever the galvanizing war crimes persist. The sentencing of Private Manning to thirty-five years in prison will not deter dissenters from taking action in the future. Instead, they may follow the lead of Edward Snowden and seek political asylum in other lands rather than face discreditation and indictment by the perpetrators whose much worse crimes have been brought to light. Ultimately, all ‘state secrets’ in a democracy will be declassified, after which the ugly truth of what was done will become a matter of common knowledge.

Invoking ‘State Secrets Privilege’ protects the wrongdoers from the disgrace of what they have done only in the short term. If one of the ‘kill committee’ members suffers a crisis of conscience (as did former US Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara many years after the Vietnam war134), then perhaps among the revelations of the future will be the guidelines used and the evidential bases for adding names to the US government’s hit lists. The blame in all cases where war crimes are finally exposed falls squarely on the shoulders of the perpetrators: had they done nothing wrong, there would be nothing to air. The only way to contain fallout over the secrets revealed is to avoid committing what are widely regarded as crimes. The claim so often made by patriots in defending mass surveillance – that no law-abiding citizen should worry that they are being watched and their communications sifted through – applies equally well to the governments whose activities are made public by whistleblowers. Plato observed more than two thousand years ago that the best way to achieve the reputation of a moral person is to act as a moral person would. The same sage advice is no less applicable to government administrators.

Drone strikes are one example; cyberattacks are another. Cyberterrorists, too, can look to the United States for normative guidance, just as nations clamoring for nuclear weapons have always done. It is impossible to take seriously the denunciation by US spokespersons of hackers such as Snowden when behind the scenes, in covert operations, the US government has undertaken not only spying but pernicious attacks against other regimes, as when a computer worm was introduced to destroy centrifuges in Iran with the intention of preventing that government’s production of a nuclear bomb.135 The hypocrisy in that case is multidimensional, given that it is the United States’ own possession – and use in 1945 – of nuclear warheads which motivates other states to acquire such weapons in order to have some chance of repelling a preemptive attack (as in Iraq in 2003) through deterrence.

If crimes are not committed, then they cannot be exposed. Whether or not whistleblowers unveil the crimes to the populace on the other side of the world who pay for them, the local people directly affected are all too aware of what happens on the ground. The opinions of the residents of communities under siege are shaped by what actually transpires, by what they witness with their own eyes, not the official story of administrators already confirmed as liars. Americans may have believed Obama’s targeted killing program director John Brennan when he claimed in 2011 that no civilians were killed by US drones in Pakistan during the previous year. However, the people living there who have witnessed the cratering of homes in their neighborhoods know the truth, and some among them join forces with violent terrorist groups in response to what they take to be the evil US regime.

The profoundest irony of all in allegations that Private Manning and Edward Snowden ‘aid and abet the enemy’ is that the true inspiration for not only their acts of dissidence but also the vast majority of recent terrorist attacks are the homicides committed by the US government. In reality, the US government would seem to be the most significant ‘spiritual supporter’ of its very own enemies, if this reasoning is followed to its logical limit. Manning and Snowden have done no more than reveal to Americans what precisely they are paying for when they file their federal taxes each year. The drone killing program remained an official secret for years, but as ignorant as Americans may have been about the crimes committed in their name and paid for by them, the ‘top secret’ missions were all too familiar to the victims abroad and their bereft survivors, in addition to the international journalists and NGOs who investigate allegations of war crimes.

Withholding the facts from the US citizens who pay for drone attacks serves no purpose beyond short-term political expediency: to protect those in office so that they can retain their current positions. Far worse, such secrecy positively endangers Americans, who may have no idea why they should be in peril if they embark on journeys abroad to places where US policies have angered locals. Private Manning was charged with, but not convicted of, ‘aiding and abetting’ the enemy. The high-level policymakers such as George W. Bush, Barack Obama and their delegates, whose authorizations led to the killing of innocent people located in so-called hostile territories, are surely the principal parties guilty of aiding and abetting the enemy, for they, more than anyone else, have inspired people to join forces with terrorist groups in retaliatory quests for revenge.

Case in point: Anwar al-Awlaki vociferously opposed the policies of the US government, including its violent incursions in lands abroad. He eventually became radicalized to the point where he applauded terrorist actions and enjoined those outraged by US policies to take up the jihadist cause. The case of this US citizen, whose guilt appears to inhere primarily in his having served as a source of inspiration to a variety of terrorists who did commit violent crimes, raises the far more troubling question whether, by extension, antiwar critics might also become fair game for summary execution. Yemeni journalist Abdalilah Shaya investigated US drone strikes, including the massacre at Majala on 17 December 2009 in which innocent civilians were claimed by their killers to have been militants.136 The journalist was branded an Al-Qaeda media front and thrown in prison. Just as he was about to be set free, President Obama called President Saleh to express concern over the journalist’s imminent release.137

Watch Collateral Murder:

The Meaning of Collateral Murder (book excerpt)

Excerpt from Chapter 8: ¨From Conscience to Oblivion,¨ We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age (paperback edition, 2016), pp. 181-185. (Notes and references are available in this free audiobook supplement)

Given the military focus on lethality, taken up also by the CIA in the twenty-first century, it is not terribly surprising that some of the soldiers and private contractors on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq became target shooters looking to ‘get some’, sniping people whom they claimed to be justified in killing even when the pretext of self-defense stretched credulity. In Iraq, the number of ‘dead hadjis’ became a measure of success and to some soldiers a source of pride.192 A similar dynamic was witnessed in Vietnam, when draftees attempted to rack up as many dead Vietcong as they could, having been encouraged to do so by their commanding officers.193

Perhaps, then, it was inevitable that assassination, once carried out by stable governments only through black ops, would eventually become an official and publicly acknowledged policy. What began as an amalgamated law enforcement–military effort to track down and bring to justice the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 led to the generation of ever-lengthier lists of targets, including unnamed persons whose activities on the ground were said to match behavior patterns regarded as ‘typical’ of terrorists. There are obviously exceptions to every tendency, and the observation of shadowy figures on a computer monitor does not and cannot reveal the beliefs and intentions of the persons ‘employed on’ by drone operators.

As a graphic illustration of lethal centrism reflected in the outlook and comportment of troops, consider the widely disseminated YouTube video of a massacre in the suburb of New Baghdad, Iraq, on 12 July 2007. On that day, several civilians were ‘neutralized’, including Reuters employees carrying cameras misidentified as AK47s and RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) by trigger-ready shooters hovering ominously above in a helicopter, and ready and willing to fire the moment they could claim that the person was armed. The videotape made of the mission from the Apache helicopter was furnished to WikiLeaks by Private Manning and published online under the provocative title ‘Collateral Murder’. The stomach-wrenching footage of the ‘Collateral Murder’ incident shows a wounded journalist attempting to drag himself away from the scene after the initial spray of artillery. One of the shooters cheers him on: ‘Come on, buddy. All you gotta do is pick up a weapon.’ The speaker is anxiously awaiting the moment when the already-wounded and obviously incapacitated man will reach for anything interpretable as a weapon, thereby granting the shooter the right to finish him off and be able to claim that he killed in accordance with military protocol.

When a van drives up to save one of the injured survivors of the initial salvo, it, too, is blown away. The two children inside the vehicle are deemed collateral damage, and their presence is blamed upon the allegedly evil terrorists (in reality, camera-toting journalists) who made the mistake, the soldiers assure one another, of bringing children into a firefight. The audio of the soldiers who carried out the series of killings documented in ‘Collateral Murder’ reveals what must be their own interpretations of what they have done, if they are to sleep at night. Upon insistence by Reuters, two of whose employees were shown executed in the film, the US military investigated the incident but concluded that the soldiers had acted in accordance with standard operating procedure and correctly followed their ROE.

What the short film unforgettably displays is that even regular soldiers who risk nothing, no personal harm whatsoever, shooting as they are from a distance, may literally seek out opportunities to kill. This tendency has obviously been enhanced in the drone age by the enlistment of young adults to train essentially as assassins, whose primary vocation is to hunt down and destroy suspects from thousands of miles away. What do you do for a living? The answer of a UCAV operator is clear: I kill people. There is no other way of glossing the reality. Bureaucratic euphemisms aside, weaponized drone operators are professional killers. The measure of their vocational competence becomes the number of successful hits which they carry out or facilitate. Accordingly, they are galvanized to seize opportunities to kill in order to advance professionally. Just as writers ‘score’ book deals, killers ‘score’ hits. Drone operator Matthew Martin, who was promoted for his service in Afghanistan and Iraq, devised ways by which to shorten the ‘kill chain’, with more authority accorded to the operators themselves to ‘engage targets’ and ‘do kinetic’ as opportunities arise.

Scenarios such as ‘Collateral Murder’ reveal that some regular soldiers have reached the point where they literally seek out targets to kill. Upon completion of their enlistment term, recent veterans were prime candidates to accept civilian positions working for PMCs, not only because they would command generous salaries relative to what they earned as uniformed soldiers, but also because they did not have to demonstrate to anyone that they observed, even nominally, proper protocol (ROE) before discharging their weapons. As civilians operating in a foreign land, they were permitted to kill in self-defense and granted maximum discretion in interpreting what that meant. Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority Order 17 explicitly provided civilian contractees with legal immunity in their use of lethal force, what author Tony Geraghty describes as a ‘licence to kill’.194 The trigger-ready tendencies of regular soldiers and Special Forces in chaotic urban warfare settings certainly cannot be said to have been tempered by their collaboration with private military contractees operating in what in Iraq was literally a law-free zone.

Collateral Murder’ also provides a broader illustration of why administrators who have already participated in targeted killing must, for their own state of equanimity, convince others that the practice is sound. Just as the killers of the Reuters employees in New Baghdad consoled themselves that the ‘evil terrorists’ were to blame for bringing children into a firefight, bureaucrats will argue vigorously and enthusiastically for the continuation of a program through which they themselves have already authorized homicide. When the incumbent Predator drone program administrators persuaded newly elected President Barack Obama to embrace the practice, they succeeded in perpetuating and even expanding the program. At the same time, they confirmed in all of the killers’ minds that what they had already done was, in fact, legally and morally sound. Personnel who strongly demur from the prevailing ‘conventional wisdom’ handed down by their superiors cannot rise in the ranks, and some eventually renounce their positions, leaving only enthusiasts behind.

Watch Collateral Murder: 

Do the Math: How Self-Styled Drone Warrior US President Barack Obama Normalized War Crimes (Part 1)

Trump ended Obama´s ¨requirement¨ to report on drone casualties outside areas of active hostilities. Time to re-read Obama´s ¨report¨:

We Kill Because We Can


 It’s hard to know where to start in addressing the US government’s “Summary of Information Regarding U.S. Counterterrorism Strikes Outside Areas of Active Hostilities,” released on Friday, July 1, 2016, before the long holiday weekend, in the apparent hope that no one would read it.

Some of us did. The report claims, preposterously, that in 473 drone strikes “against terrorist targets outside of active hostilities,” a total of from 2,372 to 2,581 combatants were killed, along with from 64 to 116 noncombatants. These numbers are shockingly low, given the many detailed reports on drone killing issued by NGOs and human rights groups since 2009.

ProtestResponsibleEven Senator Lindsey Graham claimed back in 2013 that drone strikes had, by then, already taken out some 4,700 “terrorists”. That’s about twice the number the administration is claiming were killed during a period of time even two years longer, from January 20, 2009…

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