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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Hunting Human Beings is not The Good Life: Brett Velicovich’s Drone Warrior

 

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I saw reported somewhere that 50% of books purchased are never actually read—at least not to the end. I have also noticed in my own reading of contemporary books that many of them start out strong but eventually fall off a cliff. My best guess is that the authors of such works managed to secure generous advances for agreeing to deliver a finished manuscript according to a strict deadline. With a looming due date, authors hoping to obtain future contracts may be more concerned with retaining good relationships with their agent and publisher than with taking the time necessary to produce a satisfying finish to a book filled with promise, at least judging by the query letter and opening chapter used to woo acquisitions editors. Many writers also know, however, deep down inside, that the best books, the ones which stand the test of time, rather than achieving momentary popularity as a result of dizzying marketing blitz campaigns, are not constrained by deadlines. They are finished when they are finished and not one moment before.

Why, you may be wondering, is any of this relevant to Drone Warrior: An Elite Soldier’s Inside Account of the Hunt for America’s Most Dangerous Enemies, by Brett Velicovich? Primarily because the glowing endorsements of this book by military professionals and administrators of the drone program such as Michael Hayden (who serves on the boards of multiple kill-for-profit companies) suggest that they may never have finished reading the book. Skimming through the opening chapters may well give the impression that Drone Warrior offers a defense of remote-control killing. The epilogue, however, tells a quite different story.

I wanted to read Drone Warrior, despite its endorsement by targeted killing profiteers, because I think that it is important to attempt to understand how anyone (sane) could possibly believe that hunting human beings is a worthy profession, and how, in particular, well-adjusted drone operators, sensors and analysts, those who do not suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), regard what they do. In many interviews over the past several years, we have heard the heart-wrenching testimony of drone program whistleblowers, and we know from a variety of sources that many operators and sensors do not renew their contracts, even when offered enticing bonuses to continue on. But this is not only (as the US military would have us believe) because the job involves long, eye-glazing hours of staring at a screen in a dark room.

Films such as Good Kill (2014) and National Bird (2016) have offered some excellent anti-recruitment advice to would-be enlistees. Eye in the Sky (2015), in contrast, attempts to defend the practice of hunting down and killing even nationals abroad by the British government (though capital punishment is prohibited under UK and EU law), and that film may have succeeded in persuading some young people to believe that contract killing can be a noble profession—or at least that it is not obviously murder.

PredatorsWilliamsCoverA number of books, mostly by authors troubled by US foreign policy more generally, have offered scathing critiques of the rebranding of assassination as “targeted killing” and “just war” in places “outside areas of active hostilities” simultaneously (and illogically) deemed by the powers that be “battlefields” because of the perceived threat posed by some (usually a tiny fraction) of the residents. A few books have attempted unsuccessfully to defend the practice of remote-control killing (Brian Glyn Williams’ Predators: The CIA’s Drone War on al Qaeda [2013] leaps to mind), but books written by drone operators, sensors, and analysts themselves have been few in number, no doubt in part because the works must be vetted by military bureaucrats before publication.

PredatorCoverMartinMatthew J. Martin’s Predator: The Remote-control Air War over Iraq and Afghanistan (2010), offers eye-opening but extraordinarily disturbing insights into how the people who spend the best hours of the best years of their lives hunting down and incinerating human beings by remote control manage to sleep at night. I discuss Martin’s memoir in some detail in We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, especially in chapter 7, “The Operators,” and Chapter 8, “From Conscience to Oblivion.” Martin killed men in Iraq whom he repeatedly ridicules and refers to in his memoir as rodents:

“Insurgents were like having a house infested with rats; the more of them you killed, it seemed, the more they bred.” (Predator, p. 252)

Martin cultivated a palpable disdain for his targets, even while acknowledging that many of them were “angry poor people” incensed by the invasion and occupation of Iraq by the US military in 2003. At the same time, in diaphanous attempts to rationalize what he was doing, Martin compares himself to the US troops who traveled to France to save its people from the German occupation in the 1940s. In fact, a more nuanced consideration of the two cases (beyond “USA! USA!”) reveals the role of the US invaders of Iraq to be much closer to that of the Germans than to the US troops during World War II.

Drone Warrior opens provocatively, with the author, a drone program analyst, explaining that this memoir has been approved by the US military, which censored some parts prior to publication. To my mind, the most surprising omission is the section where Velicovich briefly describes his encounter with “Mr. White” (not his real name), a recruiter who persuades him to go behind “a black door”. Velicovich proceeds, with an air of mystery, to explain that he is not permitted by those vetting his work to reveal how it was that he was converted to the hunter/killer life. His inability to explain what happened to him cannot help but evoke memories of Jason Bourne’s induction into the class of assassins who kill on command—no questions asked.

Whatever may have happened (if it wasn’t illegal, why in the world should it be classified?), Velicovich accepted the invitation, and from there set off for life in “The Box,” where, fueled by a steady diet of Rip It® energy drinks and Frosted Flakes, he spent long days spying on potential terrorist suspects from afar. He developed “pattern of life” folders on the men he surveilled and, ultimately, gave “his” Delta operators the green light when “a bad guy” had been confirmed as such (found and fixed) by him and his drones. That 90% of his targets were, as he claims, captured rather than killed stretches credulity, to put it mildly, given the near absence of detainees taken prisoner under President Barack Obama during the later years when Velicovich plied this trade.

While working for President George W. Bush, Velicovich, like Matthew J. Martin, never seemed fully to grasp that the ever-intensifying insurgency in Iraq was a direct result of none other than the US troops’ presence, and especially their increasingly brutal raids, interrogations, and executions of persons, some of whom proved to be undeniably innocent—not even being identifiable as military-age males. Perhaps it was a combination of sleep deprivation and excessive consumption of energy drinks and sugar-coated cereal which induced in Velicovich an inability to grasp that many of the able-bodied Iraqi males deemed “fair game” by the US invaders wanted nothing more than for them to leave their land.

Disturbingly, as the occupation of Iraq was winding down, Velicovich and his buddies received an order from on high to eliminate as many people on their hit lists as swiftly as they could—a murderous form of “scorched earth”. This “green light” from (dare I say?) Corporate headquarters inspired something of a killing spree as the hunter-warriors attempted to wipe out “the enemy” while they still had the chance. Even while acknowledging that the military-age men being killed were community members—sons, husbands, fathers and brothers—Velicovich leapt at the chance to eliminate them, having convinced himself that they were “bad guys”.

What I find most interesting about this memoir is that Velicovich openly acknowledges the effect that living as a hunter of human beings had upon his mind, his body, his relationships and, ultimately, his life. He became obsessed with his targets, and when he returned to the United States after a prolonged period in “The Box” abroad, working grueling hours, suffering bouts of insomnia and sleep deprivation, and losing 40 lbs as a result, his girlfriend frankly informed him that he had changed:

“Your eyes, they don’t look the same,” she said. … “They’re like stones. They just sit there.” (Drone Warrior, p. 151)

Velicovich freely owns that as a result of his profession he stopped experiencing emotions at the news of anyone’s death, and his relationship with his girlfriend ultimately fell apart. While working an office job stateside, the analyst wanted to feel the same rush he got from hunting his targets, and he attempted to mimic it through online gambling, but with no success. Velicovich returned to “the battlefield,” this time in Somalia, having found life as a civilian too humdrum. One is certainly reminded here of Staff Sergeant William James, the lead protagonist (played by Jeremy Renner) of Kathryn Bigelow’s 2008 film, The Hurt Locker.

In Somalia, Velicovich shared his “expertise” with locals in a very different context and one in which he himself faced significant danger, given the reigning instability in that land and what he perhaps rightly portrays as an environment ripe for a “Black Hawk Down” redux. His new girlfriend is distressed that he should prefer the hunter-killer life over their relationship, and eventually he renounces his position, though he insists in this memoir that, if given the choice, he would do it all over again.

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The epilogue of Drone Warrior is not at all the paean to remote-control killing which one might have expected from a book lauded as “the definitive account of our nation’s capacity and capability for war in the modern age.” In fact, it reads more like a PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) infomercial. Velicovich, who became obsessed with his targets and returned to “the life” after having abandoned it once, finally decided to take a very different path. Inspired by animal rights activists in Kenya, he left the military and embarked on an entirely new career, establishing a company in which his prowess as a drone analyst can be used to stop poachers from destroying endangered species such as elephants and rhinos. Through this new venture, Velicovich appears to have achieved a kind of redemption, but in his own eyes, he is and always was one of the “good guys.” It surely takes some mental gymnastics to believe that elephants and rhinos have more significant rights to life than do human beings in a land under illegal occupation. (What did go on behind that black door?)

To be honest, I am somewhat surprised that this memoir was published, for the undeniable conclusion of the work—to anyone who makes it through the all-important epilogue—is that serving as a hunter-killer of human beings is not a tenable path to The Good Life. While deployed, and throughout his memoir, Velicovich takes great pains to to convince himself (as did Matthew J. Martin in Predator) that he is a worthy warrior doing what must be done. The bereft survivors of the raids and drone strikes carried out in Iraq on the basis of his analyses would no doubt beg to differ—particularly in cases where the “bad guy” in question was attempting only to defend his territory from the invaders.

At one point, Velicovich details his benevolent use of drones to help a doctor whose wife had been kidnapped by ISI (the Islamic State in Iraq—before it expanded into Syria). But he declines to offer details on any of the cases where “mistakes were made” and never consciously faces up to the cold, hard, and grisly truth: that had he and his comrades not been in Iraq, then ISI would never have morphed into what became its murderous and virulent form. Following the call of Al Qaeda, Muslim men did indeed flock to Iraq for the opportunity to kill the heathen invaders, but all that the US soldiers needed to do to prevent most of the locals from attempting to kill them was to leave.

The fact that Velicovich needed to find a new profession in order to rehydrate his human capacity to feel emotion strikes me as just as important as the testimony of apostate drone program personnel suffering from PTSD that this frenzy to maximize lethality and to make body counts the be-all and end-all of US foreign policy was a horrendous mistake from the very beginning. As drone killing spreads around the globe, with petty despots following the lead of the self-styled “beacon on the hill,” defining their political enemies as “evil” before summarily executing them with drone-delivered missiles, the normalization of assassination by the sole military superpower must be recognized for what it is: a tragedy for humankind and a hideous assault on not only democracy and the rule of law but also simple decency.

 

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US Drone Policy Goes from Bad to Worse: The Stimson Center Report 2018

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Every two years, the Stimson Center Task Force on U.S. Drone Policy, directed by Rachel Stohl, issues a pamphlet of recommendations to the U.S. government on the use of weaponized UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) or RPAs (remotely piloted aircraft). Over the course of the past six years, it has become all too clear that no one in the government actually reads these reports, and the tone of the latest installment in the series, “An Action Plan on U.S. Drone Policy: Recommendations for the Trump Administration,” understandably conveys frustration.

The first report, issued in 2014, seemed to be filled with optimism and congeniality, and the second report (actually called by the Task Force a “Report Card“), issued in 2016, offered a gentle admonition of the Obama administration for its failure to make its policies and practices transparent or to produce anything even approaching international norms for the use of the new technology.

Now the task force seems to have thrown caution to the wind, recognizing that the Trump administration could not care less what the Stimson Center has to say. Despite the failures of the Obama administration to heed most of the recommendations of the first report, as reflected in that administration’s poor “grades” in the second report, it has become increasingly clear that the Trump administration has no intention even of showing up for school: “U.S. drone policy under the Trump administration has thus far been defined by uncertainty coupled with less oversight and less transparency.”

Critics of the U.S. government’s drone program (myself included), have explained in meticulous detail how the entire institution of premeditated, intentional, extrajudicial assassination of persons (usually able-bodied Muslim males) suspected of possibly plotting possible future terrorist attacks–or simply being potentially capable of doing so–rests upon a lamentable framework of linguistic legerdemain. People may despise President Trump, but no one with any familiarity with the history of the use of lethal drones can deny that the “killing machine” is President Obama’s lasting legacy.

What is good about the 2018 Stimson Center report is that the authors explicitly articulate criticisms diplomatically skirted in the earlier reports, particularly the first one, which was produced under the guidance of a variety of industry and military experts and expressed general agreement with them that the use of lethal drones was morally and legally permissible.

Four years later, perhaps out of exasperation, the Stimson Center has finally decided to voice some serious objections to what has been going on for the past sixteen years. Consider these examples:

Currently, the U.S. drone program rests on indistinct frameworks and an approach to drone strikes based on U.S. exceptionalism. Ambiguity surrounding U.S. drone policy has contributed to enduring questions about the legality, efficacy, and legitimacy of the U.S. drone program.

This one is buried in a footnote (#1), but is noteworthy:

Although not included in this report, the lethal targeting of U.S. citizens is a critical aspect of this conversation. In 2014, the Obama administration released a Justice Department memo articulating its legal justification for targeting an American citizen abroad, Anwar al-Awlaki. The memo, released to the public following lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and The New York Times, argues that U.S. citizenship did not make Anwar al-Awlaki immune from the use of force abroad and that the killing of a U.S. citizen by the U.S. government is authorized by the law of war under a public authority exception to a U.S. statute prohibiting the foreign murder of U.S. nationals.

Or consider this zinger:

By requiring some connection to an imminent threat, a “near certainty” of the presence of the targeted subject, and no perceived risk of civilian casualties, the PPG [Presidential Policy Guidance] was at least intended to minimize civilian harm. Nevertheless, some elements of the PPG — such as the requirement that a threat be both continuing and imminent — seem inherently contradictory, and many critics of U.S. drone strikes have questioned whether strikes outside areas of active hostilities are lawful.

Another one:

The U.S. government’s refusal to release information about the targets of its drone attacks and the difficulty in accessing the locations where U.S. drone strikes have occurred have made it difficult for third parties to assess the legality of specific attacks.

While there is consensus that the United States is engaged in an armed conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, critics of U.S. policy and practice argue that U.S. drone strikes to conduct targeted killings outside these areas should be governed not by the law of armed conflict but by the stricter requirements of international human rights law, which permits killings of individuals only to prevent an imminent threat to life.

I am not sure why Syria is included in the list as a U.S. war zone, alongside Iraq and Afghanistan, but it is good to know that the Stimson Center is at least considering criticisms brushed aside by everyone in the government and given short shrift in the 2014 report. Better late than never. Perhaps they have been reading some of the critical books which have been rolling out in a steady stream since 2015?

Another possibility is that they no longer feel the need to hold back as they did during the Obama administration because, well, Trump is president. They may as well express all of their concerns so that at least they will seem to have been on the right side of history, even if no one in either administration took seriously anything they ever said. That may sound harsh, but I cannot help thinking that if the 2014 report had been less conciliatory, then perhaps it would have garnered more attention from the press, and there might have been some sort of public debate over the abysmal practice of assassination by remote control.

By now, euphemistically termed “targeted killing” is considered perfectly normal by nearly everyone (save radical book authors, antiwar activists, and libertarians), and rolling back Obama’s radical expansion of executive power will be all but impossible to effect, except, perhaps, if “The Resistance” somehow succeeds in removing Trump from office. But wait: then Mike Pence will be president! Does anyone truly believe that Pence would be more willing than Trump to cede power? No, it is the nature of power-seeking individuals (above all, politicians) to amass power until it is taken from them.

Given that “The Resistance” recently acquiesced in the bestowal upon Commander-in-Chief Trump of a $700+ billion defense budget, I don’t see the practice of drone assassination being curtailed anytime soon.  Particularly since the Pentagon produces projections for funding which extend ahead for the next twenty-five years, effectively locking in place what they have done and are doing, thereby ensuring that there will be even more of the same. As missile-equipped UAVs continue to be produced and distributed in a dizzying flurry, and more and more operators are trained to kill, enticed by lucrative salaries and benefits packages, the hit lists will grow longer as well. Given the nature of lethal creep, I predict that some of the unarmed military UAVs already hovering in US skies will be weaponized for use in the homeland. Recall the case of Micah Johnson, who was blown up by the Dallas police using an explosive-equipped robot.

So, yes, things have predictably gone from bad to worse, for lethal creep leads to further lethal creep, with no real end in sight. The 2018 Stimson Center report observes that the Trump administration is currently rolling back “restraints” and “guidelines” said to have been implemented during the Obama administration. Among the changes being considered are:

  1. Expanding the targets of armed strikes by eliminating the requirement that the person pose an “imminent threat,”

  2. Loosening the requirement of “near certainty” that the target is present at the time of the strike to a “reasonable certainty,” and

  3. Revising the process through which strike determinations are made by reducing senior policymaker involvement and oversight in such decisions and delegating more authority to operational commanders.

Hooah! MAGA! USA! USA!

In all seriousness, the Obama administration’s “restraints” were never anything more than an effort to quell criticism. Smile politely and gush about “just war theory,” and people will leave you alone, Obama learned from his targeted killing mentor, John Brennan. “Infeasibility of capture” was always a farce (see the cases of Anwar al-Awlaki and Osama bin Laden). And “near certainty”? Why don’t we ask Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto about that one? Or, for that matter: Abdulrahman al-Awlaki?

The fundamental point cannot be overstated: by redefining “imminent threat” as no longer requiring “immediacy” and asserting the right to kill anyone anywhere deemed dangerous by a secretive committee of bureaucrats using deliberations conducted behind closed doors and never shared with the public (invoking State Secrets Privilege), the Obama administration paved the way to the latest slide down a slippery slope to even more wanton state homicide.

During the first two years of Trump’s presidency, Obama has been reveling in portrayals of himself as some sort of saint by “The Resistance” and the adoration of throngs of people who find him dignified and “presidential” next to his successor. But Obama’s own erection of a U.S. killing machine, and normalization of the insidious policy of summary execution by lethal drone outside areas of active hostilities, even of U.S. citizens, will haunt humanity for decades to come.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Trump hugs a U.S. flag as he takes the stage for a campaign town hall meeting in Derry

 

Drone (2017): Are private contractors killing people using drones at the request of the CIA?

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It’s probably about time for film makers to stop naming their critiques of drone warfare Drone. But that’s just a quibble—more a piece of practical advice than a substantive criticism. This latest installment in the “movies called Drone” series is directed by Jason Bourque and manages to offer some new twists on the many trenchant works created by thinking people appalled by the “lethal turn” in US foreign policy since September 11, 2001.

Assassination has been normalized as a standard operating procedure, a feat accomplished not by President Trump but by his predecessor, Barack Obama, whose administration mounted and implemented a complex bureaucratic institution of intentional, premeditated homicide of persons (usually of color) who are either suspected of complicity in terrorism, or suspected of association with persons suspected of complicity in terrorism. That’s right: the people being intentionally killed under the auspices of the US drone program outside areas of active hostilities fall into one of two categories: guilty until proven innocent, or guilty by association of being guilty until proven innocent.

Nearly all of the victims of drone strikes have been brown-skinned and of Muslim origin. It’s really quite astonishing that the first black US president could preside over such a flagrant program of racial profiling, which denies persons of color not only their right to life but also their rights to defend themselves against the charge that they deserve to die, without indictment much less trial, for hypothetical crimes to which only the killers are privy. One can only hope that future historians will be suitably shocked by the total discombobulation of Western administrators in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

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In Drone (2017), a recent film version of the We Kill Because We Can story, many aspects of the US killing machine and how it has been used throughout much of the twenty-first century are highlighted, in the hope of provoking the viewer to reflect upon the significance of a paradigm of war which, despite being not only morally and legally, but also strategically dubious, has come to be accepted by Western politicians and their voting constituents alike.

Sure, the drone warriors have managed to incinerate thousands of persons, mostly of unknown identity, but what have they really accomplished, beyond mass homicide and the enrichment of war profiteers? The Middle East is in shambles, Al Qaeda franchises have spored and spread, and the United States is fighting wars in at least seven different lands, while threatening others in various ways. Any sober assessment of US foreign policy over the past seventeen years can only conclude that the Global War on Terror (GWOT) has been an unmitigated failure. The primary tool of GWOT has been none other than the weaponized drone, which helped to usher in an era of executive war (formerly known as monarchic depredation, or tyranny) by allowing leaders both to wage war and deny that they are engaged in war at the same time and in the same place (for more on this, see the Libya intervention of 2011—or the bombing of Syria in 2018).

NotFlourishingThe drone operators whom we have learned about in a variety of films, not only in documentaries such as National Bird (2015) and Drone (2014), but also in works of fiction based on reality, such as Good Kill (2015) and Drone Strike (2013), have for the most part been young people recruited right out of high school or in their early twenties. In Drone (2017), however, the central protagonist, Neil Wistin, is a middle-aged man with a teenage son who spends a good deal of time playing hunt-and-kill video games and would in fact be a prime candidate for recruitment into the military as a drone operator. Instead, it’s his dad who spends his days stalking and snuffing out “bad guys” located on the other side of the planet. Wistin, a civilian, works as a contract killer for the CIA. He is not a soldier; he is an assassin. He is paid to eliminate persons nominated to kill lists by other private contractors based on circumstantial evidence (aka SIGINT) and bribed hearsay (aka HUMINT). His family has believed for years that he works in IT for a nonexistent company, but they eventually come to learn that Wistin spends his days not programming but hunting down and killing human beings in Pakistan at the behest of the CIA.

Along with the intended targets, Wistin has killed some unintended targets, which he and his co-workers perfunctorily label “collateral damage”. But the notion of collateral damage, dubious enough as it is, cannot truly be said to apply to cases of assassination. And no, it does not matter in the least that the implement of homicide is a military weapon. For in genuine combat contexts, where the lives of soldiers on the ground are at stake, collateral damage is said to be permissible because it is unavoidable, given military exigencies. The use of the category of “collateral damage” to excuse the people being mistakenly killed by weaponized drones outside areas of active hostilities is tantamount to asserting the right to kill anyone, anywhere, at any time, for whatever reasons the killers themselves deem sufficient. It is also a categorical denial of human rights.

The utter lawlessness of this paradigm will become more and more apparent as lethal drones spread around the globe and are used by leaders according to their discretion and caprice after kill committee meetings conducted behind closed doors and with neither transparency nor due process, following the example of mentor governments Israel and the United States. The drone killers act with complete impunity, for they are physically protected by their geographic distance from the places they fire on, and the secrecy of the program ensures that they remain anonymous, not only to their victims, but also to their family members and friends, as in the case of private contractor Wistin, who essentially leads a double life like any regular spy.

But is it really true that there are private contractors serving as drone operators and firing missiles upon people? If there were, we would not be told, for the citizens paying for this institution of death know as little as possible about the facts on the ground and the inner workings of the killing machine. This carefully maintained state of ignorance among the very people paying for the drone program is rationalized under State Secrets Privilege.

In a series of carefully plotted scenes, Drone (2017), like other films produced on this controversial topic in recent years, illuminates some of the lesser known and morally unsavory aspects of what has been going on:

  • Wounded survivors of initial strikes are taken out in double tap strikes, what can only be a violation of the Geneva Conventions. Of course the “quaint” idea that unarmed persons may not be summarily executed is ignored in the first strikes as well.

  • Persons are being spied on as though they had no rights or dignity whatsoever—whether or not they are suspected of terrorism.

  • The persons left bereft after strikes mourn the loss of their loved ones, who were, in reality, fathers, brothers, sons and, in the case of collateral damage victims not even suspected of complicity in terrorism: altogether innocuous women and children.

  • The killers are themselves never at risk of death when they fire on targets thousands of miles away, rendering dubious the rationalization used by combat soldiers throughout the history of warfare: that they must kill or else be killed.

  • The rebranding of assassination as targeted killing in warfare (dismissing innocent victims as collateral damage) but not really warfare (when it comes to oversight and congressional mandate) makes it nearly impossible for the citizens paying for this institution of premeditated homicide to understand what is going on. They are told that this is all a matter of national defense, and naturally throw their support behind anything carrying that label.

  • The military-age men killed—whether intentionally or unintentionally—are assumed to be terrorists, while the cases of collateral damage killing of women and children are systematically denied as “unconfirmed”, when not outright dismissed as terrorist propaganda.

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These features of the drone program are variously highlighted in the film when a Pakistani businessman, Imir Shaw, whose wife and daughter were destroyed by a drone strike, travels to the United States to confront their killer. The unsavory truths being conveyed in Drone (2017) are easily verified, but the specific scenario devised to press these points is highly implausible for a variety of reasons. First, the Trump administration immigration gatekeepers would be unlikely to admit through the golden arches a military-aged male from Pakistan. Second, the man manages to locate his wife and daughter’s killer through hacking into the drone intelligence network, which, while possible, would be very difficult. Third, the layers of secrecy used to protect the perpetrators, including the very use of private contractors, makes it not at all obvious how such a victim could identify the precise person who pushed the button in any given case. The use of private military companies in the real-life drone program—if not in the acts of killing, at least in the generation of kill lists—makes it improbable that the name of the killers of any given victim will ever be revealed, even if the system is hacked (which is far more likely to be done by a whistleblower within the system than an outsider), and information is shared via an outlet such as Wikileaks.

DeathDinnerBut Drone (2017) is a work of fiction, which admirably attempts to reveal what is invisible to people in the West: the reality of the drone program for the victims and their bereft survivors. The story explores what could happen if one of the grieving victims ever encountered the person physically responsible for his grief. Imir Shaw shows up at Neil Wistin’s home, feigning interest in the boat with a “for sale” sign in the driveway. He then proceeds to befriend the Wistin family, having been invited to stay for dinner, before explaining that his own family, a wife and daughter, were destroyed by a US drone. As the evening progresses, the conversation becomes strained when Shaw and Wistin begin to wrangle over the US drone program and the war on terror. Ultimately, the Pakistani dinner guest spills his guts, explaining that it was Wistin himself who killed Shaw’s wife and daughter.

Shaw also informs Wistin that his wife has been having an affair, which he has learned by spying on her prior to the visit, and that the wife and son have no idea what it is that Wistin does for a living. By pretending that his briefcase contains a bomb which he plans to detonate right there and then, Shaw ultimately drives Wistin to attempt to save his wife and son, which culminates in Shaw’s death.

DinnerDroneViewIn some ways, this is a disappointing turn in the story, for it follows the standard Hollywood template according to which the Americans always prevail. But the twist here is that Wistin finally undergoes a conversion to become a whistleblower and make public the true workings of the drone program, including the use of private contractors as assassins. Drone (2017) ably predicts what would in all likelihood be the administration’s response to such a “defection”, which is to denounce Wistin as a traitor, along the lines of the whistleblowers tried and convicted of crimes under the Espionage Act in recent years.

The first half of Drone (2017) runs very slowly and seems a bit meandering, but serves to set the stage for the second half, which becomes more and more suspenseful as the viewer is drawn into the tense conflict between the American drone operator and the grief-stricken Pakistani man. The admittedly heavy-handed points made as the rather contrived plot unfolds are nonetheless important and need to be stressed, which is why I would like to see more people watch this film, despite its cinematic flaws. For the creators of this film are absolutely right about this: Until US taxpayers come to understand the reality of what they are funding under the label of “national defense”, these sorts of abominable crimes will continue to be committed.

The fact that the drone program has been so thoroughly shrouded in secrecy is not, as its administrators claim, itself a matter of national defense, but a means by which to secure compliance when, if presented with the facts, many proponents of drone warfare would withdraw their support. In the case of the US government’s killing machine, the American people have been hoodwinked to the point of coercion, which has undermined the democratic basis for the government’s alleged authority to act on their behalf. The apparent support of a policy or practice which is garnered through the use of deception willfully intended to sow ignorance is devoid of any legitimacy whatsoever. Nearly everyone opposes murder and supports justice, so when people are told by government officials that acts of murder are not acts of murder but instead “just war”, they have been horribly duped, no less than the drone operators seduced to enlist in the military using mythic images of the “noble warrior”, when in fact they will be transformed into contract killers.

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Notes on a Prophetic Film: Robocop (1987)

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Having seen the 2014 remake before the original Robocop (1987), I was anxious to find out why some reviewers are so adamant that the earlier version is vastly superior. Of course, that is often the case for movie remakes, and I never cease to be amazed when directors take it upon themselves to attempt to improve upon already excellent films, given that they are essentially setting themselves up for critical failure. As for Robocop, I myself find that both the 1987 and the 2014 version are worth watching and have distinct virtues, offering as they do slightly different takes on the militarization and automation of policing currently underway in the real world.

What is remarkable about the original Robocop, directed by Paul Verhoeven, is that it portrays as science fiction what has largely come to pass in reality. The Drone Age was well underway by 2014, but in 1987, people weren’t even using the internet, much less signing up to become remote-control assassins under the aegis of the US military. In 2014, robotic technology, mass surveillance and the use of facial recognition programs to pinpoint the location of suspects were also a matter of common knowledge. At the time of the release of the first Robocop, in contrast, such capacities were known about only by those privy to the arcane activities of DARPA’s inner sanctum. And of course readers of science fiction, from which many of the latest and most lethal innovations may ultimately derive, given that there appear to be intelligence community analysts whose job it is to read everything that has ever been published (as in Three Days of the Condor).

The popular success of both versions of Robocop is most likely due to the fact that, on the most obvious level, they are clear-cut examples of the action genre, featuring easily identifiable heroes and villains, and showcasing the typical Manichean quest between good and evil, highly embellished with fighting and killing and bloodshed and car crashes all along the way. In the 1987 version, we are to sympathize with Alex Murphy, the good cop, and his spunky female sidekick, Anne Lewis, because they are obviously good people who want nothing more than to stop crime and track down the perpetrators of past transgressions so that they can be thrown into prison where they so clearly belong. But what makes both of these films much more than typical (and forgettable) action flicks is the presentation in each of a complex network of corruption, which includes not only the lawless lowlife scoundrels out in the streets but also the white collar establishment in cahoots with organized crime. For the philosophically inclined, these films also raise many questions about the moral status of human beings and the nature of personhood.

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Thefts and homicides have spiraled out of control in old Detroit, and the city management has decided to privatize and revolutionize the police force, by replacing many human officers with robotic surrogates. Such an idea may have seemed farfetched throughout much of the twentieth century, but that this should eventually come to pass seems today rather predictable for some of the very same reasons that automation is causing the disappearance of many other professions. You can be replaced by a machine is no longer a humorous trope but a literal truth, at least insofar as vocations are concerned. In the relentless quest to cut costs in order to grow profit margins, the most expensive element in corporate networks remains the human factor. What company executive beholden to stockholders wants to foot the bill for health and retirement benefits, sick and maternity leave, and annual vacations, plus satisfy all of the other annoying demands made by human employees? More importantly, why do any of those things, if they can be altogether avoided? You can and will be replaced by a machine. It’s only a matter of time…

Somewhat ironically, developers of artificial intelligence have been working overtime to see to it that many if not most professions (theirs included!) can be better and more efficiently carried out by machines using automated processes. How the people formerly employed in those professions will be able to afford to live remains to be seen. Optimists maintain that with new technologies will come new industries, but it is becoming less and less clear how hordes of delivery persons and bus and taxi drivers (and Uber drivers who became the equivalent of taxi drivers for lack of better opportunities) will find gainful employment in the not-too-distant future, as automatic vehicles take over the streets and drones hover above in the sky. There’s also the poignant story of the employees of the already ailing brick-and-mortar retail sector, who were revealed to be next in line for unemployment by the recent Amazon-Go experiment. Yes, a handful of managers and administrators will always be needed, but where will all the workers go? These sorts of concerns appear to have reinvigorated the “universal basic income” movement, but that’s another story.

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In Robocop, order will need somehow to be maintained in Delta City as it is constructed from the scrappy remains of destitute Detroit by a huge influx of workers. With these new residents on their way, the city administrators have turned crime management over to a private company, Omni Consumer Products (OCP), an Amazon-meets-Halliburton-meets-Blackwaterlike entity, which will be supplementing the police force with robots. The plan is touted by its marketers as a stroke of genius, for robots, unlike human beings, never suffer fatigue, succumb to emotions, or waver from their mission (well, except in 2001: A Space Odyssey).

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ED209Unfortunately, the very first fully robotic police officer template, the ED-209 enforcement droid, malfunctions during its unveiling demonstration at a board meeting, brutally slaughtering one of the company employees. The CEO waves off the incident as a “glitch”, and one of his underlings avails himself of this propitious opportunity to pitch to the president a different sort of prototype, a cyborg, which he was enlisted to develop as a back-up plan because of the looming delivery deadline ahead.

The cyborg is created from the remains of Officer Murphy, whose body was mutilated beyond repair by a gang of thugs, though his brain was still salvageable. The brain of this human being is reprogrammed and enhanced as a synchable computer before being attached to a robotic body. This cyborg “officer” is conceived by its creators not as a person but as a product. Despite having Murphy’s brain, Robocop is regarded by company executives as a machine to do with as they please. (This point is underscored by the fact that the manager in charge, upon learning that one of Murphy’s arms was saved, orders that it be replaced by a prosthetic limb, so that all of Robocop’s body parts will be fully robotic.) Murphy was pronounced dead, so no one not involved in the project has any idea, at least not initially, that Robocop is anything but a machine.

Robocop1987posterAnother glitch arises with this new prototype, however, for Murphy’s brain was not wiped clean of all memories. He awakens abruptly from a dream in which he has accessed images of the scoundrels who viciously attacked him and left him for dead. Murphy goes rogue and sets out for revenge, which is really a quest for justice in this Manichean tale, since he has been wronged and the scoundrels are indeed guilty of heinous crimes. Along the way, Robocop/Officer Murphy discovers that not all of the apparently “good guys” involved in law enforcement are good guys. Dick Jones, the CEO of OCP, is in fact protecting Murphy’s own murderer, Clarence Boddicker, who is the leader of a sprawling underworld criminal gang responsible for the deaths of many Detroit police officers.

 

The Drone Angle

There is no point in relaying the bloody details of this hyperviolent film, which includes all of the standard fare sought by amateurs of the action movie genre, including fight scenes, crash scenes, explosions, shoot-outs, etc. I would like, instead, to point out two features pertinent to the Drone Age which may not have seemed salient to most viewers, whether they watched the film upon its release (long before the dawning of the Drone Age) or more recently.

First off, the idea that criminals should be executed rather than captured and made to stand trial for their alleged infractions is simply assumed in scenes such as the bust up of a large illicit drug laboratory. Murphy is on a personal quest to hunt down Clarence Boddicker and his crew, but along the way, he slaughters countless individuals who happen to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. The assumption, of course, is that all of the people being executed by Murphy are “bad guys”. It is worth pointing out, however, that, because Robocop Murphy is not vulnerable to harm from any of the criminals wielding ordinary firearms, it is never an act of self-defense when he fires directly upon them with the express intention of killing them. These people cannot actually harm him, yet he executes them nonetheless.

This manifestation of what I call “lethal creep” is interesting to see in a film from 1987, for it presaged what is happening in the Drone Age on “battlefields” designated as such by those who run the drone program outside areas of active hostilities. People located thousands of miles away and who have no capacity whatsoever to harm the personnel targeting them are being slaughtered under the assumption that they are guilty of whatever a group of analysts have concluded through secretive deliberations that they may have done or, more preposterously, are possibly planning to do.

Thousands of other young, mostly Muslim, men outside areas of active hostilities have also been killed by the US government with absolute impunity for their apparent association with—or proximity to—persons suspected of complicity in terrorism. The danger of such an idea, that suspicious persons and their associates, all of whom are incapable of harming their eventual killers, should be annihilated nonetheless, because it is thought by someone somewhere that the world will be better without them, leaves the question of who may live and who deserves to die entirely to the discretion of those managing the remote-control killers. Under cover of State Secrets Privilege, all “nominations” to kill lists are carried out behind closed doors.

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In Robocop, the viewer knows that Boddicker’s gang of degenerates have already murdered many people and can be expected to murder many more, if they are not stopped. But the assumption in killing, not only those gang members, but also everyone else present at the drug laboratory (many of whom are probably not murderers), is that homicide is a perfectly reasonable way to prevent future crime. The Robocop police officer is wiping out all of these suspects not because they pose any immediate danger to anyone, least of all to him—built as he is of Kevlar-coated titanium—but simply because he can. We Kill Because We Can.

The parallel to the drone strike case is worth making a bit more explicit. When hellfire missiles miss their intended targets, killing innocent civilians instead of the persons suspected of complicity in terrorism (sometimes past, but usually future), the deaths are written off as “collateral damage”. In regular combat warfare, the deaths of innocent people are said to be regrettable but unavoidable, given present military exigencies. In the case of drone warfare outside areas of active hostilities, where force protection is not at issue, the same logic is nonetheless assumed to hold: that this “collateral damage” is unavoidable. But just as Officer Murphy is not killing in literal self-defense adversaries armed only with regular guns, there is no analogous military necessity at the time of drone strike deaths outside areas of active hostilities, for there are no soldiers on the ground requiring protection by the drone. This slippery slope of redefining assassination as targeted killing in order to permit “collateral damage” outside areas of active hostilities has made the US killing machine far more lethal than it would have been, were the use of military force restricted to regular war contexts.

Remarkably, Robocop succeeds in conveying a second, and equally frightening danger inherent to the drone program. For the inevitable presence of corrupt elements in the establishment (given human nature) itself implies that these tools of summary execution, whether drones or droids, can be used to rout out not only persons likely to commit murder in the future, but also those who pose a very different kind of danger, and only to those in power. Whistleblowers working within these systems can be facilely eliminated using this technology, given its associated culture of secrecy and lack of transparency and due process, as can outsiders who dare to pose questions about what those in power are doing.

The lethal turn occasioned by the Drone Age, the quest to kill as many suspects as possible in order to prove to lawmakers and the populace that they are being kept safe, will eventually come back to haunt citizens, at least any who dare to pose uncomfortable questions or to expose graft within their own society’s government. None of this bodes well for the future of democracy, and Robocop (1987) is prophetic for having pointed out the potential for such abuses.

 

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Trump administration to ease restrictions on military drone exports–what does it mean?

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For some time now, military advisors to President Trump have been floating the idea that the exportation of military drones should be stepped up in order to keep the United States “in the game”, so to speak. Obviously, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are part of a growth industry, with drones of all shapes and sizes being produced and sold to people all over the world.

Under Obama, lethal drone exports were strictly limited in accordance with what is perhaps best characterized as a policy of American Exceptionalism: Do as we say, not as we do. The technology has been spreading nonetheless all over the globe, with both China and Israel as major players ready and willing to furnish drones to countries not on Obama’s very short list of trustworthy customers. The Obama administration approach was to operate with a presumption against the exportation of lethal drones, but governments seeking this technology no longer need the United States to acquire it. To suppose that lethal drones would not eventually be hovering all over the globe, with or without the blessing of the executive branch of the US government, was shortsighted, to put it mildly. The dangerous precedent was set by the US government itself for the use of drones in wars on “battlefields” paradoxically “outside areas of active hostilities”, and now we can expect to see the true globalization of remote-control killing, across all borders, as lethal creep seeps into the protocol of governments large and small, democratic and monarchic alike.

MadDogMattisOne of the figures promoting the expansion of drone exports has been, predictably, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who, like so many other influential advisors to the president, has financial incentives for seeing to it that this facet of US military industry flourish. Initial indications suggest that the exports will be primarily of surveillance, not weaponized drones, but it is the very nature of a drone to be modular, so lethal delivery systems can be snapped on facilely by the customer. Needless to say, there will be no way to control how these machines are deployed by the end user, and at some point, the thin edge of the wedge will become the thickest, with untrammeled exports of fully weaponized drones as the norm–the argument being, again, that “if we don’t provide the lethal add-on, some other country will.” No one sells guns without ammunition and it seems predictable that drones will be regularly produced and shipped prêt-à-tuer in the not-too-distant future, given that the weaponized drone has already been successfully marketed as a tool of “smart war” in both the United States and the United Kingdom.

DavidCameronDroneFormer US president Barack Obama and former UK prime minister David Cameron intentionally and premeditatedly hunted down and killed their own compatriots in acts of summary execution without indictment, much less trial. What reason can there be for believing that other political leaders will not also follow suit? If two of the most stable democratic governments on the planet have opted to substitute assassination for judicial process, why would the leaders of nondemocratic nations not take this as a license to kill anyone whom they perceive to be threats?

People who see lethal drones as a growth industry are right: the market potential has only just begun. Who knew that Western democracies would revert to pre-Magna Carta times in their desperation to stem the tide of terrorism? That the use of this tactic, the summary execution without trial of suspects, along with whoever happens to be at their side, has failed spectacularly is evidenced by the very fact that the Global War on Terror (GWOT) continues to expand as terrorists proliferate and move to new places, sometimes seeking refuge in the West–which is of course the safest place for them to hide out at this point in history. Certainly jihadists concerned to retaliate to lethal drones hovering above their own neighborhoods in homelands in the Middle East have prudential reasons to pitch a tent somewhere else.

The move to increase drone exports undoubtedly appeals to Trump, not because he himself is in cahoots with the lethal drone industry (at least not to my knowledge), but because he proudly proclaims that his primary mission is to Make America Great Again. Being first and foremost a businessman, Trump naturally measures “greatness” in economic terms. This explains why he has been exporting military weapons and technologies in a dizzying flurry all over the world, especially to the Middle East, but also to Southeast Asia. President Obama had set new records for military exports to Saudi Arabia but Trump, never to be outshined by Obama, has taken weapons exports to a whole new level.

It is possible that Trump’s unabashed quest to out-do Obama on all fronts is a motivating factor in his increased use of lethal drones, the proliferation of hunt and kill missions, and also the decision to ramp up all military exports, including drones. I am inclined, however, to interpret all of this as following from Trump’s monolithic desire to make America economically great again.  The more of these “tools” which are expended, whether in military missions abroad or in exports to other governments, the more there will be a perceived need to produce even more of them, using American capital and American labor. Greater production of weapons by Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and the many other American firms whose wealth derives from the sale of implements of mass homicide will mean more profits. It seems safe to say that Trump does care more about the nation’s economic well-being than the fact that the number one US export has become, sad to say: death. But Trump’s heartfelt desire to revive the US steel industry and, ultimately the US economy, is merely aided by his massive increases in weapons exports. The end justifies the means. Let the missiles fall where they may.

The way was paved for Trump’s increase in military drone exports by the resplendent success on the part of the previous administration in normalizing assassination and, remarkably, convincing people to believe that drone operators may in fact commit what would obviously be war crimes, if perpetrated by uniformed soldiers on the ground. For drones are used to kill suspects without providing them with the opportunity to surrender, even when they are unarmed and not threatening anyone with death, least of all the drone operator incinerating the target. As much as Trump detractors would like to blame the current president for the marked increase in drone-perpetrated carnage to come, the formidable feat of normalizing assassination was accomplished not by Donald Trump, but by Barack Obama. This was a landmark, paradigm-shifting, even revolutionary, rebranding of assassination as targeted killing, said to constitute perfectly legitimate warfare.

No one should be surprised that, like US politicians, foreign leaders find lethal drone technology to be highly seductive. Targeted killing has proven easy to sell. More and more leaders will likely follow the US example, by insisting that lethal drones save the lives of compatriots, and obviate the need to sacrifice soldiers. But unscrupulous politicians and the leaders of nations where democracy has yet to take hold can use the very same rationalizations for killing suspects as did their mentors: political dissidents will be denounced as intrinsically evil terrorists and therefore fair game for summary execution.

The myopia of the Obama administration in normalizing assassination without thinking through what were sure to be the ultimate consequences of insisting that the executive branch of a government has the right, in national self-defense, to execute suspects where and when it pleases, will emerge clearly in the years to come. For now, it seems safe to say that “strike first, suppress questions later” will characterize the approach to dissidents by more and more political leaders, all over the globe, thanks to the nearly boundless potential for profits in the death industry. The use of lethal drones to assassinate suspects will be limited only by the imaginations of politicians as they decide, behind closed doors, who does and who does not deserve to be extinguished by remote control.

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