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.
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