Navigating the Christine Fair-Glenn Greenwald “Debate” on Al Jazeera, or: Why I Wrote We Kill Because We Can


Having seen so many mentions of the recent exchange between Christine Fair, an assistant professor of security studies at Georgetown University, and Glenn Greenwald, the founder of The Intercept, I decided to give it a listen. To be honest, most of the broadcast struck me as more of a pissing contest than a debate. The opening question posed by the moderator was this: “Do drone strikes create more terrorists than they kill?

Greenwald, invoking the recently released Drone Papers, including documents which indicate that 9 out of 10 persons killed over a five-month period by lethal drones in Afghanistan were not the intended targets, pointed to what he took to be the obvious effect of killing so many innocent people: to fuel terrorism. Fair, for her part, protested vehemently to the characterization of the persons slain as innocent. According to her research, the people being killed are primarily militants. She also insisted that Pakistan is not Afghanistan is not Yemen and that it is a mistake to conflate the various contexts where drone strikes have been carried out.

What is funny about disputes over statistics on first-order collateral damage—civilian body count—is that they do not typically scratch the surface of the fundamental moral and political problems with targeted killing. Greenwald did identify drone killing as a form of terrorism and spoke of the rage among locals in communities where strikes have been carried out. But the focus of these sorts of altercations is typically the proportion of persons killed by drone strikes who were civilians.

Greenwald assumes that the nontargets killed were innocent, though they are classified in the documents as EKIA or “enemy killed in action”. Fair essentially agrees with the US government’s retroactive classification of the persons unintentionally killed as unlawful combatants and therefore fair game for annihilation. This approach depends on a very broad conception of “associates” as virtually anyone who may be brushing elbows with persons deemed suspicious by drone program analysts.

Needless to say, I am inclined to agree with Greenwald. However, I feel that focusing on the statistics of people killed with lethal drones distracts attention from the much larger and more profound problems with the drone killing program. It is true that Greenwald asserted that terrorists are created by drone strikes, given that new recruits react specifically to the slaughter of innocent people. In support of his position, he cited published reports and statements by US military officials.

We certainly have an abundance of testimony from jihadists themselves about what they are doing and why. Why the US government has persisted in ignoring the testimony of Al Qaeda spokespersons—from Osama bin Laden up to the present day—remains unclear. Surely people who take up arms have reasons for doing so, yet slogans such as that “They hate us because of our freedom” continue to be parroted by politicians with little if any heed paid to the words of jihadists themselves.

Greenwald also took issue with drone killing from a judicial perspective, as the summary execution without trial of persons denied the right to defend themselves. Because these people are killed with missiles, rather than poisons or pistols or strangulation wires, the self-styled drone warriors are unmoved by such concerns. Indeed, administration lawyers drew up the lengthy White Paper precisely in order to explain why what the US government had already decided to do—to kill US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki—was in fact just and permitted under US and international law. Whether the document succeeded in its quest is a matter of dispute, but drone program supporters invariably defer to the legal experts working for the US government, rather than figures such as UN special rapporteurs Philip Alston and Christof Heyns, also attorneys, who issued reports in 2010 and 2013, respectively, contesting the legality of drone strikes under international law.

Little attention was paid in this exchange between Christine Fair and Glenn Greenwald to the trauma and degradation of the quality of life of the people living under drones. Fair rejected Greenwald’s assertion that the people of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan oppose drone strikes. She dismissed the appeal made by Malala Yousafzai to President Obama, saying that the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate had never visited FATA and did not know what she was talking about. Fair also insisted that all of the reports by Reprieve and related groups, in addition to the testimony of US military officers, were either advocacy or opinion. Does being a defender of human rights mean that Reprieve cannot collect data? Surely not. By the same argument, Fair, who reportedly has received hefty government grants for her work, would be disqualified for being a US government “advocate”.

Somewhat bizarrely, Christine Fair’s most unequivocal assertion on the polling data ended up being a profession of skepticism: that the many published polls are untrustworthy and ultimately we cannot know what to conclude, because hardly anyone has journeyed into the dangerous FATA territory, and most of the people polled do not answer the questions being asked anyway. She proceeded from there simply to assume that the official story is the best account we have of what is going on in FATA.

Near the end of the short program, in a surprise—and welcome—turn to civil discourse, Fair expressed a view with which Greenwald wholeheartedly concurred: that the drone program is primarily being used to remove local militants with no international aspirations to attack the people of the United States. Fair and Greenwald appeared to agree on the most disturbing political problem with lethal drones: that by collaborating with the United States, central government authorities are able to eliminate their rivals by characterizing them as “terrorists” and taking them out—going far beyond the authority granted to the US president by congress in the original AUMF (Authorization of Use of Military Force) in 2001. Why, then, does Fair continue to offer vocal support to the drone program?

Having found at least some common ground, what is really needed now to adjudicate the heated dispute between lethal drone advocates and opponents is not more polls and infinitely contestable empirical data, but an examination into the inner workings, the logic, of the drone program. Are drone proponents prepared to move beyond shouting matches about opinion polls and statistics? Are they ready to consider the morality of drone killing and what this practice logically implies? Will they finally acknowledge that long-term cultural and political costs must be considered along with short-term tactical benefits? Presenting lethal drone enthusiasts with more and more data from NGO reports and quotes from military experts has clearly not diminished their faith in targeted killing as a form of “smart war”, a view shared by much of the populace and nearly all politicians as well.

The Drone Papers were not so much a revelation as a confirmation of what had already been reported by various other sources. It’s helpful to have documents backing up the now familiar (and unsettling) fact that the unnamed men of military age (from about 16 to 50 years old) killed by lethal drones—whether in signature strikes or crowd killing or TADS or simply by mistake—are indeed being written into history by US officials as having been justly killed. Now we need to move forward and investigate the nature and basis of these people’s dissidence and militancy.

Throughout the twenty-first century, terrorists, insurgents, and militants have been conflated, as though these categories were interchangeable. Many of the men killed in Afghanistan and Iraq after the US invasions regarded themselves as defending their homeland from the foreign occupiers. In considering the use of lethal drones in places such as Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Syria, we need seriously to entertain the possibility that some of the men being slaughtered might very well be closer to Nelson Mandela than to Osama bin Laden.

For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, Chapter 4: Lethal Creep; Chapter 9: Death and Politics; and Conclusion