For years now, the Obama administration has been following in the grand tradition of the George W. Bush administration by giving old words and expressions new meanings and basing institutional killing policy upon their neologisms and redefinitions. Bush got the ball rolling with offense = defense, but Obama has gone above and beyond the call of propaganda duty:
- imminent no longer implies immediacy. Imminent really means potential.
- combatants are military-age males located in hostile territories. Combatants need not bear arms, and need not pose any direct threat to the life of any human being when they are killed. They may be killed when the “opportunity” arises, because
- last resort now means feasible
- hostile territories are places where the US government may kill unarmed persons with impunity because of the infeasibility of capture, which usually translates as “not worth the trouble and expense”. In special cases (Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki), infeasibility of capture really means that “death is the preferred outcome”. Hostile territories need not be declared war zones, but they are the new battlefields.
- battlefields are the places at which the US government (CIA or DoD) has decided to launch missiles from weaponized drones lurking and stalking above where suspected militants are said to hide.
- suspected militants become terrorists upon their execution by the US government, unless they happen to be Western hostages, in which case the president himself will issue a public apology to the families of the victims and send them a large bag of money so that they will “let bygones be bygones”, in other words: shut up.
- acts of war need not be carried out by military personnel. Acts of war may be carried out by intelligence agents or private contractors (formerly known as mercenaries).
- All covert actions are now acts of war, but because they are still covert, there is no need to disclose to the public any of the gory details. Three magical words are all that are needed:
- State Secrets Privilege, which means that the US government can do whatever it wants to whomever it wants for whatever reasons it deems sufficient. CIA Director John Brennan said it best: “What we need to do is optimize transparency on these issues and at the same time optimize secrecy”. So the “transparency” part is where we are (transparently) told that all information is privileged and therefore secret, and need not be shared with any citizen, not even the bereft survivors of tragic targeting errors.
Near certainty is the epistemic standard which must be met before carrying out a drone strike, according to President Obama in a speech delivered on May 23, 2013. There must be near certainty that no civilians are present before a missile is launched at the intended target. One way to achieve that lofty aim is to reason as follows:
- All military-age males in hostile territories are unlawful combatants incapable of surrender, because they are metaphysical terrorists who may be dispatched en masse in cost-effective (!) crowd killing.
- In a signature strike, a target’s actions reflect a disposition matrix of known terrorist behavior patterns. Every savvy analyst affirms that men who bear arms in remote tribal regions = terrorists. And a fortiori when they are Arabs.
In reality, the US government regularly kills people without having the slightest idea who they are, as was demonstrated in April 2015 when two hostages were slain along with a group of suspected terrorists. Therefore, in Obama-speak:
- near certainty means absolute uncertainty.
George Orwell must be turning over in his grave.
For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age (the whole book).