The vast majority of the bereft survivors of US drone strikes are never acknowledged. On rare occasions, the US government has attempted to offer money to compensate for the loss of innocent life. When it became undeniable that harmless civilians were annihilated en route to a wedding in Yemen on December 12, 2013, $800,000 was delivered anonymously to the bereft survivors. Faisal bin Ali Jaber, two of whose family members were destroyed in a separate strike, also in Yemen, describes the $100,000 which he was given as “blood money”. The intention is clear: to admit without admitting that these people have been wronged and hope that through this gesture they will be persuaded not to press the matter further.
I have sometimes pondered whether this may have happened in the case of Nasser al-Awlaki, who lost not only his son, Anwar, but also his grandson, Abdulrahman, both US citizens, to drone strikes. For years, the outspoken senior Al-Awlaki pursued legal channels to oppose the US government’s plan to execute his son without trial. When the nightmare finally came to pass, the grieving father mysteriously dropped the lawsuit, even though what transpired was far worse than what he had feared. Both his son and his grandson were destroyed by Predator drones, in strikes separated by only two weeks.
Why did Nasser al-Awlaki abandon his lawsuit against the US government rather than appeal its disappointing outcome? The official line is that he became “disillusioned” with or “lost faith” in the system. Would that not be a reason to press on for justice? If in fact he stopped pressing the case because he was “compensated” with a large sum of cash in exchange for agreeing to drop the lawsuit, then I’m afraid that he, too, was bribed.
It is impossible to fathom the profound sorrow which this man has endured. I am deeply sorry for his loss and do not fault him for giving up out of despair, if that is what he did. My intention is only to illuminate the phenomenon of bribery and its key role in both prosecuting and perpetuating the US drone program. Declining to challenge these actions leads to the commission of many more, most of the victims of which are never even acknowledged. By accepting “blood money”, bereft survivors tacitly accept the program through which many wives dependent upon their husbands for support have been rendered widows, and their children fatherless.
The reasoning on the part of the grieving persons who accede is easy enough to understand: nothing will or can ever bring back the loved ones killed, but at least life can be made a bit easier to bear with some extra cash on hand. Nonetheless, anyone who agrees to stop talking about the wrong done to them and their missing relatives in exchange for money has been bought, and sadly ends by condoning a fundamentally unjust program of summary execution. The presumption of innocence has been replaced by a presumption of guilt, provided only that the suspect is a brown-skinned male of military age unfortunate enough to be situated in a territory deemed ‘hostile’ by the current “kill committee”. What’s more, countless entirely innocent people not even suspected of wrongdoing are being continuously terrorized by the threat of death hovering above their heads.
Bribery is a way of getting what one wants but at the price of people’s integrity. Only a few brave souls have inveighed against the insulting suggestion that the slaughter of their loved ones can somehow be forgotten, if only they are given a large enough bag of money. When bereft survivors succumb to the lure of bribes, the moral degeneracy and banality of killing in full evidence among analysts and operators come to be shared and transmitted to people who truly oppose what is being done. Those who agree to suffer in silence in exchange for remuneration inadvertently support the very program through which they themselves have been wronged.
It is important to acknowledge here as well that some of the people on the ground have also been threatened with harm if they speak about the events which they have witnessed and through which they have been victimized. The persons thus threatened are acting prudentially in declining to speak out about the crimes.
As a result of this elaborate system of “carrots and sticks”, the aptly named “killing machine” forges on, generating more and more victims, in part because there have not been enough people to stand up and say “No!” Of course, some of the persons living under drones who refuse to prostrate themselves before the killers of their community members decide to take action by allying themselves with violent dissident groups to undertake jihad in what become campaigns of revenge.
Both the jihadis and the “compensated” but silenced victims ensure in this way that the Global War on Terror will continue on. New “No 2” factional leaders emerge as others are dispatched because some among these people will not agree to pretend that what is obviously wrong is not wrong. Therein lies the appeal of terrorist groups for young people who have yet to be corrupted. They are angry at what they have seen and feel that they must fight back. They take up the jihad cause and pledge not to relent until the slaughter stops. They are ready and willing to die in the process.
Unfortunately, the new converts to violent extremist groups—Al Qaeda, ISIS, AQAP, whatever label they adopt—too, perpetuate the cycle of moral corruption and violence by fighting fire with fire. Righteous anger has impelled these people, many of whom were children on September 11, 2001, to take up arms, and more and more of them continue to be executed under the assumption that terrorists can be killed faster than they emerge, which is obviously false, given the recent spread of ISIS throughout Syria and Iraq. The slaughter of so many courageous and talented young people, who have been lured to associate with terrorist groups out of righteous anger over what is being done to their communities, is both a human and a moral tragedy.
For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can, Chapter 3: The Logic of Targeted Killing; Chapter 6: The New Banality of Killing; and Chapter 12: Tyrants are as Tyrants do