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

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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

American Exceptionalism and False Dichotomy: Analysis of Robocop (2014), part II

part 1, the Robocop (2014) Story

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Lethal Drone issues broached in Robocop (2014)

The anti-drone perspective of Robocop is palpable and perhaps a bit too heavy-handed in message delivery. The style of the film is undeniably didactic and the tone similar to a story one might see on Lifetime television. I happen to agree with the main criticisms of the film but believe that the important points would have been more persuasive to viewers if they had been approached with a bit more subtlety.

The film is highly critical of the military-industrial-congressional-media-academic-pharmaceutical-logistics complex and pokes fun at the mainstream media in addition to the greed of global corporations involved in the weapons industry. Even the use of drugs (in this case to modify dopamine levels) is treated briefly. But does the film effectively address the most fundamental problem with lethal robotic technology?

The real problem underlying all of the catastrophe to which cyborgs could give rise is that all robots are ultimately programmed by human-all-too-human beings, some of whom will invariably be corrupt. Robocop suggests as much by mentioning the corruption among the police force and also politicians, but it does not press the point. The blanket assumption underlying the use of the cyborgs is that threats can be facilely distinguished from non-threats. It’s a longstanding George W. Bush false dichotomy: “You’re either with us, or you’re with them.” Nowhere is the simplistic quality of such an assumption better illustrated than in the current war raging in Syria.

The drone wars have been carried out under the false assumption in “The World According to George W. Bush”, that “the friend of my enemy is my enemy.” Associates become defined in this way as fair game for slaughter, when in fact they may be completely devoid of any intention to harm any other human being. If nothing else positive arises from the quagmire in Syria, perhaps people will finally come to see that the enemy of my enemy is not my friend. The friend of my enemy is not my enemy. The enemy of my friend may or may not be my enemy. It’s not black and white at all.

When people are scanned by the cyborg-man to determine whether they are threatening or nonthreatening, the decision is binary: there is no gray area. People holding weapons are deemed threatening. People with criminal records are deemed threatening. The problem with assuming that every person with a weapon is a threat is seen in the decision by US administrators to label all military-age males in “hostile” areas combatants and fair targets for Hellfire missiles launched by lethal drones. Many people have been destroyed in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of northwestern Pakistan for the “crime” of bearing weapons, in other words, of being potentially threatening, even when no US national is anywhere near them. This is a wholesale license to kill people on the basis of demographics and a recipe for genocide.

Decisions such as these, how to define rules of engagement (ROE), whom to kill and whom to let live, are made by human beings. When the decision makers are rewarded for their dead-terrorist tallies, they may loosen the criteria for what constitutes a legitimate target. If there are no “high-value” named targets available, then they may cast about for other people to kill. That appears to have been the origin of the practice of “crowd killing” and also “signature strikes”, where groups of people whose identities are unknown are dispatched for their “suspicious” behavior patterns, said to match those of a disposition matrix of known terrorists.

The problems become even worse when the government is killing its own people using lethal drones, as has already occurred now in both Pakistan and Nigeria. Robotic technologies can be used to suppress dissent and to oppress people by forcing them to conform. They can also be used to kill at the caprice of whoever is in charge of the robotic systems. These are powers already presumed by political leaders in their use of military weapons abroad. What would society be like, were the drone warriors provided with the same power to kill with impunity at home as they wield overseas?

We have already witnessed some of what can happen in the Drone Age. Terrorists are said to have associates, who are claimed by drone program administrators to be fair game for slaughter, despite the evident fact that some of the associates turn out to be people who are more demographically than morally similar to terrorists.

Most of the people annihilated by Predator drone under the authorization of President Obama and his administration (usually the decisions are delegated to others, such as CIA director John Brennan) have been very unlike the clever mastermind of the attacks of September 11, 2001. They may share Osama bin Laden’s skin color. They may dress similarly, and they may even despise the US government, given its endless incursions into other nations and its blanket assertion of the right to kill anyone anywhere at any time and for any reason. Do all people who oppose the hovering over their head of lethal drones or the occupation of their country by foreign invaders deserve to be razed from the face of the earth? Presumably US citizens do not believe that they themselves deserve to die for holding such a view!

This point about double standards is made effectively in Robocop (2014). What’s good for the goose (Iran) is good for the gander (USA). Or maybe it’s just as wrong to subject Iranians to scanning by cyborgs as it would be to do to Americans. This is a more general critique of “American Exceptionalism”—better known as “hypocrisy” to people living far from US shores. We have reached a disturbing turning point in history, where death is being sought as an end in itself in places where there are not even any soldiers on the ground to protect. The specter of this sort of lethal obsession being applied in the homeland is too awful to contemplate.

Yet precisely this nightmare is imposed on the people of other countries by the US government and is paid for by its citizens. The official story told of what is being done is packaged in anodyne terms and used as rhetorical fodder by politicians, who paint themselves as strong for “defending” the country through supporting the use of drones abroad, oblivious as they are to the fact that the people of other countries are no different in moral essence than are the people of the United States. If we oppose the use of lethal drones in our own civil society, then we should oppose their use in civil societies abroad as well.

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For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, Chapter 8: From Conscience to Oblivion; Chapter 10: Death and Politics; Chapter 11: Death and Taxes; and Chapter 12: Tyrants are as Tyrants Do

Robocop (2014): The Drone Angle, part I

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I recently watched Robocop, a 2014 film directed by José Padilha which treats cyborgs and the ascendance of robots in contemporary culture. An earlier film named Robocop was directed by Paul Verhoeven in 1987. I have not seen that version, which many reviewers at IMDB.com find vastly superior. Fortunately, I won’t be distracted in my analysis of Robocop (2014) by the earlier version, although I must say that I am now anxious to watch it—better late than never!

On the surface, Robocop (2014) may seem to be just another action flick with a touch of science fiction thrown in for good measure. Cyborgs were depicted in other movies (aside from the original Robocop) such as the Terminator series (starring Arnold Schwarzenegger) long before they were anything close to being a reality. By 2014, the science treated was no longer fiction at all. Drones are here and being used to spy on and kill people all over the planet. Other types of robots have been used to check areas for land mines and IEDs, and also for other military applications. This film raises a number of important questions about the use of unmanned systems.

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The Story

The primary plot dispute is whether cyborgs should be used in the US homeland to save the lives of policemen, just as drones are being used abroad to avoid having to put “boots on the ground” and to obviate the need for manned bombers. The manufacturer of cyborgs in Robocop (2014) is a company called “OmniCorp”, based in China. This is a diaphanous jab at China’s recent economic ascendance in reality, but also the growing trend of private military companies  (PMCs) setting up shop abroad to avoid paying US taxes. Omnicorp is enthusiastically supported by a Fox News Network-type pundit, Pat Novac (played by Samuel Jackson in a hairstyle reminiscent of James Brown). Novac argues à la Sean Hannity in an obvious effort to convince viewers that their lawmakers should rescind a reigning prohibition on the use of cyborgs in the homeland.

Senator Hubert Dreyfus, the author of the Dreyfus amendment, is the arch opponent of the use of cyborgs on US soil, and up until now his position has been supported by the populace, who follow his lead in insisting that “the human factor” must remain in tact whenever lethal weapons are in play. If a cyborg mistakenly kills a child, it will feel nothing, and that is the fundamental problem, according to supporters of the Dreyfus amendment. How can delicate matters of life and death be delegated to a machine?

The head of OmniCorp, Raymond Sellars (played by Michael Keaton), naturally wants to change public opinion so that his company will become even wealthier and more powerful than it already is. The firm commands enormous contracts for cyborgs used in many other places around the world, including Iran, where the robots are shown scanning Iranians to locate threats in a manner reminiscent of Nazi roundups under the Third Reich—or US round ups during the occupation of Iraq. The procedures are broadcast back home to share with the citizens paying for the practice the “good” their government is doing on the other side of the globe. When mistakes are made, the channel switches abruptly to more palatable topics, just as in reality, where US military interventions abroad are sanitized by the mainstream media.

Heeding the poll data, Sellars sets out with his trusty company scientist, Dr. Dennett Norton (played by Gary Oldman), to create a cyborg-human amalgam, using a man, Alex Murphy (played by Joel Kinnaman), who has been nearly destroyed by a car bomb. All that remains of Murphy is his brain, one arm, and his lungs. He is the perfect guinea pig for the creation of a cyborg-human amalgam, which will function as effectively and be as lethal as a robot, but still retain the sentience of a human being and therefore not be illegal under the terms of the Dreyfus amendment.

All seems to be going well until details of all of the crimes which Cyborg-man Murphy will be sent out to solve are uploaded to his brain. He becomes emotionally overwhelmed by the ugliness and evil of the mountain of crimes, and his doctors find the need to sedate him by modifying his dopamine levels. Under medication, he becomes emotionally numb to the point where he no longer feels anger or any human emotions and looks more like a zombie than a man as he goes out to find the people on his list of wanted suspects. He walks right past his wife and son as though they do not exist, for he is focused singlemindedly on fighting crime and cannot be bothered with anything else.

The doctors soon recognize that they cannot allow the human element of Murphy to be functional when he is on duty, because his judgment may be clouded by strong emotions. They ingeniously devise a means by which to make him fully robotic during the times when he is out fighting crime, while laboring under the belief that he is making all decisions about his actions by himself. In truth, everything has been programmed into him. He only believes that he has free will, which is an illusion.

The cyborg-human amalgam turns out to be a failure, but it succeeds in serving as a perfect marketing tool, swaying public opinion to the point where congress agrees to overturn the Dreyfus amendment and permit fully robotic cyborgs to operate on US soil, the argument having been made that if only Murphy had not become obsessed with avenging his own murder, then chaos would not have ensued.

cont’d…

part 2: Lethal Drone Issues in Robocop (2014)

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