Caveat Emptor, Canada: What Lethal Drones Will Bring

 

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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been shopping around for lethal drones for the Royal Canadian Air Force. The prospective acquisition is being downplayed as intended primarily for surveillance purposes. Of course, that’s how it always begins. The first step toward joining the bloody ranks of the avid drone killers—the United States, Israel and, increasingly, Britain—is obtaining the means to conduct surveillance. But these sophisticated machines were developed for use by the military, which is why they have the modular capacity to be armed. As their names have always implied, Predator and Reaper drones can be used not only for surveillance but also to kill by remote control. Snap on a couple of Hellfire missiles, and you’re good to go.

It all starts so simply—and seems so very rational. Why not have a fleet of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) in one’s arsenal, so that they can be used in place of manned combat aerial vehicles when the need arises? Who in the world does not want to save brave soldiers’ lives?

Canadian policymakers may well believe that in order to best defend their country they need to make sure that the Air Force has the latest and greatest flying machines. Isn’t the purpose of having a military to be able to win wars? But if every other country has or is about to acquire lethal drones, then any military made to forego the technological breakthrough will be at a decided disadvantage. Even worse, come wartime, they will sacrifice soldiers needlessly. Given such manifestly rational considerations, it may not be clear why any Canadian in his right mind would oppose the government’s purchase of lethal drones.

However, the story does not end there. The problem is that the seemingly irrefutable argument for lethal drones shrouds the truth about what political leaders are likely to do once they have their fingers on the buttons of remote-control killing machines. The mere possession of lethal drones transforms what were previously the remote tribal regions of sovereign nations into “battlefields” where a seemingly endless list of “unlawful combatants” are waiting quietly to be “engaged”. Suddenly missiles can be fired any- and everywhere, because the entire world has become a battlefield.

Lethal drones not only provide militaries with the means to fight wars, they also provide leaders with the capacity to wage what are characterized as “wars” in places where war would otherwise never have been waged. In other words, the possession of lethal drones serves to expand the domain of state-inflicted homicide, at the discretion of the executive. This expansion of executive power is, needless to say, appealing to leaders themselves. In purely political terms, the ability to appear strong by wielding deadly force generally increases the popularity of leaders at home—so long as they are not sacrificing soldiers abroad. Lethal drones therefore provide a win-win arrangement for politicians: they can wage and fight wars without having to write condolence letters to the families of fallen soldiers.

Once the machines are at arm’s length, and intentional, premeditated homicide is but a push-button away, the argument for using lethal drones is propelled forward by the need to demonstrate to the populace that taxpayers’ money has not been squandered on boondoggles. “What’s the point of having X, if you’re not going to use X?” is the guiding logic which suddenly kicks in. Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright posed a variant of this question to Colin Powell: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about, if we can’t use it?”

It may sound repulsive to peace-loving people for someone to be fishing around for reasons to wage wars, but that is precisely what happens in the case of lethal drones—albeit one act of homicide at a time. Case in point: Britain. Before British Prime Minister David Cameron possessed lethal drones, the idea of dispatching his compatriots without indicting much less trying them for crimes would have been unheard of. As a matter of fact, capital punishment is prohibited by both British law and the EU Charter. But with a large fleet of Reaper drones and missiles at his disposal, Cameron suddenly awakened to the possibility of executing suspects using the weapons of war. Because he used missiles, rather than pistols or poisons or strangulation wires, to destroy Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin in Syria in August 2015, Cameron was able to portray the assassinations as acts of national self-defense. Who could argue with that depiction, when it had already been accepted with open arms by the American public for years, in hundreds of drone strikes authorized by US leaders?

Canada is moving down the same literally fatal path. Without first undertaking a serious public debate about the costs and benefits of drone killing, before acquiring the means to stalk, hunt down and kill targets suspected of wrongdoing, the sheer possession of the technology leads irresistibly to its use by leaders keen to exercise their authority and avail themselves of their newly bestowed capacity to kill by remote control.

Induction on the cases of other lethal drone-armed political leaders to date suggests that it is only a matter of time before Canadian officials will seek to track down and eliminate Canadian nationals located in places far away. The logic is seductive but corruptive, and Canada will be only one among many other countries to succumb, having been lured down the path to extrajudicial execution by the example set by the United States government for nearly fifteen years.

Caveat emptor, Canadian taxpayers. When your government begins to conduct itself in the manner of your neighbor to the south, you should expect to see retaliatory blowback within the borders of your own land as well. The recent attacks on Paris, San Bernardino, and Brussels were carried out by extremists angry about military intervention abroad targeting the Muslim people of several different lands. The suspects killed in drone strikes are never warned, and mistakes have often been made. Many undeniably innocent people have been harmed in the drone campaigns—grandmothers, children and, yes, “military-age males” defined as unlawful combatants but who had nothing whatsoever to do with radical jihadist groups.

The victims are facilely written off by the killers as “collateral damage”. Military killing of innocent people leads naturally to a vicious cycle of violent retaliation. The current quagmire in the Middle East extends all the way back to the 1991 Gulf War. Far from being surprising, it is in fact predictable that some of those outraged will choose to retaliate, as in New York, Madrid, London, Paris, San Bernardino, Brussels… They will continue to do so, for so long as they perceive their communities to be under attack.

That, however, is only a pragmatic or prudential argument against blindly following the lead of the drone warriors. There is also a more profound, moral, argument. Do the peaceful citizens of Canada really want their leaders to join the ranks of the likes of George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Barack Obama, and David Cameron, who “strike first and suppress questions later”? Do Canadians want to live in a world where disputes are resolved through the launching of missiles, rather than through the use of institutions of criminal investigation and justice developed and defended over many centuries precisely in order to avoid the awful scourge of war, and to fend off the danger of tyranny in an executive armed to kill at his caprice?

Do Canadians want their young people to be trained as professional assassins who are empirically indistinguishable from paid contract killers or hitmen? Now is the time to address the reality of what lethal drones will bring with them to Canada, before it is too late and the Canadian government makes the tragic mistake of following Bush, Blair, Obama, and Cameron down the path to targeted killing, what is tantamount to summary execution without trial, better known as “assassination” before the Drone Age.

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Spain Wants in on the Drone Killing Game: Has Franco Been Forgotten?

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It was recently reported that the government of Spain will be acquiring four MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) along with one ground control station (GCS) from the US firm General Atomics Aeronautical Systems. The US company won out over the competitor, Israel Aerospace Industries, which was ready to furnish its Hero TP to the Spanish government as well. Maybe they’ll secure a contract from Spain later on down the line. Never say never: there’s always room for another shiny new implement of homicide in a political leader’s arsenal, particularly when one of its crowning virtues can be said to be to make it possible to spare soldiers’ lives. That Spanish soldiers would never have been deployed to the drone zones anyway is a nicety best brushed aside.

The Reapers will eventually be weaponized, but for now the Spanish Air Force will simply play around with them, familiarize themselves with the advanced technology, and prepare for the day when they, too, will be able to dispatch human beings by remote control, just as the US and the UK governments have been doing for some time, and Italy is preparing to do as well.

The Spanish Air Force may be thrilled about what will be their enhanced capacity to execute suspects without trial, but one can only wonder what Pablo Q Pueblo, the average citizen in Spain, thinks about this development. Perhaps the Spanish public would rather forget their twentieth-century history, but was not Spain ruled by a brutal dictator, Generalísimo Francisco Franco, from 1936 until his death in 1975? His longevity was assured by the US government’s support, rationalized by the tried and true maxim of US foreign policy, that “the enemy of our enemy is our friend.” That’s right: the only thing Franco hated more than republicanism was communism.  

To the dismay and peril of liberty-loving Spaniards, Franco became a dreaded “president for life” through brute force and the elimination, by hook or by crook, of an estimated 200,000-400,000 Spanish citizens. Let us be perfectly frank: weaponized drones would have been right up Franco’s alley: the capacity to vaporize political enemies with no due process and no provision for appeal. All those pesky dissidents could be perfunctorily written off as enemies of the state.

I think that it is fair to say that congratulations are in order once again to US President Barack Obama for having ushered in a new era of secrecy and opacity along with the capacity to draw up hit lists through the use of advanced surveillance techniques (such as the mining of cellphone data) against any- and everyone one who might be potentially dangerous in the future. These Obama-era practices have gained wide acceptance among politicians and will surely lead to summary executions by governments the world over, including now Spain, both at home and abroad.

Who needs republicanism when every government’s leader will soon be able to squelch dissent and eliminate “annoying” adversaries with the push of a button while watching the targets “splashed” on high-definition television screens? Of course, the technology alone was not enough to herald in the full-fledged, robust Drone Age. The practice of summary execution without trial needed also to be normalized by the leader of the greatest nation on the earth, which President Barack Obama in fact did. In a self-serving effort to convey an image of strength, remote-control killing became drone warrior Obama’s claim to fame and will be his lasting legacy, to the detriment of liberty-loving people the world over.

WeKillBecauseWeCanLaurieCalhoun

For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, Chapter 9: Death and Politics; and Chapter 12: Tyrants are as Tyrants Do

The Lethal Drone Industry Cluster Bomb Effect

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The lethal drone industry is beginning to exhibit effects not unlike those of a cluster bomb, which releases deadly bomblets from a central core. Two core nations started it all, the United States and Israel, by developing and deploying UCAVs (unmanned combat aerial vehicles) to kill their declared enemies—or not, in the case of unnamed persons taken out for behaving suspiciously or being in the company of other people regarded as suspicious.

The full economic force of the drone industry boom is everywhere on display—perhaps most graphically at the recent arms trade fair in London—and lots of other governments want in on the game. In emulation of the US executive, British Prime Minister David Cameron recently “took out” two British nationals in Syria. In all honesty, would he ever have done so, if Barack Obama had not authorized the execution of Anwar Al-Awlaki in Yemen back in 2011? It seems highly unlikely. In Britain, lest we forget, capital punishment is illegal. It is also forbidden by the Charter of the European Union. Is Brexit, then, imminent? Perhaps. For now, Cameron and his cronies will continue to insist that “This is war.” The sophomoric assumption appears to be that missiles are used only in acts of war, unlike strangulation wires and poisons, which are used in acts of assassination or extrajudicial killing.

It seems unlikely that the British Parliament will permit their new drone warrior overlord to “splash” unarmed British nationals on British soil. Even the US government has acknowledged that they cannot dispatch unarmed US citizens on US soil. Why nationals should be more dangerous on foreign soil than in the homeland remains to be explained.

The truth, I am afraid, is that summary execution without trial is simply much easier to get away with in places on the other side of the planet. Who can really say what transpired, whether it was indeed a last resort, whether capture was truly “infeasible”? The killers pen the short story of what was done, with evidential details withheld under State Secrets Privilege. “The official (short) story” is then reaffirmed by media parrots, producing a perfect piece of political theater. The populace and pundits join in as the chorus expressing gratitude to their leaders for protecting all good people by taking the battle to the evil enemy abroad.

The acquisition of lethal drones has become even more politically worrisome in other lands. Nigeria has used lethal drones against Nigerians on Nigerian soil; Pakistan has used lethal drones against Pakistanis on Pakistani soil. The drone “warriors” in these countries, like David Cameron, have emulated the US government, which used lethal drones against US citizens, albeit far from the homeland.

Now the cluster bomb-like effect of what started out as “targeted killing” in the declared war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq, claimed to be necessary in contending with “insurgents” (which were conflated with “evil terrorists”), is becoming and more marked. The latest reported lethal drone acquisition is by India from Israel. What will India do with its lethal drones? Would Pakistan permit the Indian government to kill freely in Pakistani territories? That seems unlikely, given the danger of sparking a nuclear conflagration.

Much more likely will be the use of their new toys by the Indian government against Indian nationals on Indian soil. History attests that leaders find the use of military power once acquired nearly irresistible. As former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright phrased the question, “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” The possession of lethal drones leads directly to the penning of kill lists, and kill lists lead to longer kill lists, as suspects’ contacts are mined.

There is a disturbing pattern here. The use of lethal drones snuck in the back door as a counterterrorism measure. The practice was never debated in any hall of congress. The US and Israeli executives merely decreed the right to dispatch suspects by remote control. With the spread of these new “tools” around the globe, targeted killing is bound to be used by more and more governments against their own citizens in acts of summary execution without trial.

Lethal drones provide leaders with the power of a tyrant to take human life at their caprice. With the capacity to kill by remote control, political reality can be frozen in place by eliminating the very possibility of dissent. Democratic reform can easily be blocked by denigrating all dissidents, armed and unarmed alike, as terrorists and lighting them up with Hellfire missiles.

How will Western governments such as those of the United States and Britain ever be able to complain? In addition to serving as the role models for this mode of conflict resolution, they furnish the technology which makes it possible through the lucrative arms trade.

WeKillBecauseWeCanLaurieCalhoun

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 10: Death and Politics; Chapter 11: Death and Taxes; and Chapter 12: Tyrants are as Tyrants Do