BBC Radio 4 Thinking Allowed. Drone Warfare: From Soldiering to Assassination?

In this 17-minute discussion, BBC Radio 4 host Laurie Taylor interviews Laurie Calhoun and David Galbreath about issues raised in We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age. Topics covered include the dawning of the Drone Age on November 3, 2002; its relation to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001; the international principles of justice being ignored and subverted as a result of this easy-to-use and seemingly low-risk technology; the effects on civilians; whether drone strikes are more about counterterrorism or foreign policy by other means; and the psychological effect of drone strikes on drone operators themselves.

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Note: discussion of drone warfare between Laurie Calhoun, host Laurie Taylor, and interlocutor David Galbreath begins at 11:30 in this recording of the live program produced on November 2, 2016…

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Slippery slopes and the case of Mohammed Emwazi

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You know that the war on terrorism is waning in popularity when the summary execution without trial of a single young British man believed to be an executioner makes all of the major headlines, even as the reports are qualified with terms indicating their complete lack of ‘near certainty‘ that the strike destroyed the intended target:

NYT: Pentagon Says ‘Jihadi John’ Probably Killed

BBC: Jihadi John: US ‘reasonably certain‘ strike killed IS militant

Washington Post: US strike believed to have killed ‘Jihadi John’ Islamic State Executioner

This latest act of premeditated, intentional, stealth homicide is being trumpeted as an important victory, just as so many earlier reports before touted “suspected militants slain” and “no. 2 Al Qaeda leader defeated”. All of the other able-bodied males killed in the stead of intended, named targets become immortalized as “suspected militants slain”. The women, children and elderly men are generally not mentioned, unless they happen to be Westerners, in which case they are labeled ‘collateral damage’ and blamed on the evil enemy.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Mohammed Emwazi, better known as “Jihadi John”, is dead and that he in fact murdered people and so was guilty of capital crimes. He was killed by a US drone, with the aid of UK intelligence. British Prime Minister David Cameron made a public statement to let everybody know about his belief in the reasonable certainty that “Jihadi John” was probably another feather in his cap. Or a war trophy. Britain is not officially at war with Syria, but Cameron’s government has been following Obama’s lead in doing whatever they like, whenever they like, and wherever they like.

Cameron appears to be in the midst of a whirlwind effort to accrue big-time drone warrior creds, having already authorized the execution of two other British nationals, Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin, in August 2015. He also recently purchased a slew of new drones which he has christened “Protectors“. That slick maneuver brought him quickly up to speed with the longstanding Orwellian rebranding game. Is Cameron moving forward, or is he sliding down a slippery slope to a dark and dismal place, while taking Britain with him?

An editorial in The Guardian on the legality of the strike argues, with Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn, that the latest drone killing of a British citizen cannot be rationalized under Article 51, the national self-defense clause, of the United Nations Charter. The sudden and quite vocal expression of concern surrounding the legality of the killing of Mohammed Emwazi strikes me as a bit tardy. How in the world were the assassinations of Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin any better on that count? Or perhaps the assumption among many at the time was that those two homicides would be rare exceptions, not the beginning of Britain’s own full-fledged Drone Age, complete with new ways of interpreting old laws.

These have all been small but significant steps down a path which can only end in summary execution without trial in the homeland. Not possible? Implausible? Improbable? I believe that we can be reasonably certain that this is probably where all of this will end. It will only take a leader capable of recognizing the arbitrariness of the location of a suspect, and also the implement of homicide–using a pistol or a poison would be illegal, but a missile is permissible?–before summary execution without trial will become standard operating procedure at home as abroad.

The Obama administration’s sad legacy will be the further erosion of the rule of law and a full-on attack on the very idea of human rights. Was Jihadi John destroyed in the strike? Or was it some other young male who wound up in the wrong place at the wrong time? If so, this fact may be discovered later on, but the designation of the victims as legitimate targets will not change. The military-age males destroyed by drone strikes are defined as guilty until proven innocent, which is of course impossible for them to do.

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the US government decided to pursue the perpetrators by ordering full-scale invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. When large-scale preemptive war did not work, they added on smaller-scale targeting of individuals in lands where war had never been waged. From killing only foreigners, the drone warriors moved “ahead”, in a misguided show of cosmopolitanism, to target nationals suspected of treason as well. Obama authorized the execution of Anwar al-Awlaki, and the rest is British history.

Hackers and propagandists, both nationals and nonnationals, have been hunted down abroad and killed just as though they were weapon-bearing militants. The next natural step in this progression will be the elimination of political dissidents within the homeland. If it seems as though that would be breaking a law or two, no matter: just redefine a term or two, and we’ll have achieved Orwellian’s ultimate nightmare: when “democracy” becomes indistinguishable from tyranny.

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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 4: Lethal Creep; and Chapter 12: Tyrants are as Tyrants do