Exception or Precedent? The remote-control killing by police of a suspect on US soil

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On July 8, 2016, a robot was used for the very first time to blow up a criminal suspect in the United States. Five Dallas city policemen had been slain, and several others injured. The perpetrator, Micah Xavier Johnson, was involved in a conversation with the police for a while, but when he began shooting again, the decision was taken to blow him up. The opportunity was there, the bomb-disposal robot was already in the possession of the police, and who could complain, given what this particular suspect had already done?

The robot used to blow up Micah Johnson was not a lethal drone, but it may as well have been. One might wonder how the police devised the idea of using a bomb-disposal robot to blow up a human being, but certainly the US drone program offers plenty of examples of the use of remote-control technology to incinerate, rather than capture, terrorist suspects.

US citizens have grown accustomed to their government killing people abroad, but the decision to kill by remote control in the homeland was extraordinary in that no attempt was made to incapacitate the suspect instead. In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that policemen in dangerous scenarios often opt to shoot to kill, aiming for the heart or head, not the suspect’s foot or hand. However, it is not the role of the police to execute but to take into custody suspects so that their guilt can be determined by a jury of peers and, if convicted, an appropriate penalty applied.

Despite the grisly nature of what was done to Micah Johnson, many commentators have insisted that the police chief made the right call in deciding to blow the man up. But was this in fact his call to make? The precedent set by this action would seem to be yet another step down an ever-more lethal continuum rendered considerably more so by the current US president, Barack Obama, whose policy it is to kill rather than capture suspected terrorists located abroad.

The US administration continues to claim that in all of its thousands of targeted killings, capture has been infeasible and the premeditated, intentional acts of homicide have been necessary in national self-defense, all part of the Global War on Terror. Obama’s authority to kill suspects anywhere he chooses to do so—both inside and outside areas of active hostilities—is said to derive from the Authorization of Use of Military Force (AUMF) conferred by the US congress upon President George W. Bush about fifteen years ago.

As technology has become more and more sophisticated, it is highly ironic that the restraints on killing wrought over millennia, and the great advances in institutions of justice, beginning with the 1215 Magna Carta, have been forgotten or set aside. The suspects killed in the Global War on Terror by lethal drone are presumed guilty until proven innocent, but they are denied the right to demonstrate their innocence. They are denied even the right to surrender and usually have no idea that they are about to be killed. They are simply eliminated from the face of the earth at the behest of the US president’s henchmen at a time of their choosing, as the “opportunity” arises.

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The blowing up of Micah Johnson by the police was triply ironic. Not only was he trained as a sniper by the US military, but the young African American was apparently protesting against police brutality against black men in the homeland. Johnson’s desire to “kill white people” arose out of anger at the police killings of a series of black men brought to the attention of the public by the Black Lives Matter movement over the past few years. But the response of the police to Johnson’s obviously misguided mission to target policemen was to ratchet up the brutality against black men yet another notch.

Rather than being riddled with bullets, the body of Micah Johnson, a black man, was blown up in a manner befitting a condemned building, not a human being. In saying this, I do not mean to suggest that shooting to kill unarmed persons is somehow less objectionable, but only that the degree of sheer violence is much greater and the denial of the victim’s personhood highlighted by the use of a bomb to eliminate him.

After the use of a robotic device to obliterate the suspect, several Dallas officials made public statements to the effect that there was no other way to neutralize the threat posed by Micah Johnson. I can think of several. How about bombing the place where he was located with tear gas? SWAT teams certainly have gas masks in their arsenal of equipment, so the place could have been literally fumigated with gas using the same robot to deliver not explosives but agents of lachrymation. Or how about bombing the place with a gaseous form of sedative to knock him out so that the place could be secured and accessed by a team who would then be able to take the man into custody?

In this regard, the case of Micah Johnson bears comparison to that of Osama bin Laden, who was also executed when in fact he might have been shot with tranquilizer plugs rather than bullets. His unconscious body could have been lifted out of Abbottabad just as his corpse was, but the decision was taken by Obama to kill him instead. Bin Laden was widely reviled as the mastermind behind the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and if not the architect, he was at the very least their inspiration, given his enthusiastic exhortations that Al Qaeda members wage jihad against the United States in retaliation to what he regarded as inexcusable war crimes, especially in the 1991 Gulf War and its aftermath in Iraq.

The execution of Bin Laden and Micah Johnson are similar in another, even more significant, way. Both acts of killing look like exceptions, which took place in extraordinary circumstances. However, as precedents, both can be seen to set in motion a series of future actions modeled on them, because the exception swiftly transforms into the rule once initial inhibitions against intentional, premeditated homicide have fallen by the wayside. Under Obama’s greatly expanded drone program, which began in January 2009, shortly after the new president assumed his office, assassination of suspects has been rebranded as “targeted killing” and carried out primarily through the use of Hellfire missiles delivered by Predator drones.

The drone program and the execution of Bin Laden were mutually reinforcing. If lower-level “foot soldiers” whose names are not even known may be eliminated by drone, then why wouldn’t Bin Laden be fair game for elimination as well? Both the drone program and the execution of Bin Laden served to inform a further escalation of lethality when US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki was executed in Yemen by his own government.

Was Al-Awlaki anything like Bin Laden? Of course not. But Al-Awlaki was mythologized as an execrable bogeyman in the mainstream media to the point where most Americans came to believe that he was morally equivalent to Bin Laden. To this day, most people have no idea that Al-Awlaki spoke out against the crimes of 9/11. He was a voice of moderation at the time, calmly counseling the government not to make the mistake of acting in ways which could easily be misconstrued as waging a war on Islam.

That was precisely what the US government proceeded to do. They invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, despite the fact that most of the perpetrators of 9/11 hailed from Saudi Arabia, the government of which was given a free pass. Rather than focusing on those ultimately responsible for 9/11, the US government set out to harass Muslims such as Anwar al-Awlaki to such an extent, using both the FBI and foreign governments (in his case, President Saleh of Yemen), that in some cases the targeted suspects transmogrified into self-avowed enemies.

Was Anwar Al-Awlaki an operational terrorist, or was he a propagandist and cheerleader of sorts for jihad? Whatever source of inspiration some of the apprehended perpetrators of terrorist plots may have drawn from Al-Awlaki’s sermons, the fact remains that they and they alone chose to carry out violent acts. The evidence supposedly convicting Al-Awlaki of the capital crimes allegedly justifying his summary execution without trial continues to be withheld on grounds of State Secrets Privilege under a pretext of national security.

Exceptions quickly transform into rules when more and more agents agree to follow suit. Case in point: only a few years after Obama’s 2011 decision to execute Al-Awlaki by lethal drone, then-UK Prime Minister David Cameron chose in 2015 to eliminate two British nationals located in Syria using lethal drones. Now, apparently, this is what the US government and its allies do. Find people, even fellow citizens, who appear to be up to no good, and if they are located in a Third World country or war zone, then it’s supposed to be perfectly fine to execute them without trial. Just make sure that you use a missile so that you can call it an “act of war”.

In the case of Micah Johnson, the Dallas cop killer who was blown up by a robotic device operated by remote control, people may say that he obviously deserved to die and the police had no intention of risking the lives of any more of their comrades. But there were other “suspects” identified at the time of the crime as well, who might also have been blown up using robots, were they available, and had those suspects been located.

One fellow’s face was spammed all over Twitter. It turned out that he was not involved. What if some vigilante had taken him out, under the assumption that he needed to be neutralized? What if the angry Dallas police force had located that suspect and blown him up for the very reason that he adamantly denied having done anything wrong? He would have become the homeland analogue to collateral damage, now that the weapons of war are being used by law enforcement.

The risk aversion of war makers steadily increased over the course of only a couple of decades to the point where sacrificing the lives of civilians on the ground “outside areas of active hostilities” has come to be considered perfectly acceptable among US leaders. These are places where deadly missiles are being directed toward suspected terrorists even though they are not threatening anyone with death at the time when they are killed, and least of all US citizens. Indeed, the targets are usually unarmed, located as they are “outside areas of active hostilities”.

Given how the drone program inclined administrators toward killing rather than capturing Bin Laden, and given how the killing of Bin Laden then inclined administrators to kill even US citizen suspects by lethal drone, I predict a similar lethal turn in law enforcement in the homeland in the aftermath of the obliteration of Micah Johnson by remote control. It does not matter that his case was exceptional. The case of Bin Laden was exceptional, too.

The same risk aversion seen among the “light footprint” war makers led by Obama will begin to infect police departments all over the United States as the commanders of men in blue become less and less willing to allow them to die, even when the risk of killing innocent bystanders will obviously increase. It is of course rational to attempt to protect soldiers and policemen. But is it not finally time to reconsider the infinite price in innocent life being paid in the quest to kill allegedly evil people, whose importance is given higher priority than anything else? Is this focus on death to the exclusion of all other considerations not the ultimate expression of nihilism?

What is most remarkable of all about the myopic, glaucomic, and amnesiac paradigm of lethal centrism is that given the never-ending series of mass killings being perpetrated all over the place—in Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino, Orlando, Nice, Dallas, Baton Route, Munich—we now have ample evidence that this single-minded focus on lethality is not keeping people in the West safe.

As a matter of fact, “Kill don’t capture” and “Strike first, suppress questions later”, the Obama administration’s signature policy, serves as an incredibly destructive example to lone wolf killers, would-be jihadists, and angry activists alike who emulate governments when they decide to take up arms and perpetrate mass homicide as a way of expressing their grievances.

 

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2016 paperback edition with a new foreword available for pre-order at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Kill-Because-Can-Soldiering-Assassination/dp/1783605472?ie=UTF8&qid=&ref_=tmm_pap_swatch_0&sr=

 

Note to Obama, Sisyphean American Assassin: Dead No. 1 Taliban Leader Replaced by Somebody Else

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As President Obama’s term in office draws to a close, he has been scurrying about in a diaphanous attempt to convey the impression that he has accomplished a lot. Will he leave any significant legacy beyond having served as the country’s first Assassin-in-Chief, who normalized targeted killing—the Hannibal Lectoresque stalking and hunting of human beings—through the use of drones?

Despite shedding tears for gun violence victims in the United States, Obama managed to spread deadly weapons all over the world and provoked renewed militarism in Eastern Europe and the Far East by presiding over untold numbers of covert actions and military exercises. Remarkably, Obama even convinced Japan to renounce its anti-militarist stance spanning the decades since World War II. How about that trillion-dollar, thirty-year-plan nuclear weapons program upgrade in violation of the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty? (I have to ask: has Obama himself been replaced by a machine?) In a bizarre and ironic twist, Obama plans also to be the first sitting US president to pay a visit to Hiroshima, the city entirely razed by the first atomic bomb to be deployed in history, by the United States, on August 6, 1945. Three days later, on August 9, 1945, Nagasaki suffered the same fate.

In recent weeks, Obama has been busy issuing executive actions—from public school bathroom initiatives for transgender students (was this a problem?), to extensions of overtime pay, to opening up arms trade with Vietnam (motivated by concerns about China and the TPP?). At the same time, Obama has stepped up his efforts to demonstrate that he has the terrorism situation under control. It wasn’t that surprising when two days ago he made a big show of the fact that he had authorized the execution without trial by lethal drone of Mullah Akhtar Mansur in Pakistan.

Once again, as in the case of the operation in which Osama bin Laden was slain by a group of Navy SEALS, the Pakistani authorities were not informed about the mission until after the fact. Obama claimed that the authority to assassinate Mansur derived from the tried-and-true “legitimate self-defense” pretext. The “evil” Taliban leader was said to be responsible for planning attacks on US forces in Kabul, Afghanistan.

“Today marks an important milestone in our longstanding effort to bring peace and prosperity to Afghanistan. With the death of the Taliban leader Akhtar Mohammed Mansur, we have removed the leader of an organization that has continued to plot against and unleash attacks on American and Coalition forces, to wage war against the Afghan people and align itself with extremist groups like al Qa’ida.”

What Obama omitted was that the US force presence in Afghanistan had been increased at his behest in order to provide support for killing operations in Yemen back in 2015, when President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi was overthrown by a Houthi coup, and US personnel were evacuated from that country. In other words, it was Obama’s own insistence on continuing his drone campaign in Yemen which led him to send more soldiers to Afghanistan, where they met with the ire of the Taliban, the members of which naturally sought to eject the invaders from their land.

We’ve seen this all before. In fact, it has been going on since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. But rather than heeding the lessons of history—or even the dictates of common sense—the US government persists in its killing campaigns, as though they were accomplishing something. So now Mullah Akhtar Mansur, said to be an obstacle to the peace process between the Taliban and Afghan authorities, is dead. Does it matter in the least? This morning the Taliban announced that Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada has been named the new No. 1 leader.

A variation on this theme has played like a broken record throughout the absurdist Global War on Terror, during which most of the people killed are said to threaten “our interests” on the other side of the world. Other victims just happen to be located in the same neighborhood. US citizens have become so accustomed to the narrative according to which our good leaders are saving us from people just like Osama bin Laden, that they have lost all ability to consider the reality of what they are paying for.

I recently watched the film American Sniper (2014), directed by Clint Eastwood, which offers a perfect illustration of the foggy lens through which most Americans, including politicians and government bureaucrats, view military intervention abroad. US Navy SEAL Chris Kyle is depicted as a hero for killing more than 200 “enemy forces”, 160 of which were confirmed by the Department of Defense. In reality, Kyle was killing people attempting to kill the invaders of their own land, Iraq.

Does anyone seriously believe that if hordes of armed warriors made their way to US shores that residents would stand by and let them round up “suspects” and torture them, or assassinate them point blank, along with anyone who happened to be with them at the time? Is it at all plausible that no one in the United States would retaliate? Would anyone accept the “self-defense” pretext of the invaders for killing US residents in their own homeland?

The US invasions and occupations of both Afghanistan and Iraq, the removal of Muammar Gaddafi from power in Libya, and the drone campaigns in Yemen and Somalia have all proven to be disastrous, as evidenced by the predictably surging ranks of the Taliban and Al Qaeda and AQAP and Al-Shabaab and ISIS and Daesh in direct response to US counterterrorism initiatives. Even setting aside the gross moral and legal violations inherent to the US drone program, it simply does not work. It never worked, and it will not work when Obama hands over the drone warrior holster to the successor of his throne.

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War on Terror? War on Truth.

Shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, US President George W. Bush proclaimed that “We are at war,” and we have been at war ever since. The world’s most powerful military was not apt to the task of bringing the perpetrators to justice, as evidenced by the fact that it took nearly a decade to apprehend the chief architect, Osama bin Laden.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of persons were slaughtered, most of whom were innocent. Thousands of others were detained without charges and mistreated in a variety of appalling ways. Millions were driven to leave their native lands, and the refugees of war-torn countries continue to flow out in a steady stream, as peace-loving people quite rationally attempt to defend themselves from the arbitrary termination of their lives by warriors of all stripes.

How could all of this murder and mayhem have been avoided? It’s sad to say, but if the US war makers had only listened to Osama bin Laden when he complained about the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, which led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, many of whom were children, then they would have recognized that the worst possible response to 9/11 was to attack Iraq all over again. Stating the facts decried by Osama bin Laden is in no way to condone his response to them. It is to acknowledge the source of his “shock and awe” retaliation campaign, perpetrated by jihadists outraged by US military policies abroad.

Undeterred by the dictates of rationality, George W. Bush waged an outright war of aggression on the already suffering people of Iraq. The Iraqis had been living under a dictator empowered by the US government during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, but their conditions were rendered considerably more miserable by the bombing of water treatment facilities by the US military in 1991.

The subsequently imposed international sanctions prevented access to materials needed to purify the drinking water, and also medications needed to address the diseases caused by the lack of clean water. Remarkably, when Barack Obama became president, he awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor to George H.W. Bush, whose 1991 Gulf War led directly to the blowback attack of 9/11.

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During the occupation of Iraq, the poor policies of US government officials, including the dismissal of the Iraqi army and the blacklisting of Ba’ath party members, produced thousands of angry insurgents, who vowed to expel the invaders. Rather than admit that the strategies were not working, the occupiers doubled down with surges, more JSOC raids, more missile strikes, and more privately contracted “security forces”, some of whom behaved quite scandalously.

Another grievance aired by Bin Laden was the establishment of military bases in Muslim lands such as Saudi Arabia. Obama has dramatically increased the number of drone stations from which deadly sorties are launched, and continues to deliver Hellfire missiles to an ever-lengthening list of countries in a zealous effort to eliminate an ever-lengthening list of targets in his “war without borders”.

Under President Obama, who had campaigned on an anti-preemptive war platform, drone killing in lands where war was never formally waged came to be viewed as a standard operating procedure for dealing with suspected terrorists, wherever they may be said by a bribed informant to hide.

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US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, once a moderate Islamist cleric, was radicalized in the years after 9/11, coming to advocate jihad in response to what he regarded as war crimes committed against his brethren. Again, Al-Awlaki was right that the US government slaughtered many Muslims who never threatened any US national in the least. Al-Awlaki was himself harassed by the US government, and he was thrown into jail for more than a year in Yemen, without charges, at the request of the US government. After that, he was released, hunted down and summarily executed.

In addition to slaughtering Muslims, “We tortured some folks,” as President Obama put it. Unfortunately, the ever-charitable Obama opted not to prosecute the torturers, seemingly on the grounds that their misguided tactics were intended to keep the US homeland safe. They meant to do the right thing! They were just confused about the best way of going about doing that.

In fact, the means used by the warriors post-9/11 had exactly the opposite of the intended effect, causing a massive mobilization of jihadists in response—including the creation of new groups such as ISIS and AQAP, and a renewal and expansion of interest in radical Islam in countries such as Yemen and Somalia, where its presence had been minor—before US intervention.

The torturers and invaders and orchestrators of covert ops of many kinds undeniably endangered the citizens who funded the many initiatives, as should have been obvious from the global response to the crimes at Abu Ghraib prison. As a matter of fact, the Pentagon has taken great pains to withhold thousands of the ghastly photos taken of abused prisoners, on the grounds that they may endanger American lives. QED.

These gross mistakes have obviously made Westerners vulnerable to retaliation and revenge attacks, yet the failures were not viewed as grounds for dismissing those responsible, many of whom were retained by Obama in his not-so-new administration. Most notably, John Brennan, who advocated torture during the Bush administration, became Obama’s closest counterterrorism advisor.

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In 2013, Brennan was amazingly promoted to be the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). One wonders what Mr. Brennan would have to do to get fired by Obama. No matter how many times Brennan changes his stories, Obama continues to trust him as one of his closest confidantes. When concern was expressed that the CIA had violated US law by penetrating the computers of US Senators in the period preceding the release of the torture report, Brennan indignantly reproached his accusers:

“Nothing could be further from the truth… that’s just beyond the scope of reason… some members of the Senate have decided to make spurious allegations about CIA actions that are wholly unsupported by the facts.”

Two months later, Brennan was issuing a public apology for the CIA’s having done precisely what it had been accused of doing. So which is it: is Brennan a pathological liar, or is he flagrantly incompetent?

According to Gregory Johnsen, the author of The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia (2013), it was none other than John Brennan’s “theory” that Anwar Al-Awlaki was the operational leader of AQAP. We have never been provided with any of the alleged evidence of his guilt in actually perpetrating violent acts—as opposed to inspiring or inciting them.

It was recently made public that the very administration which redacted the evidence in its response to a court order to release the memos leading up to Al-Awlaki’s summary execution without trial is calling for all of the cleric’s sermons—whatever they may contain—to be taken down from the internet. Here is the opening line of the New York Times “report” on the call for the blanket censorship of everything ever said by Al-Awlaki, including his early sermons:

“In case after terrorism case, from the Fort Hood, Tex., shootings to the Boston Marathon bombing and now to the slaughter in San Bernardino, Calif., the inflammatory videos and bomb-making instructions of Anwar al-Awlaki, easily accessible on the Internet, have turned up as a powerful influence.”

Talk about specious reasoning. Indeed, precisely the sort one would expect to issue from the mouths of torture advocates and graduates of the fact-challenged George W. Bush School of Strategy. The New York Times serves here, as so often, as a megaphone for officials of the US government. This call for censorship is a frightening development, and surprising even for a government which redefined terms in truly Orwellian ways in order to legalize “targeted killing” against “imminent threats” which are said not to imply immediacy.

The undeniable truth is that some of what Anwar Al-Awlaki said was true. Let’s consider a couple of examples. In an interview with National Geographic News on September 28, 2001, he said:

“My worry is that because of this conflict, the views of Osama bin Laden will become appealing to some of the population of the Muslim world. Never in the past were there any demonstrations raising the picture of Osama bin Laden–it has just happened now. So Osama bin Laden, who was considered to be an extremist, radical in his views, could end up becoming mainstream. That’s a very frightening thing, so the US needs to be very careful and not have itself perceived as an enemy of Islam.”

 In an interview on October 31, 2001, by Ray Suarez for PBS, Anwar al-Awlaki clarified his criticism of the US government and reiterated his opposition (at that time) to violent retaliation:

“Our position needs to be reiterated, and needs to be very clear. The fact that the US has administered the death and homicide of over 1 million civilians in Iraq, the fact that the US is supporting the deaths and killing of thousands of Palestinians, does not justify the killing of one US civilian in New York City or Washington, DC.”

How would preventing people from knowing what Al-Awlaki said protect the people of the United States? Obviously it would not. Censorship serves the purpose, instead, of shielding people from the truth, in this case, that there may indeed be a substantive answer, grounded in historical fact, to the question Why do they hate us?

If words spoken by people about crimes inspired young people to undertake jihad, then would that not imply that Shaker Aamer, who has been talking openly about the abuse which he endured while imprisoned for years without charges at Guantánamo Bay, should be silenced as well?  Jeremy Scahill, the author of Dirty Wars (2013), has also chronicled US war crimes and examines the case of Anwar al-Awlaki quite closely. Should Scahill be censored?

What about the brave drone operators who have stepped forward to denounce what they were persuaded to do and now deeply regret? Will such persons, who dare to share the grisly news about what the US government has been up to, be next in line for censorship? As a matter of fact, former drone sensor Brandon Bryant has revealed in social media that some of his interviews have already been removed from the internet.

There are plenty of recipes around for making bombs, and no one needs the words of Anwar Al-Awlaki to be incited to jihad. What radicalizes young men and women are not calls for homicide in the name of justice—for that they have the clear and ever-present example of the US government’s various killing campaigns. If both Osama bin Laden and Anwar Al-Awlaki were radicalized by US war crimes, then the only way to prevent the radicalization of other people just like them will be for the offending actions to stop.

Without halting the bombing which drives young people to seek retaliation, the tide of angry jihadists will never come to end. The persons being slaughtered are becoming younger and younger, as “high value” targets are destroyed and replaced in some cases by persons who have known nothing but war for most or all of their lives. The perverse insistence upon annihilating brown-skinned persons for their future potential to commit future possible crimes is no more and no less than a recipe for genocide. Regardless of whether Americans remain in a blithe state of ignorance about what is being done in their name, the people at the receiving end of missiles know very well what is being done, and some of them, like the perpetrators of the crimes of 9/11, vow to seek revenge.

Since the 1991 Gulf War, Muslims in lands far away, beginning with Iraq, have been treated as though they had no rights whatsoever. They have been systematically slaughtered at the caprice of US warmakers. Under Obama, suspects are denied even the opportunity to surrender. Nothing should be more obvious than that we cannot continue to do the same things over and over again, and then expect men such as Osama bin Laden not to emerge from the ashes left behind by US missiles and bombs.

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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: Strike First, Suppress Questions Later; Chapter 9: Death and Politics; and Chapter 12: Tyrants are as Tyrants do

A Letter from Four Former Drone Operators with Echoes from the Stimson Center Report

 

Former drone sensor operator Brandon Bryant has given interviews all over the world about his involvement in the US government’s drone program or “killing machine”, as it has been aptly labeled by some. He has not always met with sympathy from interviewers and commentators. I was especially struck by the antagonistic stance of one BBC reporter, Stephen Sackur, whose questions often hinged on questionable facts which he had accepted as the gospel truth. Here’s a YouTube video of the interview:

Where, for example, did the notion that Anwar al-Awlaki gave advice to the 9/11 attackers come from, if not from a myth fabricated for the public to rationalize the US citizen’s summary execution without trial in Yemen? For those who missed it, including Stephen Sackur, here’s what Anwar al-Awlaki said in an interview with National Geographic News on September 28, 2001:

“My worry is that because of this conflict, the views of Osama bin Laden will become appealing to some of the population of the Muslim world. Never in the past were there any demonstrations raising the picture of Osama bin Laden–it has just happened now. So Osama bin Laden, who was considered to be an extremist, radical in his views, could end up becoming mainstream. That’s a very frightening thing, so the US needs to be very careful and not have itself perceived as an enemy of Islam.”

 In an interview on October 31, 2001, by Ray Suarez for PBS, Anwar al-Awlaki said:

“Our position needs to be reiterated, and needs to be very clear. The fact that the US has administered the death and homicide of over 1 million civilians in Iraq, the fact that the US is supporting the deaths and killing of thousands of Palestinians, does not justify the killing of one US civilian in New York City or Washington, DC.”

It is possible, of course, that this was all a part of a grand and sneaky scheme on the part of Al-Awlaki to pretend to condemn the attacks which he “in fact” helped to orchestrate. It is also logically possible, I suppose, that the 9/11 hijackers attacked the United States because “they hate us for our freedom.” Far more probable—and logically tenable—is that 9/11 was blowback for the 1991 Gulf War and related US interventions, especially in Muslim lands, abroad.

Likewise, more probable than the conspiracy theory according to which Al-Awlaki was only pretending to denounce the attacks of 9/11 is the version of the story ably relayed by Jeremy Scahill in Dirty Wars: that the Muslim cleric was radicalized by the actions of the US government itself, which in aftermath of 9/11 did precisely what Al-Awlaki counseled against, by waging what could be reasonably interpreted as a war on Islam.

By executing Al-Awlaki, rather than indicting him and allowing him to stand trial, the US government effectively etched its own version of what transpired onto the tablets of history. Reporters such as Stephen Sackur simply assume that the US government version of the story is true, without doing so much as a cursory Google search to find out what Al-Awlaki was doing and saying back in 2001.

It is more than a little disturbing that so many journalists and reporters have uncritically parroted, replicated and disseminated whatever the US drone warriors say, even as they regularly contradict themselves and completely re-write the story of what they have done as circumstances dictate. Was Osama bin Laden armed when he was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan? The initial official story was that he was killed by Navy SEALS in legitimate self-defense, armed as the mastermind was with an AK-47. Later versions—some from the US government—have offered very different accounts of what transpired.

The obdurate refusal on the part of mainstream journalists to go beyond the official stories shared (and often “leaked”) by the government reveals that the Fourth Estate has effectively forsaken its democratic raison d’être–just as surely as US congresspersons did when in October 2002 they renounced their right and responsibility to check the power of the executive to wage war at his caprice. The result? The 2003 invasion of Iraq, and everything to ensue, up to and including the ongoing ISIS-driven quagmire in Syria.

When brave men such as Brandon Bryant step forward to share the ghastly reality of what is being done in the drone program, they are naturally met with skepticism and sometimes ire. Why? Because if what they are saying is true—and there is no compelling reason for thinking that they lie—then the US government has gone morally awry in its politically driven effort to convince citizens that they are being kept safe through a concerted and wide-ranging program of “targeted killing” (formerly known as “assassination”) abroad.

In assessing the credibility of this witness, it is important to bear in mind that Brandon Bryant was not fired from his position. He quit his job and declined even to accept a generous bonus (aka “bribe”) for staying on. Why? Because he could no longer continue in good conscience to do what he had come to believe was wrong.

Here is a recent letter sent to the powers that be by Bryant and three kindred spirits, Cian Westmoreland, Stephen Lewis, and Michael Haas:

    
 
 (source: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/2515596-final-drone-letter.html — Contributed by: Ed Pilkington, The Guardian)

 

It is worth pointing out that in the first paragraph of the letter these admirable souls have clearly articulated some of the very concerns aired by the Stimson Center task force in its US government-commissioned report of 2014. One rarely hears mention of it these days, but the administration agreed to subject the drone program to scrutiny by an independent group of academics, industry experts, and former military officers. Unfortunately, no one in power appears to have read the report, which, in addition to advising that lethal drones be taken out of the hands of the CIA, also clearly warns in its Executive Summary:

Blowback: Civilian casualties, even if relatively few, can anger whole communities, increase anti-US sentiment and become a potent recruiting tool for terrorist organizations. Even strikes that kill only terrorist operatives can cause great resentment, particularly in contexts in which terrorist recruiting efforts rely on tribal loyalties or on an economically desperate population. UAV strikes by the United States have also generated a backlash in states not directly affected by the strikes, in part due to the perception that such strikes cause excessive civilian deaths, and in part due to concerns about sovereignty, transparency, accountability and other human rights and rule of law issues.”

Sound familiar? Military and drone program supporters may dismiss out of hand the testimony of former drone operators—writing them off as PTSD victims, disgruntled employees, or simply “bad apples”. But can any of those terms be applied to the Stimson center committee, the members of which were appointed by the US government?

Perhaps Obama, Brennan & Co. (literally) were hoping for a report which would conclude by patting the drone warriors on the back and exhorting them to continue on in their quest to kill brown-skinned suspects wherever they may be said to hide, working from “evidence” furnished by privately contracted analysts with strong reasons of financial self-interest to generate longer and longer kill lists–as long as they can.

 

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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