The Army *really* wants YOU to become a government contract killer!

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One might have thought, with the advent of remote-control killing and combatant-free warfare, that it would be the easiest thing in the world to lure new recruits into the military in the twenty-first century, especially given the rapidity with which entire professions continue to disappear. Where in the world can a young person find a well-paying, salaried position with good benefits, a pension package—and even healthcare? Where else can one find a job guaranteed NEVER to disappear, no matter what future technology may bring?

All of those perks, and the progressive removal of soldierly risk from the war equation, have still not sufficed to fill the ranks, even as the Iraq fiasco fades fast from popular cultural memory. Witness the British Army’s recently launched, bold marketing campaign, which targets, well, anyone! You may be the Class Clown, a Me-Me-Me Millennial, an i-phone Zombie, a Selfie Addict, a Binge Gamer, or even a Snowflake! Sure, the personality traits often corresponding to those types–irresponsibility, narcissism, OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), ADHD (attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder), and excessive sensitivity–may have disqualified prospective enlistees in the twentieth century. But no more!

What used to be vices have become, in the Drone Age, reimagined as virtues!

 

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It comes as no surprise, of course, that military recruiters are targeting gamers and I-phone zombies. What the twenty-first century warrior needs, above all, is the ability to stare at a screen in a small, dark room, for many hours a day. Binge Gamers have the added credential of having already spent thousands of hours of their life attempting to “light up” icons on their computer screens. Why not put this skill to work in lighting up real live human beings????

 

But there is room in the technologically advanced, twenty-first-century Killing Machine military for Me-Me-Me Millennials and Selfie Addicts, too! Who better to recruit to erase other people–designated by someone somewhere as “evil”–from existence? Why it’s a dream come true for any self-respecting narcissist: you can play God Almighty, possessing the power to wipe other people from the face of the planet with the push of a button!

 

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And it’s always good to have someone on hand with a sense of humor–as “towel heads” and “Hadjis”, “rats”, “mice”, “rabbits”, and “bugs” are systematically snuffed out, or “splashed”–to remind stodgier types present that “This wasn’t a bake sale,” and “You know what’s going on in the BadaBing!” Hooaah!

 

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The surest sign that things are not going so well in the recruitment departments of modern military institutions is that they are now reaching out, improbably, to Snowflakes as well! But there is an explanation for this, too. First, Snowflakes like safe spaces. What could be safer than a hermetically sealed metal shipping container located in a desert thousands of miles away from the battlefield? And should the Snowflake experience any compunction whatsoever about what he or she has done, that will be remedied immediately with a liberal dose of some of the latest and greatest pharmaceutical developments being lavished upon modern soldiers, both on and off “the battlefield”: antidepressants, anti-anxiety antidotes, antipsychotic meds used for off-label conditions such as insomnia, the sky is the limit–the list goes on and on!

militaryvirtues

Eye in the Sky: Where Nihilism and Hegemony Coincide

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Eye in the Sky (2015) is the first feature-length film about drone warfare to have received a decent amount of mainstream attention. This no doubt has something to do with the high-caliber cast, including lead roles by Helen Mirren as Colonel Katherine Powell, and Alan Rickman as Lieutenant General Frank Benson. Big names imply big budgets. But there’s another reason why this movie, directed by Gavin Hood, has been discussed more than National Bird (2016), Good Kill (2015), Drone (2014), Drones (2013), Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars (2013), or Dirty Wars (2013).

None of these films is entertaining. Eye in the Sky, like some of the others in this growing genre, presents itself as a work of historical fiction, grounded in what is supposed to be a realistic portrayal of the contemporary practice of drone warfare against persons suspected of association with radical jihadist groups. But rather than condemning the remote-control killers, as the other films unequivocally do, Eye in the Sky portrays the protagonists wrestling with the complexities of morality before launching missiles and then congratulating one another on their success.

The “evil enemy” here, in Nairobi, Kenya, is Al Shabaab, and the fate of one of their cells is the subject of lengthy and sophistic “just war” debate among the drone warriors. A contingent of US and British military and civilian officials communicate with one another from different parts of the world over Skype-like video feed, and after arguing over the course of the workday, they ultimately decide to execute the suspects, who appear to be preparing to carry out a suicide attack in the proximate future or, as the drone warriors would say, “imminently”.

One of the suspects is a US citizen, recently recruited from Minnesota, and two are British nationals. The white woman, Susan Danford—nom de guerre Ayesha Al Hady—has been tracked by Colonel Powell for a remarkable six years. Powell is keen to kill Danford, even after having summarized her life’s story as that of a person who came from a troubled household, married a terrorist, and was converted to the jihadist cause as a result of her vulnerability.

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The mission is supposed to culminate in capture, not killing, but when the group of suspects convenes at a house where a suicide vest is being assembled and a video message filmed, the military officials immediately call for a missile strike, to the initial protests of the civilian political officials in attendance, who insist that they are there to witness a capture, not a targeted assassination.

The rest of the film is essentially an extended consideration of a version of what professional analytic philosophers call “The Trolley Problem,” a thought experiment wherein people are persuaded that they must kill some people in order to save others. Such hypothetical scenarios—like the proverbial ticking bomb, which is said by some to illustrate the necessity of torture under certain circumstances—involve an eerie desire on the part of some thinkers to persuade others to condone what, left to their own devices, they would never have agreed to do. As David Swanson has correctly observed, there is no known case in reality of drone warriors who kill a person and his entourage as they strap a suicide vest onto the martyr’s chest. That is why singling out this wildly implausible and entirely hypothetical scenario as representative of drone warfare in general is a consummate expression of pro-military propaganda.

eyeintheskydroneoperatorsEye in the Sky attempts to portray the dilemmas involved in drone warfare but ultimately serves to promote the drone warriors’ all-too-sophistic modes of reasoning. Rather than ask deep and important questions such as how Al-Shabaab became such a powerful force in, first, Somalia and, later, places such as Kenya, the film allows the viewer steeped in New York Times headlines touting “Six Suspected Militants Slain” to float along blissfully in his or her state of ignorance regarding what precisely the US and British governments have been doing in the Middle East for the past sixteen years.

No indication is made of the fact—and frankly I’d be surprised if Director Hood himself were aware—that the US-backed 2006 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia led directly to a massive increase in local support for Al-Shabaab. It’s all-too-easy and comforting to swallow the official line that the members of local militias being targeted by drone strikes are “bad guys” who need to be extirpated from the face of the earth, even when it is likely that many of the people intentionally destroyed have been dissidents (or their “associates”) seeking to challenge the central government authority. (See Yemen for another example.)

It is abundantly clear from the very fact that new recruits from the United States and Britain—indeed, the very targets of the mission in this story—have been primarily either troubled youths or persons outraged at the Western devastation of the Middle East, and now Africa. Yet the film blithely allows the viewer to persist in puzzlement over the perennial question: Why do they hate us?

eyeintheskyhouseColonel Powell wants to kill people, as is obvious by her calling for a missile strike even before explosives are seen at the meeting place. (Do the director and screenwriter win points from feminists for making the most ruthless military killer and her radical jihadist quarry both women? Or from progressives for making them white?)

Both Colonel Powell and General Benson consider Susan Danford’s allegiance with Al-Shabaab to be, essentially, a capital offense. They don’t bother with niceties such as the fact that capital punishment has been outlawed in the United Kingdom. Instead, the military personnel seek refuge in and parrot the simpleminded terms of just war theory which they learned in first-year ethics class at the military academy.

The missile strike is said to be a military necessity, proportional, and a last resort. It has furthermore been authorized by the legitimate authority, aka the US president, to whom the British continue to defer, even after the scathing Chilcot report in which Prime Minister Tony Blair was taken to task for embroiling Britain in the ill-fated 2003 invasion of Iraq. As though none of that ever happened, when President Barack Obama normalized the targeted assassination of anyone in any place on the planet where radical jihadist terrorists are said by some anonymous analyst to reside, Prime Minister David Cameron, too, followed suit. In August 2015, he authorized missile strikes from drones against British nationals in Syria, despite the Parliament’s having voted down his call for war in 2013.

Perhaps Cameron was impressed by Barack Obama and drone killing czar John Brennan’s oft-flaunted fluency in just war rhetoric. Unfortunately, in Eye in the Sky, the sophomoric facility of the assassins with the terms of just war theory may, too, be taken as evidence to ignorant viewers that these people in uniform know what they are talking about and should be trusted with the delicate decision of where, when, and why to summarily execute human beings who have not been charged with crimes, much less permitted to stand trial.

The question how a missile strike in a country not at war can be conceived of as a military necessity is altogether ignored in this film, as though it were already a settled matter. Someone in the US government (President Obama under the advisement of John Brennan, former president and CEO of The Analysis Corporation, the business of which is terrorist targeting analysis) decreed that the entire world was a battlefield, and this opened up every place and other governments to the delusive casuistry of just war theorists, including their most strident advocates for war, the self-styled “humanitarian hawks”.

eyeintheskylocalNo matter that in this case there are no military soldiers from either the United States or Britain on the ground to be harmed. No matter that their collaborators are local spies who do in fact commit acts of treachery against their compatriots and are indeed brutally executed when this is discovered. Despite the complete absence of any of the aspects of a war which might warrant a missile strike as a military necessity—above all, that soldiers on the ground will otherwise die—the itchy trigger drone warriors point to their version of the dreaded Trolley Problem and a false and misleading application of utilitarianism to convince the naysayers that they must approve the launch of a missile in order to avert an even worse tragedy.

The military personnel are more persuasive than the sole civilian dissenter, and no one seems to be bothered in the least by questions of strategy. The word ‘blowback’ is never even mentioned in this film. But judging by the growth of ISIS and Al-Shabaab over the past decade, and the testimony of suicide bombers such as Humam Al-Balawi (the Jordanian doctor who blew up a group of CIA personnel at Camp Chapman in 2009—in direct retaliation to US missile strikes on Pakistan), the tactic of drone assassination can reasonably be expected to cause the ranks of jihadists to continue to swell. No one denies that during the occupation of Iraq, an effective recruiting tactic of factional groups was to point to the civilians harmed by the Western infidels as confirmation that they were indeed the evil enemy. Knowing all of this, it does not seem unfair to ask: Is “military necessity” now conceived by the remote-control killers as whatever will ensure the continuation of a war?

eyeintheskybreadIn Eye in the Sky, the drone warriors are more than willing to risk the life of a little girl who has set up a table where she is selling loaves of bread because, they say, if they do not act immediately then perhaps eighty little children just like her will be killed instead. No mention is made of the psychological trauma suffered by the people who do not die in drone strikes, but witness what has transpired. (When was the last time one of your neighbors’ houses was cratered by a Hellfire missile?) Instead, the collateral damage estimate (CDE) so conscientiously calculated by a hapless soldier pressured by Colonel Powell to produce an estimated likelihood of the girl’s death at less than 50% altogether ignores the 100% probability that she and everyone in the neighborhood will be terrorized.

But even focusing solely on the likely lethality of the strike, the drone warriors in Eye in the Sky display what is in reality a lethal lack of imagination, an utter failure to conceive of counter measures such as warning the people in nearby markets and public places of the impending danger. That is because, in the minds of the drone warriors, if one terrorist attack is thwarted, then another will surely be carried out later on down the line. By this mode of reasoning, they have arrived at the depressing and nihilistic conclusion that they must kill all of the suspects. What would be the point of doing anything else?

Recruits from Western societies, young people such as Junaid Hussain, Reyaad Khan, and Ruhul Amin, are assumed to be beyond the reach of reason, despite the glaring fact that their recent conversion to the jihadist cause itself reveals that they have changed their view before and could, in principle, change it again. Nonetheless, the drone warriors persist in their worship of death as the be-all and end-all of foreign policy. They are literally trapped in the lethality box, because they cannot conceive of any other way of dealing with factional terrorism than by killing people. When obviously innocent persons are destroyed, maimed, terrorized and left bereft by Western missiles, these acts of so-called military necessity end by galvanizing support for the Anti-Western jihadist cause, both near the strike site and in lands far away.

Realistically, what self-respecting father would not wish to avenge the death of his young child at the hands of the murderous drone warriors who are so despicable as to kill without risking any danger to themselves? Instead of thinking through the likely implications of what they are doing, the drone warriors persist in invoking delusive just war rhetoric to promote what they want to do: kill the evil enemy. But the use of lethal drones in what has been successfully marketed to taxpayers as “smart war”, eliminates soldierly risk only by transferring it to civilians on the ground. No matter that new recruits continue to flock to the jihadist cause, seems to be the thinking of our great military minds, missiles are in ample supply.

It is a depressing view of humanity indeed which sees homicide as the solution to conflict when in fact it is its primary cause. But the delusion of the drone assassins is even worse than the corruption of criminal contract killers because they emetically congratulate each other, as in this film, for pushing buttons to eliminate their fellow human beings from the face of the earth, as though this were some kind of accomplishment, rather than the worst of all possible crimes.

New recruits such as Susan Danford will never stop arising from the ashes of drone strike sites until the drone strikes have come to a halt. Indulging in a false and Manichean division of people into black and white categories of good and evil, the killers corrupt more and more young people to collaborate with them, both informants and drone operators. Those who perform well in their jobs rise in the ranks to become the commanders of future killers, until at last the entire society is filled with people who upon watching a film such as Eye in the Sky end by sympathizing not with the victims but with those who destroyed them.

eyeintheskybeetledroneFocused as they will be upon this simpleminded “Trolley Problem” portrayal of drone warfare, Western viewers will likely miss altogether the obscene hegemonic presumptions of the killers who use beetle- and bird-sized drones to penetrate the private homes of people in order to stop them from wreaking havoc in countries where there are no US or British soldiers on the ground to harm. To pretend that all of this killing is for the benefit of the locals is delusional to the point of insanity.

If serial Western military interventions had not destroyed country after country across the Middle East, beginning with Iraq in 1991, then there would be no “evil enemy” to confront in the first place. To continue to ignore the words of jihadists themselves when they rail against the savage butchery of millions of Muslim people by the US military and its poodles is but the most flagrant expression of this smug hegemony. No, I am afraid, they do not hate us for our freedom.

In Eye in the Sky, anyone who opposes the use of military weapons against people living in their own civil society thousands of miles away is painted as a coward and a fool, as though there were some sort of moral obligation to launch missiles to save a hypothetical group of eighty people. The very same killers do not feel any obligation whatsoever to provide food, shelter, and potable water to the people living in such societies, even when the $70K cost of a single missile could be repurposed to save many more than eighty lives, in addition to winning over “hearts and minds”.

Here is the ugly truth shining through the willingness to kill but not to save lives in nonhomicidal ways: Peace does not pay. The drone killing machine is the latest and most lucrative instantiation of the military-industrial-congressional-media-academic-pharmaceutical-logistics complex. That Westerners continue to be taken in by this hoax is tragic for the people of Africa and the Middle East mercilessly terrorized (when they are not maimed or incinerated) while the killers gloat over what they take to be their moral courage.

eyeintheskybensonNear the end of the film, Lieutenant Colonel Benson sanctimoniously admonishes the sole remaining dissenter among the witnesses to the mission, which she has denounced as “disgraceful”. He smugly retorts to her suggestion that he is a coward: “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.” But the cost of the remote-control elimination of persons suspected of complicity in terrorism is not merely the tragic loss of human life. It is the destruction of such killers’ souls and the concomitant creation of even more killers who feel the need to retaliate in turn. It is the fact that they have rolled back all of the moral progress in procedural justice made by human societies since the 1215 Magna Carta. It is the fact that their dogged insistence on perpetuating and spreading this practice to the darkest and least democratic corners of the planet represents a categorical denial of human rights.

Level Talk. Have Drones Put an End to ‘Just Wars’?

 

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In this 28-minute interview on Sputnik Radio Edinburgh, guests Laurie Calhoun and Peter Lee (a Reader in Politics & Ethics at the University of Portsmouth) discuss with host John Harrison whether lethal drones have fundamentally changed the conduct of warfare, to the point where international protocols grounded in the “just war” tradition are now being ignored.

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http://sptnkne.ws/dzsA

Level Talk. We Kill Because We Can: The Advancement of Drones

1020549159In this 27-minute interview on Sputnik Radio Edinburgh, author Laurie Calhoun, Professor David Stupples of the City University of London, and host John Harrison discuss current and future problems with the use of lethal drones:

http://sptnkne.ws/dvJK

ROAR Magazine “State of Control” issue coming soon…

Very happy to be a contributor to ROAR magazine. My essay, “The Drone Assassination Assault on Democracy,” appears in issue #4, “State of Control”, of this exciting new publication.

Check it out, and subscribe if you can:

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https://roarmag.org/2016/12/06/subscribe-now-roar-issue-4/

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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British Drone Strike Targets in the Light of the Chilcot Report

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On July 6, 2016, the Report of the Iraq Inquiry, better known as the Chilcot Report, was finally published after more than six years of work by Chair of the Inquiry, Sir John Chilcot. The aim of the study, which began in 2009 and was initiated by then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown, was to consider the UK’s policy on Iraq from 2001 to 2009 and to “identify lessons for the future” by answering two key questions:

  1. Whether it was right and necessary to invade Iraq in 2003, and
  2. Whether the UK could—and should—have been better prepared for what followed

The study ended up taking four years longer than the projected two years, and it cost more than £10 million to carry out. The conclusions have been widely affirmed as damning of Tony Blair, the prime minister who chose to ally the United Kingdom with the United States in its invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq.

The report spans multiple volumes, but The Guardian has put together a nice summary of the most important points, a few of which I’ll paraphrase here:

–The war was not a last resort. The UK joined the war effort before peaceful options had been exhausted.

–PM Tony Blair deliberately exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. There was no imminent threat. Furthermore, Britain’s intelligence agencies produced “flawed information”, skewed by a confirmation bias that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD (weapons of mass destruction). Essentially, British intelligence accepted the burden of proof put forth by the US government: that Iraq needed to demonstrate that it had no WMD. (NB: such negative proofs are logically impossible. Try proving the nonexistence of Santa Claus–or God, for that matter.)

–Blair assured US President George W. Bush that he would join the war effort without fail: “I will be with you, whatever.”

For the most part, the six year, £10 million+ study basically concluded what millions of antiwar protesters had no difficulty recognizing back in 2002.

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Now that the UK government itself has concluded that Blair made serious errors while acting in the capacity of prime minister, many people have called for his criminal indictment. The most promising charge would have to be that he misled, and therefore coerced, the British people into participating in a war against their own national interest. In the wake of the report, Blair has stood by his decision to embroil the UK in the war in Iraq, claiming that he meant well. Once again we find that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” (See: just war theory for more on that…)

One topic which has not been addressed by any of the many commentators on the Chilcot Report—at least not to my knowledge—is whether it does not also mandate a reconsideration of the treatment of Britain’s allegedly treasonous enemies, young men who have turned against the UK government as a direct result of its complicity in the destruction of the country of Iraq, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of human beings, and the harm to millions more, many of whom were forced to flee their homeland as a result of the postwar violence and insecurity.

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Junaid Hussain

I am interested specifically in the cases of three young British nationals, Ruhul Amin, Reyaad Khan, and Junaid Hussein, all of whom were incinerated by lethal drone while living in Syria, to which they fled in order to join the ISIS effort. The reason why the stories of these young men, denounced by the UK government as “evil terrorists” and threats to national security, trouble me is because they were deliberately destroyed by their own government without ever having stood trial or even been indicted for their alleged crimes.

 

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Ruhul Amin

Two of the targets, Ruhul Amin and Reyaad Khan, were taken out on August 21, 2015, by missiles fired from drones by the RAF under the authorization of then-Prime Minister David Cameron. The third target, Junaid Hussein, was eliminated on August 25, 2015, by a US drone with the help of British intelligence. (Other persons were killed in a previous strike aiming for him.) All in all, August 2015 was a precedent-setting month for Britain, a nation in which capital punishment has been outlawed and which was not officially at war in Syria, where these British nationals were hunted down and killed.

 

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Reyaad Khan

Two of the three alleged enemies of the state were 21 years of age at the time of their death; the third was 26 years old. They all died in late 2015, which implies that two of the targets were 9 years old when the UK government joined the ill-advised war on Iraq; the third was 14 years old. This means that they were children or young adolescents at the time of the invasion of Iraq. Their entire worldview was obviously affected by the war on Iraq, for they later decided to team up with whoever was fighting those responsible.

In other words, if Britain had not joined forces with the United States, which would have made it very, very difficult for the war to proceed, as there would not have been a “coalition of the willing” but only a rogue aggressor state, then in all likelihood Iraq would not have been destroyed, and the group which came to be known as ISIS would not have grown and spread from Iraq to Syria.

These are all counterfactual conditionals, of course. My point is only that if ISIS never came to be in its present form, because the people of Iraq were not subjected to oppression and lawless aggression—night raids, summary executions, detentions and torture—then the British drone strike targets destroyed with the blessing of David Cameron could not and would not have joined forces with the group now known as ISIS.

I therefore find that, in addition to being responsible for all of the death and destruction in Iraq, Tony Blair bears responsibility not only for the deaths of Ruhul Amin, Reyaad Khan, and Junaid Hussain, but also for Prime Minister David Cameron’s summary execution without trial of these men. In saying this, I do not mean to absolve Cameron for his mistake, for he himself identified his victims as enemies of the state and arguably violated both British and international law by assassinating them. Cameron should never have followed US President Obama’s misguided precedent in summarily executing without trial his fellow citizens.

However, Tony Blair is equally culpable, in my view, for having contributed to this return to a medieval, pre-Magna Carta framework of justice being perpetrated by unjust warriors as necessary only because of their own prior crimes and the existence of a sophisticated modern technology, the unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV), without which none of these deaths would have occurred (see: We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age).

It is tragic that so many young Muslim men are being annihilated for reacting violently to what they correctly identify to have been atrocious crimes committed in a misguided war (see: Chilcot Report). The state warriors and the factional terrorists sadly all embrace the same confused premise: that conflict can be resolved by obliterating anyone who disagrees. Ruhul Amin, Reyaad Khan and Junaid Hussain are graphic illustrations of how young people are being molded into jihadists by their witness of state-perpetrated war crimes, and their heartfelt desire to stop them.

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What’s Conspicuously Missing from the Big Bad Brexit Debate Drama?

 

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My informal survey yesterday of a random sample of the good people of the village of Burnham, Buckinghamshire, and my short random exit poll survey this morning both revealed a strong outpouring of support for Brexit. None of the people with whom I spoke struck me as racists, and most did not even mention the topic of immigration, though all signs point to immigration as one of the most important factors in voters’ decision-making on this historic day. Yes, for the first time in more than forty years, the British people are being permitted to weigh in on the wisdom of their country’s membership in the European Union.

One of the most interesting things I noticed in chatting with these people was that they often began revealing their preference for “Leave” in a hesitant, hushed voice. Once they realized that I was not a Remain Shamer, some of them began pouring out their many concerns. I spoke with a nurse whose retirement was postponed for four years by the EU. I spoke with a woman with small children who had noticed that the National Health Service (NHS) had become difficult to access. Of course, the Tories are certainly in part to blame for that, but it does not help, she lamented, that there is so much competition for the already scarce social resources.

A couple of people were angry about Prime Minister David Cameron’s doom-and-gloom “the sky will fall if we leave!” narrative. One person expressed offense at President Obama’s threat to the effect that Britain will go to “the end of the queue” for trade if they leave the EU. I got the distinct impression that Brits do not generally believe that Britain will suffer any long-term damage from leaving the EU, though they are aware that there will be bumps initially, whatever the outcome of the EU referendum ends up being.

It seems obvious to most people that lots of nations are not members of the EU, as Britain was not before, and they are doing quite well. Many people (not only the people with whom I spoke, but elsewhere on the internet) have expressed consternation about the topic of trade, not knowing whom to believe. The bankers? The EU technocrats and political elites? Why in the world should it be more difficult for Britain to trade freely than to navigate the volumes of regulations pumped out by the EU? How could it be more difficult for small businesses to not have to comply with the edicts of Eurocrats before selling their products and services abroad?

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The people with whom I spoke seemed far more concerned about sovereignty and self-determination than anything else. A few mentioned “control” over their own laws. A casual glance at the inflammatory Remain campaign rhetoric being pumped out would suggest that all Brexit supporters are somehow enamored of Nigel Farage and the UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party). Not so, however. (Perhaps that’s why Farage skipped his last debate? Did he finally realize that, like Cameron, he was hurting, not helping, the cause he so ardently champions?)

Of course, it is entirely possible that many people are really concerned above all about immigration but wish to avoid being associated with racists and far-right extremist groups. Some crazy person assassinated MP Jo Cox last week, and there was an immediate poll effect: Remain got a big boost, as did the markets. This happened because people were moved by emotions to conclude that Brexit advocates must be crazy people. Obviously, that’s a non sequitur of gargantuan proportion, but good luck explaining that to emotion-driven voters. Particularly in this debate, where scare tactics, fear-mongering, and appeals to emotion are everywhere on display.

One thing is clear: no one with whom I spoke understands how the admission of an ever-lengthening list of new member nations is supposed to strengthen the European Union—which everyone on both sides of the debate appears to agree is a sinking ship. If all of the new members are worse off economically than the United Kingdom, then how can the new members possibly contribute to plugging the hole in the hull?

This just seems like common sense to many people: How many Brits want to move to Croatia or Albania? I am guessing that the number is rather small. And so there is bound to be real concern among the British people about the projected increase in their population in the coming years. Some of these people may have racist fears, but the numbers alone are enough to cause one to pause.

Moreover, the more member nations there are in the European Union, the less important becomes any single country’s voice, including that of Britain. Each time the EU grows larger, each member state (aside from the new inductees) automatically has less, not more, power.

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I am well aware that some advocates of Brexit are far-right racists, but others simply abhor bureaucratic, democratically unaccountable hegemons. One wouldn’t know it from scanning the acrimonious ugliness poured out by self-styled “liberals” on Twitter and Facebook, but there are some pretty solid progressive arguments for Brexit.

For one thing, the trade agreements recently negotiated in secret—the TPP, TTIP and TISA—are all tyrannical megacorporate monstrosities inimical to workers everywhere. Any latte-sipping member of the bourgeoisie who claims to favor Remain without first studying the effect of these agreements on the workers of the world is a liberal only in name. (One can learn a lot about the Remain bloc by checking out the arguments proffered by #CatsAgainstBrexit on Twitter…)

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My own honest puzzlement about this entire dispute is over the issue of immigration, but not in the way in which anyone else appears to be worried. To be perfectly frank, I have never understood how granting preferential status to fellow Europeans (most of whom are, I believe, Caucasians) is somehow less racist than treating all outsiders equally. This is a serious puzzle for me. Please step forward in the comments section to disabuse me of my misconceptions here, but how is it supposed to be less racist to permit unskilled Europeans to move freely throughout the European Union but not, say, Africans or Muslims from the Middle East?

This brings us, at last, to the now notorious “Breaking Point” poster denounced by fair-minded liberals the world over:

 BreakingPoint

Everyone seems to grasp intuitively that this poster is abhorrent. But no one, as far as I have seen, is discussing how this picture was made possible. The truth is that the above picture of a mass of homeless human beings came about only because of fierce military intervention in the Middle East, with the United States as the primary perpetrator, but other Western nations, including the United Kingdom, also bombing Muslim nations on a regular basis, thereby catalyzing the exodus of large numbers of people, who quite naturally wish to preserve their own lives, as any rational person in their situation would.

President Obama dropped more than 23,000 bombs on Muslim-majority nations in 2015 alone. Some were delivered by drones; others by manned combat aircraft. Either way, that’s a lot of bombs, and that’s a lot of “death from the sky,” to quote his speech at Hiroshima. Under Obama’s leadership, the United States is fighting wars and providing homicidal weapons to rebels in at least seven different countries in the Middle East alone.

Small wonder that the populations of those lands have been leaving in a steady stream—or tsunami, as the case may be. What else can they do? Too bad they can’t come to the United States, because that is where all of those people belong, given the reason for their displacement. Only when the people of the United States begin to suffer the consequences of their government’s military intervention abroad will they finally be motivated to call a halt to the mass homicide committed in their name.

 

Remembering the Magna Carta

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It took a long time for human societies to come up with the idea of universal human rights and the equality of persons under the law. Before 1215, monarchs could capriciously decree “Off with their heads!” and dispatch anyone with impunity. In the short term, leaders were the equivalent of terrestrial gods, acting with the divine right of kings, according to the received wisdom of the times. If mistakes were made, they would be dealt with in the afterlife.

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Only in the thirteenth century did the absolute authority of the monarch begin seriously to be questioned. Admittedly, the first attempts were not driven by pure quests for morality or justice on the part of leaders themselves. The first steps taken were rather practical in nature, and there were many false starts before the notions of liberty and human dignity began to take hold. The earliest kings to begin the process of forging what would eventually come to be embraced as human rights were amenable to negotiation on contentious matters, including the meting out of justice, for the self-interested or prudential reason that they needed the cooperation of other people in order to govern their domains smoothly.

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Full rights were not extended to all people everywhere for many, many centuries, but it all started with the Magna Carta and the path-breaking idea that the arbitrary justice handed down by monarchs up until that time needed to be moderated. Small concessions led to larger ones and were incorporated in the government constitutions of many Western democratic states, including the United States of America. The ideas continued to be developed and expanded until finally, in the mid-twentieth century, universal human rights were codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In the twenty-first century, the idea of universal human rights has taken some serious hits. Ironically, it is the ultramodern technology used to annihilate persons by remote-control which has caused a regression to pre-Magna Carta times in matters of justice. George W. Bush was the first US president to dispatch persons with this technology, but he used it primarily in connection with the already waged wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Much of the use of drones during Bush’s terms of office involved the protection of forces on the ground. Not all, however, for Bush also used drones, albeit selectively, in places such as Yemen and Pakistan, in a quest to hunt down and eliminate alleged Al Qaeda terrorists.

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President Barack Obama deserves even more censure than Bush on the drone front, having effectively normalized the practice of assassination at a distance. Obama thought that he was being a technologically savvy “smart warrior”, but the most cursory glance at the situation in the Middle East reveals that he was sorely wrong. Much of the US populace regards Obama as a cautious warrior, because he has done most of his killing quietly and covertly, characteristically refusing to share his lethal practices and policies with the public under cover of State Secrets Privilege said to be necessitated by national security.

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Obama’s decision to execute thousands of suspects without warning or trial using Predator drones is particularly disturbing in the light of the statistics on Guantánamo Bay prison, where the majority of the prisoners were discovered after years of detention to have been erroneously apprehended. The intel just wasn’t that good. Bribed informants are obviously subject to mercenary corruption, and this fact was starkly confirmed by the plight of terrorist suspects incarcerated under the authority of George W. Bush.

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One might have hoped that this lesson would be taken to heart by the subsequent US administration, but it was not. Instead, Obama dealt with the problem of suspects by defining them as guilty until proven innocent. Sound familiar? That would be the pre-Magna Carta template of justice. The sovereign power decrees “Off with their heads!” and that is the end of their story.

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It was shocking to many people when, in 2011, Obama opted to assassinate even US citizens Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan and, two weeks later, Al-Awlaki’s son, Abdulrahman, in Yemen. Unfortunately, many people wanted to give Obama the benefit of the doubt, so impeachment proceedings were never carried out. In truth, what he started is bound to grow worse under the most likely successors to the US throne. But we did not even have to wait until the end of Obama’s term to see the nefarious potential for harm set by his precedent rolling back the progress made by republican governments over hundreds of years.

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Ironically, it was during the year of the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, penned in Runnymede, West of London, that UK Prime Minister David Cameron decided to strap on his drone warrior holster and whack a couple of his own countrymen, Ruhal Amin and Reyaad Khan. The British Parliament had already explicitly voted against war in Syria, and yet that was precisely where Cameron carried out the assassinations using unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), better known as “lethal drones”.

It is depressing that the tendency of people to accord Barack Obama the benefit of the doubt has ended by undoing so much good done by so many people who toiled over so many centuries to establish basic protections for all people under the law. When the leader of a nation chooses to execute his compatriots on the basis of secretive intelligence to which only he and his henchmen are privy, then it is difficult to see how this differs at all from what went on before 1215.

Every monarch throughout history who decreed “Off with their heads!” believed that he was doing the right thing. Often they felt entirely justified in what they were doing, primarily protecting their own domain and shoring up their power against threats. What reason can the US and UK governments possibly have for not observing the most basic protections guaranteed by the laws of the land, and codified in Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

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The claim made by Obama has always been that capture is “infeasible”, but the cases of the unarmed Osama bin Laden, who was shot and killed in cold blood, and Anwar al-Awlaki, who was released from a prison in Yemen only to be hunted down and slain, reveal that “infeasibility” has now come to mean “undesirability”. In some ways the execution of British nationals authorized by David Cameron is even more shocking, because the death penalty is prohibited under both British law and the EU Charter. (Oddly enough, Cameron himself opposes Brexit!)

Political leaders can generally be depended on to try to outdo their predecessors, just as Obama did vis-à-vis Bush on the drone front. That is precisely why the legacy of Barack Obama will be none other than the increased propensity to “strike first, suppress questions later,” to prove that whoever the new president ends up being is “tougher” on terrorism than Obama was.

Let no one be fooled by the fact that for most of his eight-year term Obama resolutely recited “no boots on the ground” in the manner of a mantra. After years of covert operations, drone strikes, and weapons provisions to “appropriately vetted moderate rebel forces”, the Middle East is a morass of lawlessness and homicide. We reap what we sow. Now even Obama has sent combat troops to most of the several lands where he has ruthlessly used drones to kill persons whose names are not even known, along with “high-value” targets who became enemies of the state only because of the US invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, and Syria using implements of mass homicide, Special Forces, intelligence operatives, and regular combat soldiers.

The Magna Carta was the beginning of the full recognition of human liberty and dignity, and an acknowledgement that no mere mortal possesses the divine powers of omniscience. Mistakes are made. Politicians and bureaucrats are sometimes corrupt and sometimes amoral. That is precisely why we have laws to guard against the very tyranny which Obama and Cameron have chosen so myopically to embrace and hold up as an example for leaders all over the world, in both democratic and nondemocratic states.

The road to liberty and universal human rights was long and tortuous. The road to tyranny, thousands of victims have now learned at the hands of the US and UK governments, is short and direct, rather like driving down a street which terminates off the edge of a cliff. The fact that most US and UK citizens have not suffered summary execution has persuaded many to believe that nothing has really changed. In fact, everything has changed, but not in the way which any of the early supporters of Obama might have hoped.

To freely forsake one’s right to be indicted and tried for a capital crime before being annihilated by the state is a luxury enjoyed only by already free people. To condone the drone warriors’ willful denial of the historical and political significance of the Magna Carta is to prevent that same liberty from being shared by all people everywhere.

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The False Dichotomies of Drone Warfare: Drone Strike (2013), directed by Chris Richmond

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I have long believed that well-made films offer a rich source of moral insight, and Drone Strike, directed by Chris Richmond, is no exception to the rule. It’s a very short film, less than twenty minutes long, but like a carefully crafted short-story, it packs a mighty punch. The primary means of conveying its message is to switch back and forth between two families in two very different contexts: a white-skinned family living amidst all of the modern conveniences in the United Kingdom, and a brown-skinned family living with hardly any modern conveniences in Afghanistan.

The father and husband in the UK, Will Brydon, is a Royal Air Force (RAF) drone operator. He dons a uniform, grabs a quick breakfast with his family, kisses his wife goodbye, and drives his car off to work, dropping his son off at school along the way.

Brydon’s office is a trailer, not unlike those at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. Like his analogues in the United States, he spends his day sitting before a screen, joystick in hand, ready to “engage” targets as orders are transmitted to him by a radio dispatcher. Brydon has no direct access to the intelligence being used by analysts and commanders to determine whom to kill, but he is able to see the targets before firing on them. When he and his comrade, the laser operator, are given clearance to eliminate a target, they go through a series of steps to lock on with a laser before taking the shot.

The father and husband in Afghanistan is a brown-skinned adult male, empirically indistinguishable from an “evil terrorist”, as far as the drone program analysts are concerned, although they have no idea who he really is. He is about to be made the victim of the latest “signature strike”, the targeting of a brown-skinned male of military age whose behavior coincides with a “disposition matrix” of known terrorist behaviors.

On the fated day depicted, the “suspicious-looking” man has driven his truck to a place thought to be frequented by “evil terrorists” and is on his way home. What was he doing, rubbing elbows with suspected terrorists? He was filling up the bed of his truck with rocks to use back at his dirt-floored home. Judging by their somewhat surly exchange, he was not on particularly good terms with the men from whom he was buying the rocks. Clearly his “association” with these people involved no more than a simple business transaction.

On his way home, the loud sound of a missile strike off in the distance disrupts his concentration, causing him to drive over a gaping hole in the road. As a result, one of his tires goes flat, and he needs to fix it in order to continue his journey.

The rest of the story is all too familiar to anyone who has read NGO and human rights reports on the drone campaigns: the British father and husband uses the latest and greatest military technology to obliterate the Afghanistan father and husband, who is out in the middle of nowhere fixing a flat tire. He had the misfortune of being spotted by analysts behind the scenes whose job it is to locate suspected terrorists to kill. To do their job well, they must deliver. Better safe than sorry! they decide on the basis of their drone footage, in some cases supplemented by the bribed testimony of locals.

The RAF drone operator initially questions the identification of this man as a terrorist, and vocalizes his impression that it just looks like a guy with a broken-down truck. The laser operator scoffs at his comrade, crowing “Guilty as Charged!” and seems excited about the opportunity to “get some”. Together the two soldiers fire on the suspect, and the laser operator cheers when the missile obliterates the target, calling him a “mother fucker”.

Later, after returning home to his family, Bryson begins to reflect upon what he may have done, as doubts are bubbling up again in his mind. Perhaps the man by the truck really was an innocent husband and father out gathering rocks to shore up the walls of his crumbling home. The naggings of conscience begin to creep into Bryson’s consciousness, likely never to be fully expunged. Over time, his skepticism may develop into regret and feelings of guilt and shame about the day when an innocent man’s life was ended because he capitulated to peer pressure and suppressed his skepticism in the moments prior to launching the missile.

The British family has no idea what the soldier has done, but the survivors in Afghanistan are plunged into grief upon the loss of the head of their household. If the drone operator continues on in this profession, he may eventually develop PTSD.

In the final shot of the film, the young son of the slain father is shown in a visible state of rage, his face illuminated by light on one side, and shrouded by darkness on the other. The implication is clear: this is precisely how fledgling terrorists are made. They are reacting to their own experience or witness of crimes by the enemy against which they vow to retaliate.

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The power of Drone Strike inheres in its ability graphically to display a number of undeniable truths which are violated by the drone warriors each and every day:

  1. “Signature strikes” involve explicit racial profiling. If the man with the flat tire had been white-skinned, he likely would not have been killed.
  2. White-skinned people are not more valuable than brown-skinned people. To sacrifice a brown-skinned person in order to save a white-skinned person is racism pure and simple.
  3. Wearing a uniform and following orders does not preclude a soldier’s commission of crimes. Orders in violation of the Geneva Conventions should not be followed. Unarmed persons do not pose an immediate and direct threat to anyone.
  4. Following the orders handed down by an anonymous authority does not absolve the agent from responsibility for what he has done.
  5. Following even legal orders does not insulate a soldier from the psychological trauma of having to live with the memory of what he has done for the rest of his life.
  6. If suspects are innocent until proven guilty, then this applies no less to brown-skinned persons in Third World countries than it does to white-skinned persons in First World countries.
  7. Brown-skinned fathers and husbands are no less important to their children and spouses than are white-skinned fathers to theirs.

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This short but thought-provoking film can be watched through Amazon Prime. It might also be on YouTube somewhere, but I was unable to find it, given the preponderance of videos which come up upon searching for “Drone Strike”…