Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Drones and the Universal Battlefield

I was very happy this morning when I saw drones on the front pages of the newspapers. Finally, I thought, this is being raised to the level of public discussion. As the day wore on and I read all of the variations of the story, with associated comment threads (yes, I did my actual reading online), my excitement continued, but I also grew irritated by a couple of things. On the positive side, I was happy to see people, including those who have believed that Obama is the answer to all their dreams and aspirations, starting to seriously question some of his choices. Yet, predictably, the debate centered entirely on the subject of the targeted killing of American citizens, and all criticisms of these killings were amply qualified with paeans to the virtues of killing terrorists.

The American Citizen Angle
Obviously it is a breach of domestic law and the Constitution (specifically that part about due process) to assassinate American citizens without a trial or any sort of legal procedure that might justify the act. This is and should be an outrage to those people who believe in the virtues of the modern institution of law. (I, on the other hand, have argued that the modern concept of “law” is a bourgeois institution/ideology/set of practices that create different spheres of actions and different types of citizenship – as such, laws are not made to be followed, and the U.S. has never consistently followed the rules upon which it supposedly is founded; infringements on civil rights have been the norm for the nation’s entire existence.) However, this departure from the Constitution is seen as the extent of the scandal. The targeted killing of non-citizens is not seen as problematic, and I have not seen it raised for discussion.

However, drone strikes, regardless of whom they are directed against, represent a fundamental shift in our notion of the “battlefield.” Up until recently, if one wanted to intervene militarily in another country, one declared war. It was the declaration of war itself that triggered the application of international laws pertaining to Just War. For example, the rationalization of “collateral damage” (which I nevertheless do not believe is in any way "rational") occurred within the context of a declared war, with a specified battlefield in relation to where the combatants were located. It was this official declaration of war that made a “special exception” for the killing of civilians located in a conflict zone. Now there is no declared war. And the “battleground” has been redefined as “anywhere a terrorist moves.” Since “terrorist” itself is a vague word (more on that below), any location on earth can be defined as a battleground, and therefore the “special exceptions” of war have become universally applicable laws. Despite the misleading contentions that drones only kill terrorists, less biased international organizations estimate that the vast majority of victims are innocent civilians. What the drone apologists are arguing is that they have the authority to indiscriminately kill anyone in the world, without any approval or oversight, or any framework of a “war.” This is just as much of an abrogation of previously accepted law as the assassination of American citizens.

The Secrecy Angle (/Killing Terrorists is A-Okay)
One common sentiment that I encountered today went along the lines of:  "Of course, no one would have much of a problem with the U.S. killing terrorists without due process. They just shouldn't be so secretive about it." Yes, it seemed that the main problem was simply the covertness with which the drone program has been carried out. Not the the loss of life or physical destruction or psychological trauma in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. The telling thing is that a lot of people are more than willing to give up their sacred laws if terrorists are involved. This is where the problematic definition of "terrorist" comes in.

It has been noted that the U.S. retroactively (and erroneously) identified some drone victims as high-ranking Al Qaeda members in order to justify the killings. Yet, many victims are young and only marginally involved in Al Qaeda, posing no serious threat to the U.S. The problem is that one does not have to possess both the means and the intent to inflict harm on the U.S. institutional apparatus or citizenry to be considered a terrorist. Generally, anyone expressing any views that challenge the U.S. and its vital interests can be labeled as a "threat" - and if they are Muslim, a "terrorist." Of course, one can view this as a freedom of speech issue. But there is a broader issue. All nations are not created equal. The U.S. is a neo-colonial power with substantial influence in pretty much every country, particularly in those areas where "terrorists" reside. Expressing anti-American sentiments must be seen in the context of feeling the domination of the U.S. in a very physical way (poverty, dictatorships, etc.)

It is an established fact that when one group of humans dominates another, the subject populations will resist. It is also an establish fact that the dominating power will label the resistance movement as "terrorists" or some other such pejorative term. For a while, the popular term was "communist." Whether one talks about "terrorists" or "communists" the effect is always the same: the demonization of people resisting domination, and the legitimization of all manner of activities that would in normal circumstances be unpalatable (e.g. killing random people with drones).

Drone attacks should be seen for what they are: another expression of American domination of the Middle East and Africa. That is why they largely increase anti-American sentiments. When drones kill "terrorists" they are not eradicating evil-doers. They are annihilating the resistance to neo-colonialism.

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