War made easy
Drone strikes put U.S. in assassination business
The drone — the latest achievement in better killing through technology — is changing the nature of warfare. Its purpose is “targeted killing.” Or, just call it “assassination” — a word that cuts to the heart of the legal and moral issues at stake.
Strikes by U.S. drones have killed at least 2,400 people in Pakistan alone since 2004. These unmanned, missile-armed aircraft have extended U.S. warmaking beyond the limits of international and U.S. law.
Drones represent the expansion and normalization of war. Lines that separated times of war and peace are gone. So are the lines that marked combat zones. Today the U.S. is always at war, everywhere — always on the offensive, always hunting and killing suspected terrorists. Pre-emptive attacks and acts of vengeance without trial are business as usual now.
Drone strikes violate moral and legal principles the U.S. used to affirm. In 2001, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, said on Israeli television, “The United States government is very clearly on the record against targeted assassinations. They are extrajudicial killings, and we do not support that.”
Now the president can order assassinations on a weekly basis. A recent New York Times article describes “terror Tuesday” teleconferences in which Obama administration officials and national security personnel pore over a “kill list” and “recommend to the president who should be the next to die.”
Critics of this program of assassination say it violates the U.S. Constitution, which restricts the president’s power to make war, and international law, which limits killing to war zones. Under the legal definition of armed conflict, the U.S. is currently authorized to use lethal force only in Afghanistan. But the president recently approved drone strikes in Yemen, in addition to Pakistan and Somalia, and has approved strikes even when the targets’ exact identities aren’t known. Drone strikes on unidentified people who are only suspected of being militants greatly increases the risk of killing innocents.
U.S. officials say civilian casualties are rare, but the claim relies on a huge loophole in the definition of “civilian.” According to the Times, U.S. officials have adopted a dubious method for counting civilian casualties: All military-age males in a strike zone are considered combatants unless there is explicit intelligence proving them innocent. Thus the “morality” of a drone strike is assured. Assuming everyone you kill is guilty, it’s easy to claim your war is just.
Ease is exactly the problem with drones. War is easier when no lives on your side are at stake. No need for boots on the ground. No need for approval from Congress. Just a weekly meeting to pick the targets. Just an unmanned aircraft operated like a video game from an air-conditioned facility in the U.S. Just a “surgical strike” to “take out” the “enemy” — along with whoever happens to be in the neighborhood. It’s a chilling vision of a shadowy war: a deadly flying robot and a president with a kill list.
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