Did you see this essay from TAC back in August? I didn’t. It’s a review essay of a book about America’s drone warfare. Excerpt:
Drones are “killing civilians in disputed but significant numbers in the Pakistani tribal borderlands, creating enemies and animosity wherever they strike, and turning us into a nation of 24/7 assassins beyond the law or accountability of any sort,” Engelhardt warns. “Thought of another way, the drones put wings on the original Bush-era Guantanamo principle—that Americans have the inalienable right to act as global judge, jury, and executioner, and when doing so are beyond the reach of any court of law.”
I haven’t paid much attention at all to the drone war. Then I read Conor Friedersdorf’s shocking Atlantic blog entry about the toll our drone war is taking on innocent civilians in Pakistan. Excerpt:
All these stories take place in Northwest Pakistan’s tribal areas, a remote part of the country filled with poor people. Most are guilty of nothing at all. A minority are militants. Even among them, almost none poses an imminent threat to the American homeland. Just traveling to the nearest major city requires a journey of hours or even days spent traversing multiple military checkpoints. There are Taliban, some of whom pose a threat to U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and other bad guys fighting the dodgy Pakistani government. Some locals sympathize with the bad guys. Many others want no more to do with them than you want to do with the nearest street gang to your house. Why haven’t you eradicated it? That’s why they haven’t gotten rid of the militants.
Says the report, “In North Waziristan, extended families live together in compounds that often contain several smaller individual structures. Many interviewees told us that often strikes not only obliterate the target house, usually made of mud, but also cause significant damage to three or four surrounding houses.”
A 45-year-old farmer with five sons had that experience:
A drone struck my home… I was at work at that time, so there was nobody in my home and no one killed… Nothing else was destroyed other than my house,” he explained. “I went back to see the home, but there was nothing to do — I just saw my home wrecked… I was extremely sad, because normally a house costs around 10 lakh, or 1,000,000 rupees [US $10,593], and I don’t even have 5,000 rupees now [US $53]. I spent my whole life in that house… my father had lived there as well. There is a big difference between having your own home and living on rent or mortgage… I belong to a poor family and my home has been destroyed.Said another man interviewed in the report:
Before the drone attacks, it was as if everyone was young. After the drone attacks, it is as if everyone is ill. Every person is afraid of the drones.America is terrorizing these innocent people.
This has a lot to do with why a white-hot Conor writes today that as much as he can’t stand Mitt Romney, he cannot in good conscience vote for Barack Obama. Excerpts:
I am not a purist. There is no such thing as a perfect political party, or a president who governs in accordance with one’s every ethical judgment. But some actions are so ruinous to human rights, so destructive of the Constitution, and so contrary to basic morals that they are disqualifying. Most of you will go that far with me. If two candidates favored a return to slavery, or wanted to stone adulterers, you wouldn’t cast your ballot for the one with the better position on health care. I am not equating President Obama with a slavery apologist or an Islamic fundamentalist. On one issue, torture, he issued an executive order against an immoral policy undertaken by his predecessor, and while torture opponents hoped for more, that is no small thing.
What I am saying is that Obama has done things that, while not comparable to a historic evil like chattel slavery, go far beyond my moral comfort zone. Everyone must define their own deal-breakers. Doing so is no easy task in this broken world. But this year isn’t a close call for me.
But if you’re a Democrat who has affirmed that you’d never vote for an opponent of gay equality, or a torturer, or someone caught using racial slurs, how can you vote for the guy who orders drone strikes that kill hundreds of innocents and terrorizes thousands more — and who constantly hides the ugliest realities of his policy (while bragging about the terrorists it kills) so that Americans won’t even have all the information sufficient to debate the matter for themselves?
How can you vilify Romney as a heartless plutocrat unfit for the presidency, and then enthusiastically recommend a guy who held Bradley Manning in solitary and killed a 16-year-old American kid? If you’re a utilitarian who plans to vote for Obama, better to mournfully acknowledge that you regard him as the lesser of two evils, with all that phrase denotes.
But I don’t see many Obama supporters feeling as reluctant as the circumstances warrant.
The whole liberal conceit that Obama is a good, enlightened man, while his opponent is a malign, hard-hearted cretin, depends on constructing a reality where the lives of non-Americans — along with the lives of some American Muslims and whistleblowers — just aren’t valued. Alternatively, the less savory parts of Obama’s tenure can just be repeatedly disappeared from the narrative of his first term, as so many left-leaning journalists, uncomfortable confronting the depths of the man’s transgressions, have done over and over again.
Read the whole thing. Conor says, of Romney and Obama, “To hell with them both.” He’s voting for Gary Johnson.
The other day in this space, I made fun of some Pakistanis for their murderous barbarism. Is it closer to the truth to say that they’re just so much cruder in their barbarism than we are? You think?
UPDATE: Also at the Atlantic, Joshua Foust says the group responsible for the report Conor cites is deeply biased, and that as problematic as drones are, they are by far the best option we have for combating these terrorists. Excerpt:
In the short run, there aren’t better choices than drones. The targets of drone strikes in Pakistan sponsor insurgents in the region that kill U.S. soldiers and destabilize the Pakistani state (that is why Pakistani officials demand greater control over targeting). They cannot simply be left alone to continue such violent attacks. And given the Pakistani government’s reluctance either to grant the FATA the political inclusion necessary for normal governance or to establish an effective police force (right now it has neither), there is no writ of the state to impose order and establish the rule of law.
Drones represent the choice with the smallest set of drawbacks and adverse consequences. Reports like Living Under Drones highlight the need for both more transparency from the US and Pakistani governments, and for drawing attention to the social backlash against their use in Pakistan. But they do not definitively build a case against drones in general. Without a better alternative, drones are here to stay.