Whose missiles are those, anyway?
Americans are about to get an unprecedented schooling on our government’s policy of targeting people the CIA identifies as enemies and killing them with missiles launched from drones. It’s an unprecedented discussion because it’s a secret program. But the program is nothing more than an extension of something the US Government has been doing out in the open, with impunity, since the Bush years: Taking away the lives of certain individuals on the pretense that those people are engaged in terrorism against the US and US “interests.”
There is little meaningful difference between taking someone out in a drone strike and tossing them in a cell in Guantanamo for the rest of their days. Yes, killing is instantaneous and final, and drones often take out innocent bystanders. But, given that the US has been imprisoning suspected terrorists at Guantanamo for a decade and has yet to evolve a process for trying their cases, the detainees have no reason to assume they’ll ever leave. And the detention policy has caused lots of collateral damage too. I, like many observers, have always assumed a significant percentage of the detainees have been totally innocent people who were caught in dragnets along with the actual terrorists. Some have been let go, but many stayed there, without anything resembling due process, for years while the government dithered over whether they could be returned to their homes seething with rage at the injustice they’d endured.
Both the Guantanamo and the drone programs are extrajudicial — the legal basis for drone killings, like the basis for CIA “rendering” and indefinite imprisonment without trial, is hashed together by administration lawyers to justify the policy after the fact and arises from no recognizable principle. Or at least, we on the outside have no reason to assume it arises from recognizable principle. Certain members of Congress will get a look at a Justice Department memo purporting to explain the drone policy, but the rest of us will be kept in the dark. To be blunt, the Holder Justice Department has been no more ethical about this than the Ashcroft or Gonzales Justice Departments.
I suspect most Americans don’t want to know any more about all this than they already do. We justify these programs by assuming they are necessary tools of our “Global War on Terror,” which is after all to protect our safety and our “freedom.” That’s enough for most.
And yet, there is a broadly held sense that the drone program is uniquely nefarious — a murmur that has been growing at both ends of the ideological spectrum. For some, it simply seems wrong for the government to have the authority to single people out for death without the benefit of trial (a very honorable human instinct). But it has taken more than that instinct to shake a lot of Americans out of their torpor about this. Now, the focus has been sharpened on the drone policy because the government has asserted that it has the authority to apply it to American citizens. This, suddenly, changes everything.
Personally, I have no idea why.
Killing people without judicial process, like denying them their freedom without judicial process, is either wrong or it isn’t. It seems completely irrelevant whether the targets, or even the innocent bystanders, have US passports. Either we accept a policy that allows the CIA to kill human beings (for specific reasons we understand that we’ll never be allowed to know), or we don’t. If we adopt a half-acceptance that asserts that it is OK for the US government to kill foreigners but not those who claim US citizenship, then we are placing the rights of Americans above those of other humans in a way that I find completely immoral.
If we set that issue aside and just focus on the killing, then whatever intellectual exercise we go through in the next few months, we have to admit one thing: Some of us may object, but we cannot suggest that the drone killings are really against the wishes of the American people.
Americans tend to regret the loss of innocent life, but I believe most actually assume the primary targets of the missiles are people who deserve to die and are comfortable with the idea of killing them.
This is consistent with the Guantanamo experience. President Obama campaigned in 2008 on a promise to shut Guantanamo down and try the detainees in normal civilian courts in the US. He was thwarted in those efforts by a Congress unwilling to deal with the idea of “terrorists” imprisoned on American soil or the possibility that some of those we imprisoned might be acquitted. Some of this was just cynical partisan stonewalling, but the truth is, a majority of Americans agreed that the detainees should never see civilian justice. I suspect that’s why Obama backed down on Guantanamo.
We’re all going to have to face the fact, as Congress fumes about drones during the John Brennan confirmation hearings, that missile strikes are more than a nefarious secret government murder campaign. Drone strikes are an expression of post-9/11 American rage for which most US citizens have to share responsibility. Those aren’t Obama’s drones. They’re ours.