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Terror Tuesday: When ‘moral’ is anything but

In late May, Scott Shane, along with co-author Jo Becker, made “Terror Tuesday” part of our vocabulary. 

This was the term used by the White House to describe the weekly meetings in the Situation Room at which (among other things) the President signed off on nominees who had been placed on the Pentagon’s death-by-drone “kill lists” for Yemen and Somalia.

We learned from Shane and Becker that the CIA conducted its own “parallel, cloistered selection process” to select those to be killed in Pakistan and that President Obama “must approve any name.”

And we learned about the variety of excuses used to justify the killing of those whose names were unknown, including the Administration’s “they must all be militants” mindset, with the president embracing a “disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants.” 

A scant month and a half later, in a strikingly shallow – and hollow – piece that purports to lay out “The Moral Case for Drones,” Shane shows little sign of having internalized the lessons of his own reportage. Choosing to focus solely on CIA drone strikes within Pakistan, he admits that “their lethal operations inside sovereign countries that are not a war with the United States raise contentious legal questions.” 

One would have expected that this would be the starting point for a discussion of the “morality” of so-called targeted killing. But, bafflingly, he has nothing more to say about US obligations under international humanitarian law (also known as the law of war) and human rights law or any other aspect of the domestic or international “rule of law.”

Instead, implying that legality and morality have absolutely nothing to do with each other, he proceeds to quote “moral philosophers” – including a former Air Force officer – who contend that the use of drones is “moral” because they “kill fewer civilians than other modes of warfare.”

How do we know? Here, we expect Shane to peer behind the statistics culled by news agencies and other groups and bring to the reader’s attention the fast-and-loose categorization of “militants” and civilians – or at the very least, to be accurate in how he presents the “notable drop” in civilian casualties in the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism figures for drone strikes in 2012.  

However, he nowhere indicates that Bureau statistics refer to “alleged militants” and “minimum known” civilians. As a result, he gives lip service to the Administration’s view that if you are a military-aged man in a strike zone, you are by definition a combatant (“militant”) worthy of being targeted for death.  (A look at the New American Foundation statistics indicates how little we actually know about the total number of deaths from drone strikes and who is being killed).

In case the reader needs the point to be driven home about this kinder, gentler warfare, Shane quotes Henry Crumpton, then deputy chief of the CIA’s counterterrorism center: “Look at the firebombing of Dresden, and compare what we’re doing today.”

OK, so the US is not firebombing Islamabad. Or Aden. Or Mogadishu. The fact that the US is not technically at war with Pakistan, or Yemen or Somalia seems to interest Shane as little as it does Crumpton. 

It is curious that Shane says nothing at all about the main focus of his Obama “kill list” piece – the Special Operations drone attacks on Somalia (where little is known about the impact of the strikes) and Yemen (where 2012 has seen the bloodiest drone strikes ever). Why limit his disquisition on the “morality” of drone strikes to CIA attacks in Pakistan, where “any analysis of actual results…is hampered by secrecy and wildly varying casualty reports”?

And why leave out any mention of episodes that might jolt the reader into questioning exactly who is being targeted for death? For instance, the BBC reported that on June 4, 2012 that two successive drone strikes killed 15 people in Pakistan: three were “militants” in a compound and 12 were unknown people who had subsequently arrived at the scene. 

Similarly, in using statistics from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Shane makes no reference to the dozen or so occasions when the Bureau has found that drones killed people who tried to retrieve the dead or the injured, or the (at least) three occasions in which funerals were attacked – all potential “war crimes” in the view of the US special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings.

Perhaps the New York Times reporter was simply overwhelmed by an impossible assignment: to make “the moral case for drones.” 

Compare Shane’s piece with the interview that outgoing Congressman Dennis Kucinich gave the Bureau of Investigative Journalism at the end of June and there can be little doubt about where “moral depravity” lies.

In Kucinich’s words:

I think it is only a matter of time before the international discussion on this makes it crystal clear that if the drone programs are not shut down, then what we are looking at is the potential of war of all against all, a pulverization of national sovereignty and a rejection of the structure of international law….

What we have done here with the drone program is to radically alter our system of justice. Because, remember, if the whole idea is that we are exporting American values, those drones represent American values. And now we are telling the world that American values are summary executions, no rights to an accused, no arrest process, no reading of charges, no trial by jury, no judge, only an executioner.

If you have only an executioner that is not justice, that is something else. Not only the United States but the world community should be properly appraised about these so-called targeted killings. And because the emphasis in on killing, this is murder. If someone shot a grocer and his defense was ‘it was a targeted killing’ he would be put on trial for his life. But we are told that these targeted killings are somehow to be considered apart from any legal system. Well, when you have assassination programs that lack any attempt to establish legal justification, then you have journeyed into moral depravity. International law means nothing, laws of war mean nothing. I am not assigning that condition to any one individual, but I am saying that the program itself bespeaks an approach which depraves moral law, the constitution, and international law. That sets us into an endless cycle of violence.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.