The New York Times recently published an article titled “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will,” an in-depth discussion of the administration’s use of drone strikes to kill suspected terrorists and how Obama personally reviews and approves the list of people to be targeted for attack.
The article has generated a lot of reaction, including a piece by Chris Floyd, “Hymns to the Violence: The NYT’s Love Letter to Obama’s Murder Racket.” Floyd writes:
In any other age — including the last administration — this story would have been presented as a scandalous exposé. The genuinely creepy scenes of the “nominating process” alone would have been seen as horrific revelations. Imagine the revulsion at the sight of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld sifting through PowerPoint slides on “suspected terrorists” all over the world, and giving their Neronic thumbs up or down as each swarthy face pops up on a screen in front of them…
But the NYT piece is billed as just another “process story” about an interesting aspect of Obama’s presidency, part of an election-year series assessing his record… In other words, this portrait of an American president signing off — week after week after week after week — on the extrajudicial murder of people all over the world is presented as something completely uncontroversial.
It is, I confess, beyond all my imagining that a national leader so deeply immersed in murdering people would trumpet his atrocity so openly, so gleefully — and so deliberately, sending his top aides out to collude in a major story in the nation’s leading newspaper, to ensure maximum exposure of his killing spree. Although many leaders have wielded such powers, they almost always seek to hide or obscure the reality of the operation. Even the Nazis took enormous pains to hide the true nature of their murder programs from the public.
It seems that most of the American public either supports these drone strikes or just doesn’t pay much attention to them. But there are also a lot of people who share the revulsion that Chris Floyd expresses. I’m one of them. The image of an American president deciding which individuals the U.S. military will kill makes me very queasy.
But I have to ask, what exactly is it about this particular program that is so disturbing?
Is it the fact that our president is personally deciding who will die? What if it were, instead, another high-ranking official, like Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, or CIA Director David Petraeus? Would that make it more palatable? What if it were some lower-level official that we’ve never heard of? Is it more comforting, or less, to think of such decisions being made by anonymous functionaries rather than by our top leaders? What if these life and death choices were being made by 19-year-old soldiers sitting at electronic consoles and attacking anyone they decide fits the profile of an “enemy combatant?” That’s not much different from what actually happens when we send the military off to fight in foreign lands, and we seem to be accustomed to that.
Or is our discomfort not so much a matter of who makes the decision to kill, but rather the idea of deliberately assassinating specific named individuals? Is that somehow less proper than shooting at anonymous soldiers who wear the opposing side’s uniforms? — even though more people are killed that way?
Or are we disturbed by the fact that these drone strikes are carried out at no personal risk either to the decision makers or to the people who actually fire the missiles while sitting in comfortable office swivel chairs thousands of miles away? Does that offend our sense of honor or fair play? And if that’s the issue, shouldn’t it similarly bother us that warriors have always done their best to protect themselves from harm while inflicting maximum damage on their opponents? Isn’t sending a machine to do the killing simply a matter of using the best technology available to take this to its logical, most effective conclusion?
Or is it the “collateral damage” that bothers us? The fact that innocent people who happen to be in the same house as the targeted individual are often killed? Or, indeed, that the targeted person himself might only be suspected of being an enemy combatant, and that these killings are carried out without judicial oversight or the requirement to fulfill any particular burden of proof? And if that’s the problem, shouldn’t we be much more appalled that in traditional warfare innocents are routinely massacred by the tens of thousands?
In case it sounds like I’m arguing in favor of drone strikes because they are less bad than the way we have fought wars in the past, trust me, I’m not.
I’m asking these questions to provoke thought – in myself, primarily, and in whoever else might be reading this. If it gives us a vaguely sick feeling to look closely at what our government is doing in our names, shouldn’t we pay attention to that feeling? Shouldn’t we question what’s going on? And if after contemplating this question deeply we conclude that it’s wrong, what then?