In the decade of sometimes cold, sometimes hot pursuit of the "global war on terror," we've been brought such horrific developments as the selective suspension of habeas corpus, the rise of "free speech zones," Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, the return of widespread domestic surveillance and infiltration of peace groups, legalized torture, wide-spread mercenary use (beyond the reach of legal accountability), foreign as well as domestic surveillance on minority groups, foreign as well as domestic night raids, and of course fear-hyped invasion after fear-hyped invasion. Now, in the hands of the Obama Administration we have a continuation, evolution and specialization of "light-footprint" drone warfare.
If you haven't followed the headlines, the long and short is that the Obama Administration has focused efforts away from massive troop usage and into smaller efforts like the special-ops mission that assassinated Osama Bin Laden and the type of drone (or UAV, Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) attack that yesterday claimed the life of "Al Qaeda's Number 2." A recent New York Times piece unpacked much of the drone program's ins and outs. In short
"Mr. Obama has placed himself at the helm of a top secret “nominations” process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical. He had vowed to align the fight against Al Qaeda with American values; the chart, introducing people whose deaths he might soon be asked to order, underscored just what a moral and legal conundrum this could be. "
The way this macabre process works is as follows
Every week or so, more than 100 members of the government’s sprawling national security apparatus gather, by secure video teleconference, to pore over terrorist suspects’ biographies and recommend to the president who should be the next to die.
“The purpose of these actions is to mitigate threats to U.S. persons’ lives,” Mr. Brennan said in an interview. “It is the option of last recourse. So the president, and I think all of us here, don’t like the fact that people have to die. And so he wants to make sure that we go through a rigorous checklist: The infeasibility of capture, the certainty of the intelligence base, the imminence of the threat, all of these things.”
In many ways, no one should really be surprised at the Obama Administration’s focus on smaller operations and tactical strikes as opposed to wholesale invasion and occupation. In fact, this was something he regularly hinted he would do during his campaign for the presidency. In really limited angles, perhaps there's even a progressive-seeming overtone that can be produced here, risking fewer American lives, while trimming a few of the expenses of the War Machine and still effectively "taking the fight to" Al Qaeda. This is what Obama would portray as aligning the war on terror with American values. On the nationalistic face of it, we’re defending democracy against violent religious zealots (on the foreign front, at least) by killing them as soon as we have the opportunity.
Maybe so, but a counter-insurgency (or counter-terrorist) effort that is not democratically regulated with the sober influence of popular oversight will soon degenerate into human rights abuses and institutional tyranny. For example, also noted in the New York Times piece is the remarkably low "civilian death toll" from our hundreds of drone strikes. Here a lack of democratic oversight led to a convenient, almost Orwellian, change of language that allowed the American public to imagine their drone program wasn’t massacring its way through civilians in central Asia.
Mr. Obama embraced 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, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.
This sort of immediate tendency to self-justification is a perfect example of what makes the present administration's use of drones unprogressive. Without democratic oversight, without the rule of law, all hierarchies tend towards extreme self-aggrandizement and self-justification (whether a bank or a military industrial complex). In these situations, democratic mechanisms become far more than a happier, freer way to live in a community. Democratic mechanisms are also highly efficient at keeping our employees (the government) in line with our will. Democracy is an anti-septic against the many possible abuses of concentrated power: corporate, military or otherwise.
As it stands, there is little to no congressional oversight over the program. This is dangerously undemocratic, with uncomfortable facts all the more easily buried (such as how many civilians we are actually killing). But even if drone attacks were done under the democratic oversight of Congress, there's still something elementally undemocratic about secret, trial-free assassinations by drone or any other method.
As the New York Times investigation of the program reveals, “due process” has been replaced by “internal deliberation” in an already secretive program that targets the “enemies of America.” The justification is that it would cost too much in American lives and lucre to go fish these enemies out of the remote locations where we find them.
“It costs too much” is one of the most shameful reasons to circumvent justice. Remember, folks, even on a petty nationalistic level we’re not just fighting this war to survive. We’re also fighting this sprawling multi-national war on terror to defend our democratic principles. If in the course of fighting that war we have justified a dismissal of democratic principles for our enemies, what makes us think we haven't just justified the dismissal of those democratic principles for ourselves? How we wage war reflects and ultimately impacts how we live peace.
We should be really clear about the lines we're crossing if we don't challenge the undemocratic killing of what are effectively international gang leaders. By playing along, we are giving acquiescence to a long-held tyrants' meme that “freedom is tradable for security.” If one exception to the democratic mechanisms can be made, then so can another one and another one. Often the buzzwords are “American security” or more honestly “American interests.” This slippery slope has no bottom in a country dominated by billionaires and mega-corporations that know no limits to their drive for ever more markets and resources. This slippery slope, lined with the 99 Percent's opaque fears and the 1 Percent's corporate fiats, is how so many despair-driven Americans have been cowed (or terrorized, to use a loaded word) into accepting stringent new restrictions on public assembly and free speech at home while accepting a “no questions asked” approach to destroying the enemies of our nation’s leaders abroad.
If it's justice (and not vengeance or resource domination) we truly seek, then those we hold responsible for the death of thousands of civilians should be caught and tried in a court of law. In this author’s humble opinion, doing so with our own war criminals (here’s looking your way Cheney, Rumsfield, Yoo, Rice, Wolfowitz, Bolton and co.) as well as theirs would probably go a lot further towards ending the conflict than any amount of drone bombing.
Our democracy is worth the effort and coordination it takes to catch and try mass murderers parading as religious gang leaders. Our democracy is also worth an honest appraisal of exactly who we are killing in the name of our own safety. Our democratic values should mean more, not less, in time of conflict. Otherwise, they’re just historical window-dressing, political marketing–nice to look at, but ultimately of little meaning to our daily lives.
Progressives have a real chance to make the prosecution of the War on Terror a platform for highlighting, not embarrassing, our democratic values. In this author’s humble opinion, we have blown hundreds of opportunities to show how we are nation of freedom, laws, human rights and justice. Every single time we kill another “number 2” (and replace him with Number 3, the “new number 2”) instead of capturing him and taking him to trial, we have missed an opportunity to show how our open democracy is more humane than the unilateral justice of violent religious fundamentalism. The fact that the road to justice is more difficult than vengeance or domination should not intimidate us from this difficult task. The lifeblood of our democracy, and the lives of thousands of human beings, depends on us making the harder choice.
After all, if “convenience” is an acceptable excuse for stripping someone else of their basic rights, what makes us think convenience won’t someday be used for stripping away our own basic rights?