The cost of ambivalence

by Ben Resnik

Queen Elizabeth II’s recent hospitalization and Mitt Romney’s post-election malaise grabbed the headlines last weekend on Google News. Reported with considerably less pomp was the fact that nine people were killed in unmanned drone strikes last month.

The point here isn’t to call out journalists and outlets for not giving this story the time it’s due (I’ve railed against the media quite enough already, I think), but rather to follow their logic. The fact is that drone strikes aren’t news anymore — they’re old hat and expected. The best drones get these days are dark, off-hand mentions in late-night talk shows cutting to commercial.

The implications of that are scary, and so it’s worth taking a moment away from Her Majesty’s digestive issues to acknowledge that the way drones are currently being employed is a horrendously bad idea.

First things first: The reasoning behind current drone policy wouldn’t hold up in an episode of Judge Judy. To minimize innocent casualties, the Obama administration has simply decided to equate being hit to being a terrorist. That is to say, being in the blast radius of a drone strike makes you a terrorist, because otherwise, what could you possibly be doing in the blast radius of a drone strike? This is no small concern — Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) recently reported that drone strikes have killed almost 5,000 people (more than all American deaths in the entire Iraq War).

And that’s not to mention that there is no power to which the strikers are accountable. Without trudging too deep into the swamp of constitutional law, Congress is supposed to declare war while the president takes ultimate command of the troops. But members of Congress are rarely or ever informed of a strike without demanding to be informed (a demand they don’t often make), and even when they are, there is no pretense of asking permission. This has led to drone policies that literally violate the Geneva Convention.

The facts are damning enough on their own. But even worse is the ambivalence surrounding them. Not apathy — drones are a hotly contested topic whenever they come up — but rather a possession of fundamentally incompatible lines of morality, justification, and thought.

For instance, look at one of the most basic questions in the post-9/11 world, of which drones are just the latest part: Are terrorists foreign enemies or war criminals? The government’s answer, from George W. Bush onward, has been “yes.” That’s how we’ve seen Nuremberg-style tribunals for some and, well, the war in Afghanistan for others. Drones are key to this question: If terrorists are foreign threats, constituting some kind of enemy state, then we are at war, and Congress deserves at least the same amount of say in their deployment and use, as with Iraq and Afghanistan. If terrorists are criminals, then their summary execution is no more permissible than the police department sniping the suspects in a murder case.

Of course it’s complicated, and of course there is very real danger that has to be addressed, but that’s a ridiculous excuse for not requiring that the administration pick a side, articulate it, and stick by it. The past decade is testament to the fact that this lack of choice has consequences in America as well as Afghanistan — in a new decade with a new president, the Patriot Act is still very much in effect, tapping American phones without warrants. Drones work so well because they straddle the line between definitions that would restrain their action one way or another. They are both a tank and a cop car, and that’s not acceptable in the face of the very real possibility that drones are coming home, equipped with rubber bullets.

The fact is that there is no country called Al Qaeda. Terrorism is a pathology and a state of mind much more than it is a political entity to be opposed. We have marched into their capitals with impunity and found that they are unwilling to make terms and give up the fight. The response — to kill them mechanically, unilaterally, and at distance — is an absurd way to combat an ideology. What’s more, it allows for a steady violation of liberties that thrives on incoherence. Whether terrorism is an act of war or illegal is up to the analysts at the State Department, but the use of drones is conflicted and ignored because it’s confusing. That’s not good enough, it has never been good enough, and it’s time to acknowledge that fact.


photo by Jim Sher: