No Compensation: Drone Killing of Western Hostages Reveals Glaring Double Standard on Civilian Deaths

CIA drone strikeNo one remotely interested in US foreign policy can ignore the fact that massive civilian death has become an integral part of US warfare. Often termed “collateral damage”, these deaths are explained as the inevitable outcome of US hi-tech weaponry which often cannot discriminate between legal targets and innocent bystanders. Nonetheless, we can gain valuable insight into the reigning moral culture of certain societies by examining how powerful actors who wield these weapons respond to these deaths. Are the deaths acknowledged with remorse and sympathy or are they simply written off as the consequence of being “in the wrong place at the wrong time”? Sometimes the news cycle offers us case studies to test this question.

Such a case study can be observed in the killing of two western hostages, Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto. An American and an Italian, they were killed in a US drone strike targeting a “suspected Al Qaeda compound,” in Pakistan. As the Wall Street Journal reported “The incident also underscores the limits of U.S. intelligence and the risk of unintended consequences in executing a targeted killing program that human-rights groups say endangers civilians.” That drone strikes “endanger civilians” has been well documented for several years by reputable organizations like Reprieve and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Latest statistics reveal between 2,449 and 3,949 people have been killed in Pakistan since 2004. Of that figure between 421 and 960 were civilians (172-207 children killed). Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan are among the other countries targeted by drone strikes with the civilian death toll in Yemen between 65 and 96.

Unlike the tragic deaths of Weinstein and Lo Porto, none of these deaths elicited serious commentary within the US press beyond the predictable dismissal of unfortunate “collateral damage.” In fact, this indifference sometimes ventured into pure callousness. Take for example White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs’ response to the extrajudicial killing of Denver born teenager Abdulrahman Awlaki, a killing Attorney General Eric Holder rationalized on the grounds that he was “not specifically targeted.” After being asked by a reporter why this strike was authorized, Gibbs coldly replied that Abdulrahman “should have had a more responsible father,” a reference to Anwar Awlaki who was killed weeks before his son met the same fate. Needless to say, Gibbs would be ridiculed as a mindless sociopath if he expressed a similar sentiment in response to the deaths of Weinstein and Lo Porto, who, like Abdulrahman Awlaki, were not implicated in any crime. So the question is where does this indifference come from and, more importantly, what measures can be instituted to overcome it. Scholarship has plenty to say in this regard. MIT professor John Tirman explores this in his exhaustive study of civilian deaths The Death of Others. “The very fundamental norm of nation building and national survival as enabled by violence against savages,” Tirman observes, “is enormously consequential for how the deaths of the savages will be viewed.”

Further into the text Tirman adds:

“Correlating beliefs in a just world with beliefs in American ‘values’ is an essential addendum to understanding indifference … It is a foundation of American culture and has been from the beginning, and it powerfully shapes the attitudes and behavior of Americans from childhood. In its sheer explanatory power for the ‘American experience,’ it really has no rivals. It is an account of the entire scope of European immigration, expansion, and subjugation of the indigenous tribes, class conflict, and finally, American globalism.”

Therefore, engaging with the roots of American indifference to the deaths of others entails far more than merely becoming more “sensitive” to civilian suffering but a much more fundamental reevaluation in our complicity in crimes against humanity and what we can do to terminate these crimes given our ability to influence state policy. Recent polling illustrates that such an engagement has been severely lacking. Global polls published by Pew Research reveal the US as an international outlier in their support for drone strikes. Opposition in other countries is not only held by majorities but overwhelming majorities. In Lo Porto’s native Italy only 18% of its citizens supported drone strikes. MSNBCNevertheless, US public opinion has remained relatively stable in the face of these enormous costs to civilian populations abroad. It was only after the deaths of these two western hostages that MSNBC raised the question if US drone policy should be changed. If one believes in an afterlife, there were no doubt hundreds of Yemeni, Pakistani, and Somalian ghosts asking themselves why this question could not be raised after their deaths. The huge role that pure racism plays in entrenching popular indifference to non-western victims of drone strikes cannot be ignored. In Tirman’s words, “because of the long history of racism in America, its powerful political effects over the whole of American history, and its insinuation into U.S. expansion, its plausibility as the base of indifference is apparent.”

Further insight how racism serves as “the base of indifference” can be deciphered in the rules of engagement surrounding the Obama administration’s drone policy. In all the commentary that has flooded newspapers and television programs about these tragic killings, not one person has thought to ask what right the US has to bomb Pakistan in the first place. Legal questions of this kind are inconceivable. Instead we are subjected to presidential platitudes about the unintended outcomes inherent in the “fog of war.” Incidentally, this question about the legality of drone strikes is alive and well outside of circles of US power. PakistaniNot only has the Pakistani High Court in Peshawar condemned drone strikes as an act of aggression but UN official Ben Emerson has raised many, albeit mild, criticisms of the Obama administration’s drone program, particularly what he described as “a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.” When Pakistani lawyer Shahzad Akbar attempted to enter the US to testify about drone strikes his entry was blocked. “Before I started drone investigations I never had an issue with US visa. In fact, I had a US diplomatic visa for two years,” Akbar remarked when interviewed by the UK Guardian. None of these valiant efforts to shed light on the US drone program influenced US policy makers or public opinion in the slightest regard nor were there any polls on MSNBC (as there have been since the killing of the two western hostages) asking viewers to go online and vote if drone policy should be rethought.

There’s plenty more that could be said about the illegality and blatant immorality of a program world-renowned political dissident Noam Chomsky has described as “the most extreme terrorist campaign of modern times”, but these insights should suffice in exposing the glaring double standard that drives media discourse about drones and, by association, the hideous policies that increase civilian casualties outside the gaze of public scrutiny. Perhaps if the people of Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Somalia could magically evolve into blonde haired, blue-eyed white people this conversation would have emerged earlier. It’s utterly disgraceful that it took the tragic deaths of two western aid workers for it to finally begin but that doesn’t diminish the significance of the fact that this conversation has begun and that’s a promising start for all genuinely concerned about human life both in the “west” and abroad.


The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars by John Tirman


Talking to the Enemy: Religion, Brotherhood, & the (Un)making of Terrorists

41KqfuJMVDL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Writing on the Obama administration’s military campaign against ISIS, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman provided a stark illustration of the prevailing mindset within elite circles in times of war. “The rise of the Islamic State,” he intoned “is triggering some long overdue, brutally honest, soul-searching by Arabs and Muslims about how such a large, murderous Sunni death cult could have emerged in their midst.” Disregarding the by now uncontroversial fact that the rise of ISIS can be traced, in large part, to the criminality of the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, a war of aggression Friedman endorsed with near psychotic enthusiasm (see video below), this statement should raise fundamental questions about dominant portrayals of those we call “the enemy.” Scott Atran’s brilliant study Talking to the Enemy thoroughly deconstructs these media representations, offering an incredibly detailed and empirically grounded understanding of how sub-national terrorist groups are organized, the ideologies they subscribe to, and the goals they aspire to achieve. Quite apart from the simplistic “Sunni death cults” of the Thomas Friedman school of journalism, Atran draws from an extensive record anthropological field work, interviews, and surveys to show how terrorist atrocities (9/11, the 2002 and 2005 bombings in Bali, the 2004 Madrid Train bombings, etc.) are not centrally organized plots carried out after years of religious indoctrination in Pakistani or Indonesian madrassas.

Instead, these events are the end product of highly decentralized and self-organized groups motivated to reach a common goal. These goals are not religious in nature but extremely political. Take for example the 2004 Madrid Train bombings. This attack was organized by a Moroccan drug dealer by the name of Jamal Ahmidan, three Spanish collaborators (Emilio Trashorras, Carmen Toro, and Antonio Toro), and a large group of friends led by a Tunisian named Abdelmajid Serhane. As Atran notes, “there was no ingenious cell structure, no hierarchy, no recruitment, no brainwashing, no coherent organization, no Al Qaeda.” This amorphous character of sub-national terrorist operations plays an integral role in Atran’s study because it reveals how small group dynamics, what he calls “imagined kin”, are the principal drivers in the plotting and execution of terrorist attacks. In the case of the Madrid Train bombings Ahmidan’s and Abdelmajid’s social circles played soccer together.

Another major factor in the ideological backdrop that motivated the Madrid bombings was the 15th century conquest of Muslim Spain, a world historic event witnessed by Italian terrorist, and “founder” of the “New World” Christopher Columbus. “I saw the King of the Moors sally from the gates of said city … and kiss the royal hands of your Highnesses,” Columbus observed. Memories of this humiliating moment were revived centuries later in a video left in the wreckage of the apartment where the Madrid Train bombers blew themselves up. The video condemned the “Spanish crusade against the Muslims,” and “the tribunals of the Inquisition.”

Willingness to point out verifiable facts of this kind is rare in an intellectual culture eager to conflate mere explanation of potential motives behind horrific crimes with justification of those crimes but ignoring them virtually ensures that a discourse will not emerge to discourage future acts of violence, whether they be committed by subnational retail or wholesale state terrorists. For example, attributing sub-national terrorism to an innate, religiously fueled desire for martyrdom, completely divorced from any empirical analysis or investigation of how these plots come in to being, does nothing to illuminate the nature of this phenomenon. In fact, this frame of reasoning, when sincerely felt, can erect huge barriers to genuine understanding.

Such is the case with Sam Harris, a neuroscientist who, in Atran’s words, “insists that secular moderation toward religion and ecumenical tolerance only enable bizarre and belligerent beliefs to thrive and extremists to flourish with cruel and savage consequences for the world.” And Harris is by no means alone in his valiant stand against the purveyors of “ecumenical tolerance.” He is joined by esteemed biologist Richard Dawkins, who laments “suicide bombers do what they do because they really believe what they were taught in their religious schools.” Dawkins also ridicules the “mainstream religious instructors” who “[line children] up in madrassahs” so they can “rhythmically [nod] their innocent little heads up and down while they [learn] every word of the holy book like demented parrots.”

Perhaps this lurid portrait of religious indoctrination will set off alarm bells among racists at NSA headquarters or “mosque crawlers” in the NYPD’s surveillance unit, but among serious analysts it’s hardly worth responding to. Not only did “none of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers or thirty-odd Madrid train-bomb conspirators [attend] a madrassah” but statistical data from Indonesia and Pakistan—“the two countries with the greatest number of madrassas as well as jihadi groups”—reveal “less than 1 percent of the madrassas can be associated with jihadis.”

Far from idle, academic debate, recognizing these realities ought to play a significant role in how we conceptualize so-called “enemies” and, more importantly, how we respond when power systems portray massive state violence and terror as the only legitimate solution. In his highly anticipated speech before the UN, President Obama stated, in reference to ISIS, “the only language understood by killers like this is the language of force.” Compare Obama’s rhetoric to the approach of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. At a recent event held by the Council on Foreign Relations journalist Fareed Zakaria asked how the Turkish government managed to free 49 Turkish hostages who were being held by ISIS or as he put it “What did you give ISIS? Why did they give back your hostages?”

Erdogan’s answer was instructive: “When we say the word ‘operation,’ people only think of air strikes, bombs, aircraft, [and] weaponry. But an operation isn’t only that. Operations are political sometimes, or diplomatic, or civilian. And they involve discussions, contacts.” So alien is this perspective—that anyone could actually diplomatically deal with ISIS—that if a US Congress member or media personality were to go as far as suggesting a diplomatic solution they’d be immediately marginalized as irrelevant or, more insidiously, an ISIS sympathizer. Another possibility is a member from the commissar class would publish an Op-Ed in the Newspaper of Record, not to inquire whether or not such an approach is feasible, but to contemplate, in austere tones, whether or not the person who advocates such an outlandish position has a soul.

It’s therefore no surprise that Erdogan elicited harsh denunciations from the Captain of The Reluctant Warrior’s Cheer Squad. In addition to standing for “authoritarianism, press intimidation, crony capitalism and quiet support for Islamists, including ISIS”, as Thomas Friedman mournfully observed, he “won’t even let us use our base in Turkey to degrade ISIS from the air”, prompting the question “what’s in his soul?” Bombing countries without Congressional or UN authorization is perfectly fine. But disobeying the Godfather? This is the ultimate crime, if not the enigmatic behavior of a spiritless monster.

Apologetics of this kind is ugly but standard, as is the behavior President Obama, John Kerry, Samantha Power, and the rest of the “we-don’t-negotiate-with-terrorists” camp. Unless they are checked by popular dissent they will continue to operate under the doctrine that overwhelming military force must be used to terrorize the world into their image but much more informed analysts and scholars have long ago realized that such blind devotion to state violence endangers us all (Obama’s latest contribution to nuclear proliferation is a dramatic example of this). It is for these reasons that Scott Atran’s book should be required reading for those of us willing to confront these tribalistic taboos and a morally complacent intellectual culture that would like nothing more than to keep them intact.






The Godfather’s Wish for Ukraine

The Subject:

XB: *Disclaimer: Unless you’re in Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Iraq or any other country where we want to send drones.

MG: only to preserve their independence. Which of this countries did US anex? none!

MZ: You forgot about Egypt

XB: Bombing Pakistani civilians from the sky does not help them preserve independence. It violates their independence. This is even conceded by the Peshawar High Court in Pakistan which considers drone strikes a violation of Pakistani sovereignty.

Throughout history military superpowers have reflexively justified their resort to violence by saying they were carrying it out for the good of the country they are invading. Fascist Japan did this, Germany did this, France did this and the British Empire did this. Thinking people ignore such statements because they are entirely predictable.

You also ask which countries did the US annex. Did you forget that the US wouldn’t exist if it were not for the annexation of half of Mexico and the Mexican-American war, a war that continued a genocidal campaign against America’s original inhabitants?

Or if this is too remote, what about the annexation of Hawaii or Puerto Rico? These territories were stolen by the US. In the case of Puerto Rico there is still a Puerto Rican independence movement.

Incidentally, I should note that even if the US annexed zero countries throughout it’s history this is the wrong thing we should be focusing on. What we should be focusing on is the impact of US intervention in other countries.

If we focus on this I think President Obama’s words about upholding ideals of independence become more transparent for the lies they are. The US only believes in independence when doing so conforms with its strategic and economic interests. This is how States and power systems behave. Everything else is public relations.


GC: For a good cause.!! …. is the key!

XB: @GC: Are you arguing that the US bombs other countries for a good cause? I don’t understand your comment.

@MZ: I also forgot about Palestine, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela and a host of other countries. Indeed, the list is long.

AI: All those countries governments are typically notified about the drone use prior to any attacks. Their governments coordinate with the US military and often supply the intelligence….. The reason why these governments and their officials don’t announce their cooperation with the US forces is because they will most likely not get re-elected, because the public is often ignorant and attaches to statements like the one you have just said….

DS: I have an idea, XB…how ’bout the US stop all foreign aid, and use those wasted tax dollars to fix our own problems? Go back to a policy of isolationism. If the rest of the world can’t keep up, too bad. Adapt, adopt, improvise…or cease to exist.

XB: @AI: What difference does it make that the country being bombed is notified prior to them being attacked? Would you support another country bombing the US and killing American civilians as long as they notified the US government before they did it? Drone strikes are clearly in violation of international law which restricts the use to force those who have received UN Security Council authorization. In the case of Obama’s drone strikes not only has he not received such authorization but he didn’t even try to get authorization.

Then there’s the fact that it’s illegal for the CIA, which runs the drone program, to participate in war. This is even conceded in the Yale International Law Journal. Here scholar Andrew Burt notes the following:

“In what ways, then, are civilian CIA drone operators legally distinct from the unprivileged belligerents they target? A strong argument exists that if civilians are operating armed drones, they assume a ‘continuous combat function’ and thus are unlawfully taking a direct part in hostilities based on their status. If so, then according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), they would be considered an ‘armed organized group’ and apparently legally indistinguishable from the terrorists they target.”

I should add Burt is not an opponent of drone warfare but even he can see that drone strikes, in their current form, expose the US to credible accusations of criminality (he calls the argument I cited above “strong.”) Aside from this, drones disproportionately murder innocent civilians. UN official Ben Emmerson recently cited 30 separate attacks that require “public explanation.”

You are also ignoring some other relevant facts. Last December the parliament in Yemen “called for a stop to drone attacks in a symbolic vote that reflected growing public anxiety about Washington’s use of the unmanned aircraft to combat al Qaeda in the impoverished country.” In this same month the UN “adopted the resolution calling on US … to comply with international law.” President Obama most recently boycotted a conference on drones. Why do you think he boycotted the conference? If it’s a legitimate exercise of military force why would he do this? The answer isn’t obscure.

Your comment that “the public is often ignorant and attaches to statements like the one you have just said,” is also worth examining. A brief look a global public opinion reveals that clear majorities or pluralities in Asia, Europe, Latin America, and North Africa are opposed to drone strikes. 90% of Greeks are against it. 59% of Germans are against drones and 76% of Spanish citizens oppose drone strikes.

To quote the Pew report “A 2012 survey of 19 countries plus the U.S. found that, in 17 of them, more than half disapproved of the U.S. conducting drone strikes to target extremists. The policy was particularly unpopular in majority Muslim nations, but it also faced disapproval in Europe and other regions as well.” Would you include the populations of all these countries in the “ignorant” public that “attaches to statements” like the one I just said?

Now with this wealth of legal analysis, rulings and global public opinion data it’s worth asking why this information is not well known. The answer is unambiguous and quite ugly namely that the Obama administration doesn’t give a damn about what the victims of US policy think or what the populations in other countries think, even when opposition is as overwhelming as the figures I just cited.

If any public is filled with “ignorance” on this topic it’s the American public, where a majority of citizens (65%) support drone strikes, a real outlier in global public opinion. I should say it’s not entirely the fault of the American public. I think the vast indifference in America to drone strikes is a natural consequence when we have a corporate media that fails to or inadequately covers any of the relevant information I just mentioned .

In a free society the views of the public should have some influence in policy making. It’s in this spirit that I criticize the drone policy, not to lead on an “ignorant” public. By the way, your argument that Obama’s drone bombings are legitimate because he notifies the government of those countries carries an interesting logical conclusion.

If it’s fair for Obama to bomb Pakistan, Yemen or any other country because he notified the government, was the Russian invasion of Crimea also legitimate? The Russians have claimed that Yanukovych requested they intervene in Crimea. If true, would this justify Russia’s intervention? I don’t think it would.

@ DS: I think what you are calling US “aid” is a bit misleading. I also think your statement has an underlying assumption that the US is a benevolent empire constantly sticking its neck out for the poor and dispossessed. I don’t agree with this portrayal. Much of the aid the US provides to the world is military aid. If the US dramatically cut back on military aid I would support it enthusiastically. I also think we should be giving reparations, not aid, to the several countries in the world we have devastated. Iraq would be a good start. After this is done then I would accept an isolationist policy.