The US and the M Word
‘If the President Does It, It Isn’t Illegal’
-- Richard M. Nixon
Drones are finally coming out of the closet. During John Brennan's confirmation hearings for C.I.A. director, we started to learn a little more about the use of deadly drones by the U.S. government. Brennan's testimony acknowledged the the use of drones, including attacks that targeted an American citizen. Mainstream media outlets like NPR have even been talking about U.S. drone policy and its place within the framework of U.S. and international law.
Currently, drones are being used as surveillance vehicles armed with cameras, and as killing machines armed with one or two 100-pound Hellfire guided missiles. As we learned earlier this year, every Tuesday morning, the president and his national security team regularly go over the list of current bad guys and decide if they want to kill any of them.
Many of these “kills” are located in countries where we have to rely on sketchy intelligence provided by people with agendas of their own. Many of the “bad guys” are not bad; they are just unlucky enough to have the same name as a bad guy, or a bad guy as a brother or cousin. ("Bad" is also in the eye of the beholder. Many deemed "bad" by US officials see themselves, or are seen by locals as "freedom fighters" against an unwanted occupier.)
If any male (technically any male older than sixteen, but the US isn't asking for birth certificates) is in the vicinity of a "bad guy," then in the US view, he is a terrorist by association and his death gets to be counted in the tally of enemy dead, as opposed to being another unfortunate number in the collateral damage column. It resembles the Vietnam War, when all the dead in a search-and-destroy mission were counted as “VC kills.”
How hard we have worked to develop an appropriate vocabulary to describe death dissemination!
Violating international borders, stalking an individual and blowing him up without the benefit of accusation or trial – most people would call that premeditated murder. If the person being murdered is an important public figure, we think of it as an assassination. But “murder” and “assassination” are problematic, because both are illegal under U.S and international law. Only under strict circumstances of imminent threat does U.S. law give the president authorization to actively pursue and kill an “enemy”.
The Obama administration, taking a page straight out of the Cheney/Bush playbook, is claiming a blanket authorization cloaked in the vagaries of their war on terror even though they no longer call it the war on terror. We are supposed to trust that they will only righteously strike the truly bad.