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Arbitrary extrajudicial executions, carried out at the press of a button from CIA locations in California, with no transparency or accountability, are undoubtedly a violation of international law possibly constituting war crimes. And yet in 2009 alone, American predator drone attacks killed a reported 708 people in Pakistan —a clear violation of the norms of international sovereignty, especially given the fact that the Pakistani government has spoken out against them (at least in public).
According to the Brooking Institution more than 90 percent of those killed have been civilians. Noor Behram, who has been documenting the aftermath of drone strikes in Waziristan on-site for the last three years concurs that “for every 10 to 15 people killed, maybe they get one militant”.
With more drone strikes carried out in Pakistan during the first year of President Barack Obama’s term in office than were carried out in the whole second term of his predecessor George W. Bush, the number of attacks in 2010 more than double those in 2009, and continued growth in their use in 2011, extra-judicial killing seems to have become the modus operandi of the Obama administration. That he feels at such ease with this policy that he is able to joke about it, is testament to just how ill-advised was the decision to award him the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy”.
Already used extensively in Pakistan, the Washington Post reported last month how the American government intends to significantly extend the use of Predator drones in Yemen as well. That the country is undergoing a revolution that is likely to end with the overthrow of its current incumbent Ali Abdullah Saleh is of no concern. As we now know courtesy of Wikileaks that this was a man whose government told the Americans to kill whomever they pleased in Yemen with their drones, and that they would tell the people in Parliament that they were the ones who did so.
You would think that the loss of such a servile client might force a change in American policy. It has. The drone program in Yemen will be shifted to CIA control, since – as mentioned by the Post – “The CIA operates under different legal restrictions, giving the administration a freer hand to carry out strikes even if Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, now receiving medical treatment in Saudi Arabia, reverses his past approval of military strikes or cedes power to a government opposed to them.” What the Post fails to mention, typical of most of the media’s shameful silence with respect to many of the transgressions in the so-called “war on terror”, is that even if the Yemeni President has given approval for military strikes within the country the use of predator drones is still effectively murder (irrespective of the target).
The fact that a particular government accedes to the US’s criminality is perhaps a clue as to why so many of the region’s dictators are either overthrown or on the way out. The US has also extended the attacks to Somalia, a country without a fully functioning government, removing the necessity of any façade of seeking approval.
The large number of innocent civilians killed by remote control is surely indisputably criminal – along with being morally repugnant, even cowardly. The report in the Guardian that the US government has teams of appointed lawyers who decide when the Pentagon has the legal right to murder someone is as ludicrous as it sounds. The last administration has form on this – the previous Attorney General legalized torture; doctors work alongside interrogators while the torture was being administered, and so on. This mirage of civilized behavior – groups of lawyers lending legitimacy to what is by any standard a straightforward murder, doctors giving aid and health-checks to the enemy while they are being to various forms of torture – indicates further moral decline, and again highlights the dirty reality that is normally kept under wraps: that the US government is willing to operate in exactly the same manner as any of the oppressive Arab dictatorships that are currently being overthrown across the Middle East.
The Western public has consistently been informed by media and politicians that the difference between “us” (the civilized West) and “them” (the barbaric terrorists) is adherence to the rule of law. What is clear from practice is that the rule of law is to be applied amongst peers (“us”) while others are left to the arbitrary justice of the powerful. Such organized hypocrisy is not limited to politicians, with polling in the United States taken after the news that information from so-called “harsh interrogation” may have yielded information leading to Bin Laden confirming steady support for torture of terrorist suspects between approximately 50% to 60% over the last year, with another previous survey indicating that about a quarter of Americans believe that intentionally killing civilians can at least sometimes be justifiable. Thus, the leadership of the US government has been responsible for encouraging further moral ambivalence amongst its own citizens. By trying to legitimize murder, torture, and other forms of illegal behavior through the use of teams of lawyers and judges, they have shown that their actions are driven solely by the logic of consequences, while they dress their discourse and words according to the logic of appropriateness.
In this respect, an interview in February to Newsweek by John Rizzo, one of the CIA’s former lawyers tasked with approving Predator drone strikes back as early as 2001, makes for uncomfortable reading. After CIA lists of targets that were sought to be “neutralized” (a bland word for assassinated), Rizzo was one of those who would sign off on the mission. If it sounds similar to the kind of activity you would expect from organized criminal gangs, Rizzo himself described it as “basically a hit list”. Just as any small-time organized crime network has a few paid lawyers to help defend the indefensible, the American administration is acting like an international mafia outfit complete with requisite legal team. But being the most militarized government in the World by far, they have access to Predator Drones, rather than being compelled to use a paid contract killer. Like Rizzo himself stated “The Predator is the weapon of choice, but it could also be someone putting a bullet in your head”.
On the back of such admissions and Rizzo’s proud claim when he asked “How many law professors have signed off on a death warrant?” a group of Human Rights lawyers in the UK and Pakistan are now seeking an arrest warrant for him. The fact that the US government is largely oblivious, or simply lack any sense of care or responsibility, to the illegal nature of their activities highlights the most vile kind of exceptionalism – that which claims exception from the rule of law to act criminally. It is partly this that has driven the action to seek Rizzo’s arrest, with British Human Rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith stating that one of the symbolic purposes is to highlight the illegality of the action since “there is no sense in the United States of how catastrophic this whole process is.”
The irony is that through its actions America has shown itself in front of the World to be a reflection of everything that it claimed was evil about those they are against, from the lack of respect for innocent life and the lack of adherence to the rule of law to the use of terror as a political weapon. In reality the ‘war of terror’ is a more apt description of their response since 9/11 than the coined ‘war on terror’, with the use of Predator drones just another example therein. That it is dressed up as legal by willing accomplices such as Rizzo may appease those few in the domestic audience that care, but strikes many in the rest of the watching World as further evidence of American cynicism, something the United States can ill afford while in its current state of decline.
This is an abridged and updated version of a guest editorial in the academic journal Political Theology entitled “Osama and Obama: Between Predator Drones and the Arab Spring“.