Drones and the Theatrics of Power

Khalil Dale’s body was found wrapped in a plastic bag with his name written on it and tossed into an orchard near Quetta in Baluchistan, Pakistan’s embattled southwestern province. Abducted some months before, he was found with a crudely written note that said he had been killed because his employer, the International Red Cross, had failed to pay the ransom demanded by the captors. When the bag holding his body was opened it was revealed that his throat had been cut by a small sharp knife, his head completely severed off.

There is no immediate connection between the brutal death of Dale, a humanitarian aid worker who had been running a camp in one of the most impoverished parts of Pakistan, and drone attacks. And yet the discussion around drone attacks—their ethics, their necessity, their place within the U.S. arsenal—is incomplete without addressing head-on the context in which they are used. Simply put, the use of drones and the vocabulary by which they are justified, with words like “precision” and “surgical,” center on a tactical and rhetorical contrast to the brute barbarism of terrorist acts—the beheadings and floggings, the unmitigated carnage of suicide bombings. Terror is a problem, and drones are being sold as the neat, sterile solution to all of its bloody ambiguities and sinister secrets.

Less than a week after Dale’s body was discovered, the 270th drone strike ordered by President Obama pounded North Waziristan, the war-torn tribal border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. In the reports provided by U.S officials, a Predator drone fired two missiles on a compound near the Shawal area seventy kilometers west of Miramshah. Ten people, their identities still unknown, died. There are no pictures of the aftermath of the strike, no knowledge about how the target was selected, or which remote assassin pulled the trigger. If the 321 other strikes that have been ordered on Pakistani territory are any clue, the U.S. government will eventually say that those killed were militants, important number twos or threes belonging to al-Qaeda or the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, whose deaths will deal “significant blows” to the capacity of the groups to operate in the region.

On May 1, 2012 Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser John Brennan presented for the first time the administration’s official position on drone attacks. According to Brennan, because the United States has been in armed conflict with al-Qaeda and “associated forces” since the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, the United States is legally permitted to use lethal force against any of its operatives “when the country involved is unwilling or unable to take action against the threat.”

Brennan also asserted that the strikes were ethical because they are necessary (existing threats to the United States require them), distinct (they distinguish particular targets and do not arbitrarily disregard civilian life), and proportional (they employ force with specific aims and with due attention to avoiding unnecessary casualties). Because of this, Brennan informed his audience that the drone strikes are, in fact, “humanitarian.”

Most Americans are likely to buy Brennan’s argument; it addresses a messy problem in the comforting cadences of humanity, ethics, and legality, covering over the dissonance of beheadings and bombings. Few would pause at the phrase “unable or unwilling,” which literally means that any country can now be subject to U.S.-led drone attacks. Nor would they question the conclusion that the attacks are “proportional” and “necessary,” even when these terms are unilaterally and secretly defined by the United States. For those still agonizing over drone warfare, Brennan offered the following assurance that he is not heartless:

[T]he issue of targeted strikes raised profound moral questions. It forces us to confront deeply held personal beliefs and our values as a nation. If anyone in government who works in this area tells you they haven’t struggled with this, then they haven’t spent much time thinking about it. I know I have, and I will continue to struggle with it as long as I remain involved in counterterrorism.

Since the speech, various legal academics and commentators have pointed out the vacuity of parameters that encompass both countries that consent and do not consent to U.S. strikes, cover a boundless geography (wherever al-Qaeda or associated groups may be), and allow the United States to decide for itself what proportionality and necessity entail, when these constraints are normally understood as concepts determined by international tribunals adjudicating the necessity of armed conflict.

These legal arguments, however, don’t touch on a number of more troubling aspects of remote-control warfare. Set against the visible and arbitrary barbarity of terrorism, drone attacks—like torture, indefinite detention, unwarranted surveillance, religious profiling, and other depravities of the post-September 11 world—seem less horrible in their secrecy and impact. They are touted for their precise elimination of terror, but as the hundreds of civilians killed by these strikes attest to, the appeal of drones lies less in the precision of who they kill than in the safety of those who kill them. Americans approve the use of drones not because they are legal, or ethical, or justified, but because they allow war to be as safe as possible for Americans, and impose the entire cost of mistakes on Yemenis, Pakistanis, and Somalis.

Some Americans, however, are concerned about the evisceration of due process that is also part of the drone parcel. In at least two cases, that of Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and his sixteen-year-old son who just happened to be with him, the person killed by a drone has been a U.S. citizen. A hardline cleric of Yemeni descent is not the most familiar picture of the average American. The dangers, however, are in the general principles: no new arguments other than those outlined by Attorney General Eric Holder earlier this year (who distinguished between “due process” within the executive branch and “judicial process,” which he says isn’t necessary to clear an American as a target) would be required to eliminate other dangerous Americans.

Terrorism is indeed a formidable problem. But beyond the arguments above against drone warfare, it seems clear that targeted strikes are not the solution to it. In the decade since September 11, 2001, a total of 322 drone strikes have battered the northwest tribal region of Pakistan. While those on American soil have fared well during that time, in 2011 alone 476 incidents of terrorist violence took place in Pakistan, killing 4,447 civilians, an increase from the previous year. All those drone strikes have not reduced the ability of their supposed targets to kill with impunity. Drones are no solution, but rather a yearning for a solution—a solution to a problem that we still do not understand.