“They showed me where they buried his remains. I stood over it, asking why my grandchild was dead.” These remarks made me pause in the middle of the article I was reading. Nassar Al-Awlaki was explaining the death of his grandson, an American citizen, killed by a drone strike. In an editorial that appeared in the New York Times in July of 2013, Al-Awlaki spoke fondly of his grandson, who like most other teenagers, watched the Simpsons, listened to rap, and maintained a Facebook page. Nassar Al-Awlaki’s grandson Abdulrahman, only 16 years old at the time of his death, was killed just two weeks after his father Anwar. Both of these men were victims of the United States’ targeted killings program. Their deaths are not the first caused by this program, and are most certainly not the last.
The deaths of Abdulrahman and Anwar received heavy attention from the media predominantly due to the fact that they are American citizens. In fact, Abdulrahman was born in Denver, where he lived until he was seven, according to the same New York Times article. The death of American citizens at the hands of the targeted killings program are a testament to the extreme expansion of executive authority in recent years. Their deaths occurred in Yemen, which is perhaps why the American government thought drones were an acceptable form of execution. Were they on American soil at the time, such actions would be unheard of. Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, discussed the deaths of the Al-Awlakis in his hugely popular documentary Dirty Wars, a film which questioned the actions of the U.S. Military in its War on Terror. Anwar had been put on a “kill list” issued by the federal government, due in part to anti-American sentiments he had publicly expressed while in the Middle East. He was accused of being a terrorist and sentenced to death by drone. While Al-Awlaki may or may not have been encouraging Islamic radicalization and anti-American feelings, he was still an American citizen who was entitled to his rights of free speech and trial by jury. Furthermore his son, who had dreams of one day returning to America to study, was definitely not a terrorist. Scahill points out that he was only killed so that the United States government could prevent him from radicalizing as a result of his father’s death.
The Al-Awlakis are not alone in their innocence. Another problem with the current targeted killings program is the wide usage of signature strikes. The policy, used often by President Obama, uses drones to spy on people on the ground. The drones can hoover in one spot for hours or days at a time. After observing the behaviors of people on the ground, the pilot of the drone will determine if those below are terrorists, based on their behavior. If deemed as terrorists, the drone will strike. This obviously raises a multitude of moral and ethical issues. Firstly, the drones are spying thus disregarding the right to privacy of unknowing people. Secondly, in most cases the identity of the victims is usually not known or confirmed until after they are already dead. Thirdly, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has published annual reports every year for the past decade detailing all known drone strikes. This series of twenty or so reports determined that the identity of those killed in signature strikes was rarely known, and often determined post-mortem. Many of those killed were never classified as terrorists, but rather as “unknown” or “suspected terrorists.” Furthermore, the striking area of a drone is not always precise; stray pieces of shrapnel often injure those in areas surrounding a strike, and in one case reported by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a school filled with children was hit, killing over 160 children. Despite these drawbacks, there are still many who support the targeted killings program completely.
Proponents of the targeted killings program, advocate for the program because it “keeps boots off the ground” and can target specific peoples without needing to send in an entire unit of Infantry Soldiers. I don’t find these proponents entirely wrong in their views. Yes, they mitigate risk to Americans, and can be a good way of targeting leaders of terrorist organizations. In particular it can target leaders of Al-Qaeda, which, according to Contemporary Debates on Terrorism (a college level text dealing with counterterrorism policy in a post 9/11, post Bin-Laden society), has become decentralized following the death of Osama Bin Laden. This decentralization has caused a rise in smaller, independently radicalized factions of Al-Qaeda, which work in small groups or individually to cause harm to the west, rather than in large organized groups with grand plots. However, this view point fails to acknowledge the flaws I previously pointed out. That is not all targets are known, they do not all live in defined conflict zones, and many times they are disassociated with terrorist organizations altogether. Furthermore, by keeping American boots off the ground, it becomes very easy to de-humanize war and those we target. The Drone Program is designed like a video game. It is operated from faraway places like Nevada and leaves the victims no chance of fighting back. The “Play Station mentality” of drone warfare is discussed at length in an article written by Rob Blackhurst, a reporter for the Telegraph, a news source based out of the U.K. The article discusses the dehumanization of targets. In fact some of the first drone operation devices were built to resemble Play Station controllers, which were easily manipulated by their millennials who pilot the drones.
This cruel and misdirected program leaves the survivors, such as Nasser Al-Awlaki, stunned, and questioning why their friends and family are dead. This questioning and grief often leads to anger as well as radicalization and anti-American sentiments in affected communities. One estimate by Nabeel Khoury, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Yemen from 2004 to 2007, claims that for every person killed in a drone strike, forty to sixty more people are radicalized. This shows that the program does not solve the problem of terrorism, but rather perpetuates it. Additionally, drone technology is something that America has a monopoly on at the moment. There are no other nations with drone programs that are as advanced or capable as ours. But, just like nuclear technology, this monopoly will not last forever. As a global leader, we are setting the precedent for how and when it will be appropriate to use drones in the future. If everyone lived by these rules, here is what they would look like: you can strike in places where you aren’t at war, you can spy on people and determine if their actions make them look like a terrorist, you can kill without knowing your targets offense or even their name, you can kill your own citizens without allowing them to undergo a trial by jury, even though such trials are one of the main foundations that your country was built on. These are the rules that America is establishing for other states.
If any other country acted like this there would be an uproar similar to the response seen to the Syrian civil war or Russia’s recent invasion of the Ukraine; U.N. Security Councils would be called, front pages would be dominated by the issue for weeks and months on end, world leaders would discuss whether or not they should take military action or simply place economic sanctions on us. But the American government is hypocritical and will not admit that what it is doing is wrong. According to Nasser Al-Awlaki’s article in the New York Times, it wasn’t even until two years after the deaths of the Al-Awlakis that the United States government acknowledged its role in the strikes. This hypocrisy needs to be addressed and changed.
Fortunately, the world’s population is less hypocritical than the American government; protest movements have cropped up all over the place. Reports published by TIME magazine state that street art, an increasing form of protest and communication in Yemen following the Arab Spring, is displaying more and more anti-drone sentiments. One Yemini street artist, Murad Subay, has produced what TIME is describing as a Bansky-esqe mural that admonished the use of United States Drone Strikes. Another painting by an unknown artist located on a wall in the downtown area of Yemen’s capital displays a drone painted in red, with the image of a child below it. The child in this work poses the question “Why did you kill my family?” TIME also reported a recent Yemeni poetry festival that receive over thirty submission, poems from the finalists included lines such as “From above, Death descends upon us” and “Do you fight terrorism with terrorism?” This little known approach may not do much by way of changing U.S. foreign policy, but it is certainly a peaceful response, to a large injustice that must be addressed.
Elsewhere, protests are less peaceful. In November of 2013, the New York Times reported another anti-drone movement in Pakistan, where 10,000 to 13,000 protesters came to voice their concern over the policies. They believe that the U.S. drone program is a violation of their state’s sovereignty. During this protest threats were made to blockade NATO delivery trucks passing through the area to deliver military supplies to Afghanistan. About a month later, Common Dreams, a non-profit independent news center, reported on the effects of 2013 Pakistani protest. The protest, albeit non-violent, placed blockades which halted ground transport of NATO military supplies from Afghanistan. In response, Chuck Hagel, the U.S. Secretary of Defense threatened to cut off over $1.6 billion dollars in aid to Pakistan. Eventually the blockades were lifted.
Domestically, there has been an abundance of outcry from the American public. Dozens of news websites, like the Guardian and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism publish articles on a regular basis detailing different mishaps and atrocities caused by Drones. The American documentaries Dirty Wars and Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars, both of which have been nominated for numerous awards, explore the questionable activities of the American military, particularly the signature strike program, and the many innocent people that have been affected. Additionally, Josh Begley has invaded a device near and dear to many of us, our iPhone, with the creation of his app “Metadata +” which provides real-time updates on every reported United States drone strike. All of these articles, documentaries, and even apps, exist to expose the government for what it is doing. For the way it is perpetuating mass atrocities, without consequence.
These atrocious strikes target unknown people who “look like terrorists” as well as children, civilians, women, and in a few cases American citizens. It is clear that the United States’ targeted killing program is engaging in a dangerous form of warfare. Moreover, they are setting a dangerous precedent for the rest of the world – whose technology will inevitably catch up to ours one day. The citizens of the world have taken notice and are trying to change this by attempting to stand up to the world power that is the United States of America. Despite all of the blockades, the documentaries and articles, the street art and poetry, this issue is far from the level of public acknowledgement that will force America to change. The anti-drone movement picks up more steam every day, and as it does so, it gets a little closer to making a change. It is only through this continued outcry that the public will be able to catch the attention of policy makers, and thereby end this violence. Everyone deserves the rights that our founding fathers allotted us, and the U.S. Drone program steals those rights away from countless citizens every year.
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