Dialogue About Drones

A. You know, I’m sick and tired of how bleeding heart liberals complain about the drone program. After all, we are at war with al-Qaeda — a war they declared when they flew planes into the Twin Towers. Basically, they asked for it and if we can save American lives by killing off the leaders of al-Qaeda so much the better.

B. I don’t know. We really aren’t at war with al-Qaeda, which isn’t a country after all; it’s a religious group. But religious fanatics certainly did fly planes into the Twin Towers and killed something like 3000 innocent people. In retaliation we have killed an estimated 4500 according to recent reports.  But as Jimmy Carter said, “Instead of making the world safer, America’s violation of international human rights abets our enemies and alienates our friends.” We need to think about this. I’m not sure it’s right to send the drones into crowded population centers.

A. What’s “right” got to do with it? It’s a question of getting them before they get us.

B. I read somewhere the odds of anyone in this country actually getting killed by another terrorist strike is about the same as the odds of winning the lottery. I’m not sure we have grounds for attacking people, especially since there are so many unknowns.

A. What do you mean “unknowns”?

B. Well, are we sure that only al-Qaeda leaders are getting killed? (Could there really be 4500 of them?) Isn’t it possible that the information that leads to the strikes is faulty? People do make mistakes, after all. And remember these are the same people giving us information now who failed to see the attacks coming in Benghazi, not to mention the Twin Towers.

A. Well, I have confidence in people the President and the military rely on. They wouldn’t order a drone strike against someone unless they were sure it was a viable target.

B. Perhaps, but then there are the innocent people who have been killed.

A. Well, sure. But that’s because the terrorists hide among the civilians: someone is bound to get killed by mistake.

B. And you’re OK with that? The U.N. thinks this country might be guilty of war crimes and have started an investigation. Here, read this from the Manchester Guardian where it quotes Ben Emmerson a U.N. special rapporteur who says that “The global war paradigm has done immense damage to a previously shared international consensus on the legal framework underlying both international human rights law and international humanitarian law. It has also given a spurious justification to a range of serious human rights and humanitarian law violations.
“The [global] war paradigm was always based on the flimsiest of reasoning, and was not supported even by close allies of the US.  …” If I read that right, this means that people looking at this country are beginning to regard the U.S. as the bully on the block.

A. Oh gimme a break! Nobody pays any attention to the U.N. any more. It’s just a group of motor mouths who sit around and beat their gums but never get anything done. Anyway, I would rather be the bully on the block than the kid everyone picks on. I am willing to accept the so-called “mistakes” if it means that the ones who are planning to attack this country can no longer pose a threat.

B. The question is do they really pose a threat? Or are we becoming paranoid and living in fear of something that is unlikely to happen? Couldn’t we just beef up security and use the CIA and other such groups to just collect information about possible attacks — and then prepare to defend against those actual attacks, and not just some imaginary ones?

A. The attacks on the Twin Towers weren’t imaginary.

B. True, but that was one attack and we are killing innocent people on the supposition that there will be future attacks, which may just be a fiction in the minds of military brass who love to play with their new toys and aren’t known for their restraint and humanitarian concerns. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be on our guard. But we are killing people because we are told they might attack us. Anyway, an attack on this country would be very complicated, given our distance from the Middle East and the cost of mounting it.

A. That’s pure speculation. It’s better to be safe than sorry. Anyway, I hope you and Jimmy Carter are happy in your make-believe world where everything is peaches and cream. I prefer it here in the real world where you try to be prepared for the bad things that happen.

B. It’s not clear whose world is “make-believe”: mine where people try to do the right thing or yours where you spend your life hiding under a desk worrying about an attack that almost certainly will never come.

A. Ahhh nuts! I’ve had enough of this. I’m going out to buy another Power Ball ticket.

What Did “W” Know?

As a closet conspiracy theorist myself, I can see how the following story would confirm the paranoia that leads to such “hair-brained” theories as the one that insists that George W. Bush knew the attacks on the World Trade Center were about to take place and simply chose to be elsewhere when it happened.

Now, 11 years later, new details of the attack on the World Trade Center continue to emerge from the government’s vault of classified documents and the journalists who’ve gained access. This year, the reporter with the jaw-dropping scoop is Kurt Eichenwald, a former Timesman and present contributing editor at Vanity Fair.  After reading more than one tweet with the simple instructions “Read this,” we clicked on the link to Eichenwald’s powerful op-ed, due to be published in The New York Times on September 11. In it, Eichenwald goes into teeth-grinding detail about how the Bush administration had even more advance notice about Osama Bin Laden’s attack than we previously realized.

In fact it seemed at the time that the CIA almost certainly had a pretty good idea that something big was “coming down.” And the terrible events that occurred on September 11th might have been prevented if those in charge had been willing to err on the side of caution. But that is not the way we do things in this country — witness the widespread unwillingness to take steps to thwart global warming. We embrace “crisis management” — we wait until something dreadful happens and then we try to figure out what went wrong.

Pert of this, at least, is our cultural hubris, our conviction that America can do no wrong. Another part is our blind addiction to technology and its presumed ability to solve all problems. Another part of it is the business mentality that refuses to consider the long run: it’s all about the short run self-interest (read: profits). And part of it is a sort of brash foolishness that borders on stupidity — like the person who continues to drive and text at the same time thinking that nothing can happen to him. But whatever we call it we should learn a lesson from all this: don’t wait until after the event happens before taking steps to avoid disaster. And don’t dismiss the warnings of reliable people when the consequences might be calamitous.

At the very least, “W” and his administration were wrong not to listen to informed people who gave warnings ahead of the event. At worst he knew pretty well what was going to happen and allowed it to happen in order to lead this country into war with Iraq — something that both he and the neoconservative advisers wanted (as the story above mentions). But that smacks of conspiracy theory and we know that stems from paranoia. I have been told, however, that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you!

Culpable or Coverup?

A recent article in the New York Times about the investigations into the culpability of those Americans accused of torture and other atrocities committed during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is worth comment. The article begins as follows:

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced Thursday that no one would be prosecuted for the deaths of a prisoner in Afghanistan in 2002 and another in Iraq in 2003, eliminating the last possibility that any criminal charges will be brought as a result of the brutal interrogations carried out by the C.I.A.

As the article goes on to point out this determination was based on Holder’s conviction that no verdict could be reached beyond a “reasonable doubt.” This conclusion will satisfy no one but the guilty themselves and those who would make excuses for them. At the very least to the rest of the world it will appear to be a cover-up (whether it is or not). It is common knowledge that atrocities were committed and that at least two horrible deaths resulted from the tactics used by the CIA in extracting information about possible al-Qaeda personnel and movements. I would have liked to see our dirty linen aired in an international court. That way a decision not to prosecute could not be questioned.

The typical rationale for permitting torture is the supposed “fact” that information gleaned by these methods led directly to the death of people like Osama bin Laden. The assumption is (and it is important to note that this is an assumption) we could not have gotten that information in any other way. The reasoning is as follows: the end justifies the means if and only if the means are the only or the best possible available to achieve the end. There is some question whether torture was the only or the best means to the end of capturing or killing bin Laden.

To take another example, we attempted to justify the dropping of two atom bombs on Japan by this reasoning: if we had not dropped those bombs thousands of American lives would have been lost in the invasion of mainland Japan. The viability of this reasoning assumes, of course, that American lives are more intrinsically valuable than the countless Japanese lives killed by the bombs, a questionable assumption at best. It also assumes that this was the only means to forcing Japan to surrender without an invasion of the mainland — another questionable assumption.

In any event, the attempt to justify torture on the grounds that the end justifies those means is spurious precisely because it rests on what logicians call a “counter-factual.” We have no way of knowing if the U.S. could have found Bin Laden, say, by means other than torture resulting at least twice in human death. It is quite possible that torture was not necessary — if a sufficient reward was offered, for example. Besides, torture is such an unmitigated evil that any attempt to morally justify torture is doomed to failure. The best one can do is rationalize the act on the grounds of expediency.

In any event, the U.S. government has officially washed its hands of the incidents and though the military continues to deploy drone strikes against al-Qaeda, we like to regard ourselves as possessing the moral high ground in the war on terror. This is questionable, since our tactics are themselves terroristic — sending drones into crowded neighborhoods where the innocent along with the guilty fall victim to the strikes. But presumably there is no more waterboarding or torture of any kind — if we can believe what we are told. There are those, however, who will pursue the matter further since there are grounds for doubt as to whether this investigation was politically motivated or indeed undertaken with a high moral purpose. Elisa Massimino, president of Human Rights First is not so sure. As the article concludes:

Ms. Massimino noted that in some other countries, the torture and death of prisoners have been the subject of public inquiries decades after the events. “I don’t think this is over,” she said. “I take the long view.”