Hannah Arendt Redux

A film recently released in New York deals with the life of Hannah Arendt and has once again stirred up much of the controversy that surrounded her study of the mind of Adolf Eichmann in the early 1960s during his trial in Jerusalem. Readers of these blogs will recognize Arendt’s name as I have referred to her many times. She is, in my view, one of the most profound thinkers of the twentieth century and one I never tire of revisiting. But it is precisely the depth of her thinking that has caused her detractors so much trouble: they simply don’t understand what she writes — or they are not careful readers. And this misunderstanding has surfaced in the controversy surrounding the release of this film by German director Margarethe von Trotta.

In his discussion in the New York Times of the controversy surrounding this film, author Roger Berkowitz evidences a careful reading of Arendt’s works and a thorough understanding of her position on Eichmann. He shows himself unwilling to side with those who thought Arendt had dismissed Eichmann as a “dull-witted clerk or a robotic bureaucrat.” He was anything but those things, according to Arendt. But many people found deeply disturbing the conviction that Arendt did embrace about Eichmann, namely, that he was pretty much just like the rest of us. It is easier and more comforting to think the man a crazed psychopath. But this was also, in Arendt’s view, decidedly not the case. As Berkowitz notes in his excellent article:

That evil, Arendt argued, originates in the neediness of lonely, alienated bourgeois people who live lives so devoid of higher meaning that they give themselves fully to movements. It is the meaning Eichmann finds as part of the Nazi movement that leads him to do anything and sacrifice everything. Such joiners are not stupid; they are not robots. But they are thoughtless in the sense that they abandon their independence, their capacity to think for themselves, and instead commit themselves absolutely to the fictional truth of the movement. It is futile to reason with them. They inhabit an echo chamber, having no interest in learning what others believe. It is this thoughtless commitment that permits idealists to imagine themselves as heroes and makes them willing to employ technological implements of violence in the name of saving the world.

Arendt had a very definite notion of what thought requires: it is a dialogue within the person himself or herself in which an honest attempt is made to see both sides of an issue and think one’s way carefully to imagined consequences of possible actions. Eichmann, like an increasing number of us, was unable to do that. He was not a “clerk” or a “robot.” Nor was he a psychopath. He was a relatively normal man who simply wasn’t able to engage his mind fully to think his way around a problem and see the implications of his actions. As a result, he became zealous, readily identifying with causes and blindly following a movement that he too quickly embraced. He could not think of Nazism without at the same time thinking of anti-Semitism. In his mind they were one and the same, and he embraced both ideas and willingly did what he was told had to be done. Evil is, in this case at least, banal.

A careful reader will note Roger Berkowitz’s oblique reference to America’s drone policy in the final sentence of the above quote, referring to those who are “willing to employ technological implements of violence in the name of saving the world.” Those who defend the use of these silent killers that take so many innocent civilian lives on the grounds that they are the “lesser of two evils” need to recall Arendt’s point that the lesser of evils is still evil.

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The Cost of National Security

I have already said far too much about the dreaded drone strikes our president continues to send against “targets” in the middle East in the name of “national security.” I cannot possibly improve on the words written by Matt Sledge for HuffPost after he read an interview with several of those who live under the constant fear of those so-called “signature strikes.” I will simply include several paragraphs from that article since the words require little in the way of comment.

Jalal Manzar Khail was at home on March 17, 2011 as dozens of men from two bickering tribal groups met a couple of miles away to settle a dispute.

All day long, American drones loomed in the sky above. “It’s very normal,” Khail said, speaking in Urdu through a translator with the United Kingdom legal charity Reprieve. “You see them during the day, you see them during the night — they’re always hovering.”

In Waziristan, the restive region of Pakistan where Khail lives, such drones have become commonplace over the past several years, always holding the possibility of near-instant death. Increasingly, Central Intelligence Agency drones have killed men without knowing their names, simply because from the perspective of a Predator drone’s video feed they look and act like members of the Taliban or al Qaeda or some other group considered associated with them.

Such so-called “signature strikes” are one of the most controversial practices in the drone war. When first elected, President Barack Obama was highly skeptical of such attacks, begun under former President George W. Bush in 2008. With time in the Oval Office and advice from military leaders, however, Obama came to accept their use as a vital part of the fight against terrorism.

Those signature strikes and their anonymous victims fall under Obama’s definition of targeted killings. Unnamed U.S. officials have told The New York Times the signature strikes will continue in Pakistan. In a major national security speech in May, Obama acknowledged that drones sometimes make mistakes, but said their work must carry on.

Think about that: Increasingly, Central Intelligence Agency drones killed men without knowing their names, simply because from the perspective of a Predator drone’s video feed they look like members of the Taliban or al Qaeda. . .” And the determination is apparently made by a teenager sitting at a desk somewhere in Nevada or North Dakota. All of this in the name of  “national security,” even though it has cost us our nation’s soul.

Droning On

I hate to keep kicking a dead horse, since the subject of drone attacks targeting innocent civilians is obviously not one that concerns most people. But a recent story carried by a British (not an American) newspaper caught my eye. It’s about a retired Air Force enlisted man whose job while in the military was operating unmanned aircraft in their attacks on targets in the Middle East. He was sitting comfortably — or not so comfortably, as it turns out — in Nevada watching the whole thing on a TV screen. Just like a game, which is what the recruiters promised him: just like guys in the James Bond movies. Except that it is no longer a game for this man who is suffering from post-traumatic stress and can’t seem to get the images out of his mind. The story carried in the London Daily Mail reads, in part:

A former drone operator who helped kill 1,626 targets says he’s haunted by the carnage he witnessed from behind his computer screen.
Brandon Bryant, 27, served as a drone operator from 2006 to 2011 at bases in Nevada, New Mexico and Iraq. It was a desk job of sorts, but unlike any other, it involved ordering unmanned aircraft to kill faraway targets while he watched.
In an interview with NBC News’ foreign correspondent Richard Engel, Bryant recalled one operation where his team fired two missiles from a drone at three men in Afghanistan.
The guy that was running forward, he’s missing his right leg,’ he said, recalling what he saw of the scene through the thermal images on his screen. ‘And I watch this guy bleed out and, I mean, the blood is hot.’
He recalled watching the mens’ bodies grow cold, as slowly the red color detecting the heat of their bodies grew smaller.
‘I can see every little pixel if I just close my eyes,’ he said.

There are so many things wrong here it is difficult to know where to start. I have spoken about the moral crisis these acts of violence signal, though so many Americans seem unaware of it, or simply don’t give a shit. Not only is it a violation of the Geneva Conventions, to which this country was a signatory once upon a time. But from any moral perspective you can imagine it is simply wrong to engage in military activities that invariably take innocent lives — excuse me, cause “collateral damage.” If they were doing this to us, we would see immediately how wrong this is. But since it is us doing it to them  — and they are thousands of miles away and wear different clothing and look different from most of us — we see no harm. This is one of the things that bothers Bryant: the fact that people over here don’t seem to care, even though we have fits when three people are killed by a couple of stupid kids during the running of the Boston Marathon. We really have become callous, and perhaps a bit blind.  As long as we are safe in our little boxes made of ticky-tacky, watching TV programmed for us by Madison Avenue to sell us products we don’t need, we are perfectly content to have innocent men, women and children killed somewhere else. Just don’t tell us about it. No harm (to me or mine) no foul. And our government is making sure we know as little about these activities as possible. There aren’t many folks like Bryant who have the courage to speak out — assuming that other drone operators are also bothered about what it is they are doing.

Just imagine sitting in a chair in Nevada or New Mexico, or wherever, and watching human targets, many of them only alleged enemies of your country, as they are struck by the missiles your drone releases at them. Bryant can’t get the images out of his head. Neither can I — and I haven’t even seen them except in my wildest imagination. It’s getting harder and harder to make excuses for this president and this Congress whom many people abroad identify with this country. I don’t, but what I think really doesn’t count.

Congress And The Drones

In a recent Yahoo News story we are told about a Senate subcommittee that met to discuss the Administration’s drone policy. President Obama did not send anyone to the meeting to defend his actions in sending drones into foreign countries to “take out” militant leaders of al-Qaeda, which reflects his unwillingness to be forthcoming about those strikes. But at the meeting six presentations on both sides of the complicated issue were summarized by the news article and I have picked four of them and will comment briefly.

General James Cartwright

The retired general, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained that drones are cheap, at an average cost of $4 million to $5 million, compared with a conventional jet fighter, at $150 million. They are also cheap to fly and have advanced optics.
“[They’re] not hard to see why military operations are significantly improved by this technology. Drones offer many advantages over other conventional forces in counterterrorism,” he said.
“Legitimate questions remain about the use, authorities, and oversight of armed drone activities outside an area of declared hostility,” he acknowledged. “While I believe based on my experience all parties involved in this activity have acted in the best interests of the country, as with other new technologies, adaptation of policy and law tends to lag implementation of the capability.”
Farea Al-Muslimi
Al-Muslimi, a Yemeni activist who was partly educated in the United States,  told the committee how drone attacks hurt the reputation of the United States in his country.
“Just six days ago, my village was struck by a drone, in an attack that terrified thousands of simple poor farmers. The drone strike and its impact tore my heart much as the tragic bombings in Boston last week tore your hearts and also mine,” he said.
Al-Muslimi said the drone attacks, especially those that killed innocent civilians, made his job as an advocate for America in Yemen “almost impossible.”
“Even when drone strikes target and kill the right people, it is at the expense of creating the many strategic problems I have discussed today,” he added.
Al-Muslimi also believes the United States should compensate the families of civilians killed or injured in the attacks.

Rosa Brooks

A Georgetown professor and senior fellow at the New America Foundation, Brooks said the United States needs to address legal and procedural issues.
“I believe that the president and Congress can and should take action to place U.S. targeted killing policy on firmer legal ground,” she said.
“In particular, we need to address the rule of law implications of U.S. targeted killing policy. Every individual detained, targeted, and killed by the U.S. government may well deserve his fate. But when a government claims for itself the unreviewable power to kill anyone, anywhere on earth, at any time, based on secret criteria and secret information discussed in a secret process by largely unnamed individuals, it undermines the rule of law.”
Colonel Martha McSally
Retired Air Force Colonel Martha McSally served for 22 years and is familiar with the tactics involved in drone attacks.
McSally said the use of drones can help due process in some ways: “You actually have the lawyers sitting side by side with you” as a drone remains in position, unlike conventional aircraft. “You can wait until the moment you have positive identification and all the criteria have been met,” she said.
“For targeted strikes of fleeting targets in low air defense threat environments, an RPA [remotely piloted aircraft] is the best platform to choose to ensure precision, persistence, flexibility, and minimize civilian casualties,” she said.
McSally also quoted Air Force Lieutenant General David Deptula, the first general responsible for overseeing drones, about the advantages of using the aircraft.
“Adversary falsehoods regarding inaccuracy and collateral damage divert attention from the fact that the massive intentional damage, intentional killing of civilians, and intentional violations of international law are being conducted by Al Qaeda and the Taliban–not U.S. ‘drones,” said Deptula, in a passage used by McSally in her remarks.

You will note that the General and the Air Force Colonel carefully avoid the moral questions, insist that this is “counter-terrorism” and attempt to rationalize the policy on the grounds that it is cheaper than sending in manned aircraft and “they did it first.” Al-Muslimi and Brooks deal with the legal and moral issues. I leave it to the reader to determine which side seems to have the weightier argument, but from where I sit — which is admittedly far from the region of conflict — morality always trumps practicality. And I have never bought the notion that two wrongs make a right. As I have mentioned in past blogs, the moral high ground which people like Martin Luther King asked us to seek and hold is beginning to look more and more like a mole-hill.

In The Aftermath

Welcome to the age of hyperbole where an increasingly tongue-tied population attempts to describe what is going on around them and cannot “find the words” without using superlatives or clichés.  This happens daily but was nowhere more evident than in the recent horrific events in Boston where 3 people were killed and more than 170 injured in two bomb explosions. Interviewers asked dumb questions of eye-witnesses who could only pause and say “it was tragic; it was huge, I can’t explain it.” We have come to the point where the word “tragedy” simply leaps to the tongue whenever something terrible happens. The Greeks, who invented the word, distinguished it from “pathos” which is mere sadness, even extraordinary sadness; they reserved the word “tragedy” for those terrible, and terrifying, events in which a noble person brings his world down around his ears through his own blindness and stupidity. But that has changed and only a pedant would insist that we reserve the word for Greek tragedies. No other word seems to suffice. The term has legitimately come to mean any unexpected event in which innocent people are hurt or killed — though we use it even more loosely than this, of course, when we describe the ACL tear the running back suffers in a vicious tackle as “tragic.”

In any event, it is certainly the case that the bomb explosions in Boston recently were terribly gut-wrenching, whether we want to call the event “tragic” or not. And at times it is hard to find the words to express our grief and outrage. But if we do insist on calling the death of three people and the injury of more than 170 others, a tragedy, then we must agree to use the term to apply to the death of men, women, and children in the Middle East where as many as 880 innocent people, including 176 children, have been killed in drone strikes that have taken an estimated 3,325 lives only 2% of whom were the militant leaders who were targeted. These are estimates, of course, and they probably err on the low side. The Obama administration is not forthcoming about the effects of the drone strikes and this in itself is unsettling. We are certainly not informed about these figures on a daily basis, nor shown film or pictures of the carnage, as we were (and still are) on TV following the explosions in Boston. Indeed, the photo here is a rare one showing the aftermath of a drone strike in Pakistan that involved a number of civilian deaths, including this child.

Child killed in drone attack

Child Killed In Drone Attack

But we must remember that we are the ones responsible for those deaths and that destruction in the Middle East which is many times greater than what happened in Boston. So while we pray for those who suffered or died in the aftermath of the bombings in Boston, we should take a moment to pray for those innocent people who are dying on a regular basis in crowded cities on the other side of the earth as a result of decisions made by our government. They, too, suffer. And their loses are as meaningful to them as ours are to us.

We may find it hard to find the right words to express our feelings and describe what is going on around us, but whatever those words are we should make sure we acknowledge that they apply to other people as well as to us.  No one who engages in these sorts of attacks on other human beings is in the right. And if we are convinced that those who planted the bombs in Boston are evil people who should be punished, it raises serious questions about the culpability of this nation as it prances about on the world stage flexing its muscles. We have become an increasingly bellicose and arrogant country of late and while it hurts to say so, there are those around the world who might insist we have this sort of thing coming.

Free From Fear

Stories abound about long-time prisoners who are finally set free and who then commit an illegal act in order to be arrested and sent back to jail. The freedom they have finally achieved scares them and they prefer the security of three meals a day, a place to sleep, and a routine they are familiar with. When the Wall fell separating East and West Berlin there were also reports of people from East Germany who went into a panic because they were suddenly free to make of their lives what they wished. Freedom can be a fearsome thing because it involves both risk and responsibilities and it requires courage and self-confidence to “go it alone.” Freedom varies inversely with fear: the exercise of that freedom demands that we conquer our fear.

We certainly enjoy a great many freedoms in this country. But there are so many people on all sides who are only too happy to tell us how to live — our parents, friends, society at large and, of course, those who would sell us the things we don’t need, including politicians! But in the midst of all these many factors operating on us we still pretty much can come and go as we wish; we can visit the grocery store and marvel at the bounty from which to choose the items we take home to eat — if we have the money with which to make our purchases. That is always the hooker, of course, and there is an increasing number of people in this country who do not have the money to buy what they need to eat and who have no place to live. But the majority of us live relatively comfortable lives, free to come and go as we like and make of our lives what we wish.

When the Twin Towers fell on 9/11, however,  much of this changed. We suddenly felt vulnerable and fear began to enter the hearts of  those who really had no reason to be fearful. And there were those among us in positions of power who nurtured that sense of fear because they came quickly to realize that it was a way to get what they wanted. There followed the  monster known as “Homeland Security” that took away many of our civil liberties without our even knowing it. Our communications were open to prying eyes, guilt was presumed, and our right to privacy was rapidly becoming an empty phrase, dismissed in the name of greater national security. Security cameras started going up everywhere, especially in crowded cities, and access to public transportation is now carefully watched and monitored. Recently there has been serious talk about domestic drone flights in the name of surveillance in order to assure our government that another terrorist attack will not occur — even though the likelihood of anyone in this country being killed in such an attack is on a par with winning the lottery.

All indications are that the vast majority of American citizens are perfectly content to have it this way. We seem to be entering a phase in which we are willing to trade what freedoms we do have for greater security because of an exaggerated sense of fear of terrorists who may or may not ever attack us again. We begin to resemble the prisoner who seeks the safety and comfort of the jail cell rather than face the world on his own. We have crossed the threshold into an era in which we trade what is left of our freedom for the feeling of security — even though our safety is almost certainly not at risk. Fear trumps freedom.

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.

The End Justifies Any Means?

One of the philosophical theories that Dostoevsky tested in his novels was the utilitarian notion that the end justifies the means. As John Stuart Mill put it, that action is right which produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people. The position was not new, of course. Machiavelli put it forward in the Prince, either in jest (as many claim) or as a way of pointing out the way things are done in the “real world” of politics circa 1500 in Florence. In any event, Dostoevsky’s great novel Crime and Punishment could be said to be the reductio ad absurdum of the view: it won’t stand up to the withering test of actual human experience when we attempt to justify the taking of another human life. Like so many philosophical theories it is just that: a theory.

Fyodor DostoevskyCourtesy of Wikipedia

Fyodor Dostoevsky
Courtesy of Wikipedia

In his even greater novel that very few people bother to read these days — if they bother to read at all — Dostoevsky visits the claim once again. In this novel the situation involves a discussion between Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov in the novel about The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan, the intellectual skeptic confronts his pure and naive brother Alyosha with the following conundrum:

“Tell me straight out, I call on you — answer me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the end, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny [child]. . . and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears — would you agree to be the architect on such conditions? Tell me the truth?”

And Alyosha said softly, “No I would not agree.”

“And can you admit the idea that the people for whom you are building would agree to accept their happiness on the unjustified blood of a tortured child, and, having accepted it, to remain forever happy?”

“No, I cannot admit it, brother.”

Ivan is alluding to a story that he told Alyosha (one of several) — which Dostoevsky himself clipped from the newspaper and worked into his novel — about a five-year old child who was beaten and kicked by her parents and then locked in an outhouse over a cold winter’s night because she had wet her bed the night before. In the night she “beat herself on her strained little chest with her tiny fist and weeps. . . for ‘dear God’ to protect her” to no avail. The next day her parents washed her face with her own excrement so she would learn her lesson. It’s a horrible story, but that sort of thing happens in the “real world” while philosophers in their studies sit and muse about the right and the good and come up with theories about what is good “in the long run.”

We live today in a world where little girls are not beaten and locked in privies overnight, we hope. But we live at a time when it has become commonplace to direct small, pilotless planes into crowded streets alive with women and small children to target a “known” enemy of the political state.  We, of course, rely completely on the veracity of spies and agents to correctly identify the “target.” These trustworthy people know who the “bad guys” are and they point them out. The planes are then sent in and if they hit a few innocent women and children it does not matter as long as the bad guy is “taken out.”

This is done in the name of “national security,” of course. The end justifies the means, just as Machiavelli said. And because “they” hit us first and killed 3000 innocent people we can justify killing half again as many of “them” in the name of self-defense, even if we know we are killing innocent women and children. It is not quite as terrible as the story that Dostoevsky tells, but apparently, unlike Alyosha, we seem to be perfectly happy with it.

Who Cares?

I have blogged about the drone kills before, though the posts have not been overly popular. I don’t think people like to think about these anti-terrorist tactics that may strike some as in themselves terroristic. This is especially so since mistakes have been made in the past and a number of innocent lives, estimated at the end of last year to be around 145, have been lost in those attacks. And it has been revealed recently that even the targeting of American citizens anywhere in the world (except the United States) has been approved — if they are suspected of terrorist tendencies. At what point do we balk?

A poll recently revealed that 77% of the Democrats polled approve of the drone kills. That number astounded me, and it makes me wonder if that many Democrats would approve of the flights if they were ordered by a Republican president. It doesn’t seem to me that any citizen should simply approve of what his or her President does simply because they happen to be of the same political party. If something is wrong, it is wrong no matter who orders it.

But, speaking of wrong, in a recent speech  in his home state of South Carolina covered by Yahoo News, Senator Lindsey Graham seemed to be bragging as he had the following interesting remark to make about these drone attacks:

“We’ve killed 4,700,” the lawmaker said. “Sometimes you hit innocent people, and I hate that, but we’re at war, and we’ve taken out some very senior members of Al-Qaeda.”

Graham’s dismissive aside about the innocent lives that have been taken is extremely offensive. And I hesitate to point out the fact that the same intelligence community that is providing information about who are and who are not “very senior members of Al-Qaeda” failed to provide adequate information to this government about the attacks on the Twin Towers or the more recent terrorist attacks on the American Embassy in Benghazi. So we don’t really know how many innocent lives have been lost in these strikes.

But what is especially disturbing about Graham’s remarks is his claim that we are at war. We are not at war, though we have coined the phrase “war on terror” to hide our shame. Indeed, we are the best protected nation in the world with 300,000 troops stationed overseas and oceans on either side of this continent. But even if we were in a war declared as such by this Congress, we should hesitate to approve of tactics that are known to have “residual effects,” as they say, in taking the lives of innocent people.

How would we feel about this if these drone attacks were ordered by, say, Iran, and they targeted the Secretary of Defense (or Senator Graham for that matter) and they happened to “take out” several dozen innocent American lives at the same time? I dare say there would be outrage and cries for retaliation — as well there should be. What we would not want done to ourselves we should not want done to others.There is simply no way these attacks can be defended on ethical grounds.

But if you are keeping score, “they” killed 3000 people in the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers; we have now apparently killed 4,700 of them. We’re ahead. How sickening.

Targeting Terrorists

A very unsettling news item recently surfaced about the drones this country has been routinely employing in such places as Pakistan to target terrorist leaders. The very fact that this country would resort to terror to fight terror is disturbing, especially when innocent civilians are killed in the drone strikes. But the rationale for these strikes is even more bothersome, since it puts me in mind of a blog I wrote some time ago about how nation-states set ethics aside when they engage in horrible acts they regard as in “the national interest.” This country was supposed to be above such acts. In this case we are told in a recent HuffPost news item the determination of when and where to use these drones “in the national interest” has become a political issue:

The report, by Michael Isikoff of NBC News, reveals that the Obama administration believes that high-level administration officials — not just the president — may order the killing of “senior operational leaders” of al-Qaida or an associated force even without evidence they are actively plotting against the U.S.

“A lawful killing in self-defense is not an assassination,” states the Justice Department white paper quoted by Isikoff.

The paper states that the U.S. would be able to kill a U.S. citizen overseas when “an informed, high-level official of the U.S. government” determines the target is an imminent threat, when capture would be infeasible and when the operation is “conducted consistent with applicable law of war principles.”

One concern that is receiving a good deal of attention is the possibility of illicit extension of executive power — a constitutional issue that will bear careful scrutiny by constitutional lawyers and political pundits. I am more interested in the moral issue, as we all should be. After all, ours is a democracy that was a signatory to the Geneva Conventions placing “humane” restraints on modern warfare. Those restraints have been found wanting recently by our incarceration of suspected terrorists in Guantanamo. But this policy takes us even further away from the ideals.

The issue here is not so much that this policy allows for the killing of American citizens — which has already been accomplished — but that it condones the killing of suspected terrorists in crowded areas where, regardless of nationality, innocent people will also die. The notion that we — that is to say, this country — routinely order drones into crowded urban areas with the intention to “take out” an alleged leader of al-Qaeda “even without evidence they are actively plotting against the U.S.” on the grounds that this is “consistent with applicable law of war principles” is morally reprehensible. What, precisely, are those principles? And how do we determine which ones are “applicable”?

If the drones were used against presumed terrorists in the streets of Los Angles or New York by our enemies we would assuredly not recognize this as “lawful killing.” What we would not allow to have done to our own citizens in this country — or anywhere else — we should not regard as morally acceptable when done by our own leaders to suspected terrorists, no matter how “high” the level of the “official of the United States” happens to be who makes this dreadful decision.

As a student of rationalization — the attempt to find reasons for doing what we are going to do anyway — I am struck by the claim that “a lawful killing in self-defense is not an assassination.” To begin with, how are those killings in any way “lawful”? What laws apply in this case? — certainly not moral laws. And certainly not moral principles as we can see from the fact that a neutral observer reading about such a “lawful killing” would never agree that it is not an assassination. Imagine what people in other countries must think of this nation when our leaders reason this way. Would we ourselves agree that it is not an assassination if “a lawful killing” targeted, say, the Secretary of Defense, or one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and killed several innocent bystanders in the process? We would be appalled, and we should be.