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.

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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.

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.

Questioning Motives

I don’t know about you but I am not one to fathom human motives. I’m not sure what my own are much of the time! But a recent article in Yahoo Finance News ventures into this dark realm when the author professes to know why Barack Obama failed to defend Social Security against the assaults from the Republicans who want to cripple the program — despite the fact that it is one of the most beneficial, cost-effective, and successful programs this nation has ever known.

The author, Dean Baker, Co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, tells us why he thinks Obama backed Mitt Romney in the first debate when the latter said the program must be reduced to save money.

There is a simple explanation for Obama’s refusal to defend Social Security. In elite Washington circles the willingness to cut Social Security is taken as evidence of courage. These people do not depend on Social Security. In fact, as Governor Romney demonstrated at his famous fundraiser speech, they actually have contempt for the people who do depend on programs like Social Security.

If Obama were to take a strong stand defending Social Security he could expect to be attacked harshly by these elites. In news stories and editorial columns, outlets like the Washington Post and National Public Radio would denounce President Obama in harsh terms. Needless to say, his wealthy funders might also have second thoughts.

If it is the case that our President is in awe of the Washington “elites” and motivated by the wish to be accepted by that type of person this is rather disturbing. If this really is the simplest explanation then Baker’s surmise increases in plausibility. But Baker’s guess cannot be said to be an assured thing; it is pure speculation. At the same time, I must confess that despite the fact that I am an Obama supporter and was delighted when he won the last election and plan to vote for him again — given the realities of the situation — I have always thought (and said in print) that he is far too conciliatory, too eager to please.

In any event, Romney is proposing cutting Social Security for retirees — who would be at least five years older under his plan — on the supposition that they have other retirement plans and don’t need the help. Baker contends that even if they had other retirement plans such plans are of questionable reliability and Obama could score big political points by recommending that Social Security benefits be increased, especially for lower-income persons who need help when they retire. But he has apparently been reluctant to do this. As Baker goes on to say in his article:

Given this reality, it would be sound policy for President Obama to insist, in contrast to Governor Romney, that Social Security cuts are off the table until we have fixed the larger retirement savings system. If anything, it would be reasonable to suggest increasing Social Security benefits, especially for low and moderate income workers.

Baker suspects Obama’s motives, and perhaps worries that Obama lacks the courage of his convictions.  Obama has made tough decisions, however — for example when he determined that the Navy SEALs should take Osama bin Laden out in spite of advisers who (we read) urged a different course of action that they thought would be less likely to fail. I dare say it was also his decision, and a good one, not to bring Pakistan into the loop and let them know what was about to happen. I suppose Baker would surmise that the Washington “elites” approved of those decisions. But the Social Security program is one that has benefited millions of people for many years and one which most of us consider a right that we have earned by dint of hard work and long hours on the job. It is not something that anyone, Democrat or Republican, should be tinkering with, much less threatening to take away from our children and their children — regardless of what the “elites” might or might not think.

Let’s hope that Dean Baker read the tea leaves incorrectly and that his venture into the realm of human motivations took a wrong turn. But we are left with the question why this President has not come out in support of Social Security? That in itself is bothersome.

What’s It Worth?

A man sits next to an attractive women at a bar and offers to buy her a drink. She accepts with a smile and while they’re waiting for the drinks they start chatting. At one point he asks her if she would sleep with him for $5,000.00 and she laughs and says she probably would. After the drinks arrive and they have had a few sips he asks her is she would sleep with him for $1,000.00. After a pause she smiles and says “probably I would, after a drink or two.” He than asks if she would sleep with him for $500.00 and she responds angrily: “Of course not, what do you take me for, a whore?” He quietly responds: “We’ve already established what you are. I am just trying to determine what your price is.”

A joke, to be sure. But it reflects the fact that in this country, as the popular movies tell us, “everything has its price.” In fact Nicholas Kristof has recently written a review of a book in the New York Times that develops this idea  in an interesting way. Everything in our culture, increasingly, does seem to have a price. As Kristof notes, Michael Sandel, the Harvard political theorist, . . . argues that in recent years we have been slipping without much reflection into relying upon markets in ways that undermine the fairness of our society.

Kristof notes the bizarre case of a woman in Utah who agreed to have the logo of an online casino tattooed on her forehead for $10,000 in order to have enough money to send her son to college. The U.S. sells visas for half a million dollars to would-be immigrants. Massachusetts recently considered selling the naming rights to its state parks to corporations. And we don’t need Kristof to tell us that schools and school buses have corporate logos prominently displayed and the school halls are filled with machines dispensing unhealthy foods; TVs broadcast news, complete with commercial messages, to the classrooms.  And we all know ball parks, athletic fields, and civic arenas now bear the names of corporations as well. Athletes sell out to the highest bidder and coaches regularly jump contracts for a better deal — and they are widely applauded: “who wouldn’t?” Kids leave college and “turn pro” for millions of dollars, thereby undermining their future prospects. In fact, there seems to be no limit to the number of things that have a price tag — including our integrity. And that’s the point. Kristof and Sandel wonder if there are limits, as do I.

We moan about the economic problem in this country, and well we should. The infamous 1% of the obscenely wealthy (who number among themselves virtually all of the members of the Senate and most of the members of the House of Representatives) now control 40% of the wealth in this country — more than the lower 90% put together. In effect, they own the country. The remaining 9% aspire to become part of the 1%. The country, as Joseph Stiglitz has been saying for years, has become radically split between the very wealthy and the growing number of poor and it increasingly resembles a third-world country — while a number of those countries, ironically, struggle for greater economic equality. We worry aloud about the national debt, the number of people unemployed, the homeless, the undernourished, and the rising costs of the things we need; we might do better to ponder the real economic problems in this country.

They are twofold: (1) the growing disparity between the rich and the poor, and (2) our increasing willingness to sacrifice morals for money. As our preoccupation with money grows — perhaps as a consequence of the disparity mentioned in point #1 —  our sense of morality wanes. As Kristof asks, quoting his source, Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy? The obscenely rich want to keep it that way — in the name of “free markets,” or more accurately “market fundamentalism.”

This issue goes to the heart of fairness in our country. There has been much discussion recently about economic inequality, but almost no conversation about the way the spread of markets nurtures a broader, systemic inequality. It has been called “market fundamentalism,” which is . . . the dogma that helped lead to bank deregulation and the current economic mess. And anyone who honestly believes that low taxes and unfettered free markets are always best should consider moving to Pakistan’s tribal areas. They are a triumph of limited government, negligible taxes, no “burdensome regulation” and free markets for everything from drugs to AK-47s.

Call it “systemic inequality,” or “market fundamentalism,” or “free markets.” By any name it is a crass materialism that puts a price on everything under the sun. Indeed, I would argue that this is not only the major economic problem in our country; it is a serious moral problem as well.

Foreign Policy

The latest out of Afghanistan is somewhat unsettling. The story begins: KABUL (Reuters) – Afghanistan and the United States have reached an agreement to curb night raids on Afghan homes, giving Kabul veto power over the operations despised by most local people and control over treatment of any detainees, Afghan officials said on Sunday.

Let’s think about this. In light of the recent killing of 17 civilians, including children, by an American soldier on his seventh tour of duty in two different war zones, not to mention the burning of the Quran at a NATO base resulting in waves of daily protests that brought about the death of seven people and the injuring of 65 others, we now condescend to turn tactical decisions over to the people who actually live in that country. What do we call this? Largess? Generosity? To state the obvious: this is their country. We don’t belong there. Our only possible reason for going there in the first place was to capture or (as it turned out) kill Osama Bin Laden — who, as I recall, was killed in Pakistan where he was apparently being protected by our “allies.” Once that was accomplished, we should have turned things over to the Afghan people and gotten the hell out.

Our foreign policy needs some serious review. As a country we have a disturbing tendency toward paternalism and a misguided sense of our own superiority that must be galling to people elsewhere in the world. As was clearly the case in Iraq, our presence in Afghanistan is unwelcome. I would imagine the people of that country feel as many Americans did in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when the British armed forces could be seen everywhere in our colonies and military rule was the order of the day. We are an occupying force in a country that wants us out of there — and has for a number of years. Recent developments have simply made things worse and the flames of discontent burn higher and hotter today than they did yesterday. The claim that we must remain there to contain the Taliban is absurd. We have been unable to deal with them militarily –something like trying to nail Jello to the wall. So dialogue seemed to be the wise option. However, any chance of opening talks with those people went up in flames with the Quran.

The very least we can do is to allow the local government to “call the shots” as we prepare to evacuate the country sooner rather than later and allow the people to deal with their centuries-old problems themselves. They may not live the way we would want them to live, but they may not want to live the way we want them to, either.  To repeat, it’s their country and in their eyes we are the ugly Americans.