Drones and “what makes us different”

Seven years ago this month and three days after Barack Obama assumed the presidency on January 20, 2009, the first drone strike of his administration took place–in a small village in the region of Pakistan known as North Waziristan. It targeted the family compound of Faheem Qureshi, fracturing the young teen’s skull and destroying one of his eyes, while killing, among others, two of his uncles and a 21-year-old cousin. The White House’s intended target, it was later revealed, was not, nor had he ever been, present at the site. About ten months later, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced its decision to award Obama the annual Peace Prize “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.”

In his speech at the Oslo City Hall upon accepting the prize on December 10, 2009, Obama insisted that “the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war,” suggesting that U.S. war-waging is somehow superior, more ethical, than those of the country’s adversaries. “That is what makes us different from those whom we fight,” he proclaimed. “That is a source of our strength.”

No doubt there are many things that distinguish the United States—not least the enormity of its military budget, and its global network of military bases. But as the documentary Drone (which premiered in the United States and Canada in late November and which includes footage from Obama’s speech) makes painfully clear, it is the U.S. government’s ability to kill at a distance—with impunity and with widespread support, or at least resignation, of the citizenry—that also “makes us different.”

Remotely piloted aircraft, what are popularly known as drones, allow the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence apparatus to track and monitor individuals from afar with little risk. According to Brandon Bryant, a former drone operator interviewed in the film states, “We’re the ultimate voyeurs, the ultimate peeping toms. No one is going to catch us.”

It also allows the Pentagon to engage in what is effectively a global assassination program with little domestic cost. “It’s never been easier for an American president to carry out a killing operation at the ends of the earth at any time in American history,” explains Mark Mazzetti, a reporter with The New York Times. “And when you define the world as a battlefield, that’s a very broad range of operations you can carry out.”

An explosive series of articles published in October by The Intercept shows just how far-reaching—and, perhaps most damningly, indiscriminate—these operations are. Based on classified documents leaked to the online magazine by an unnamed whistleblower within the U.S. intelligence apparatus, the series exposes the falsehoods underlying official Washington’s spin on drone strikes. While Obama administration officials claim that civilian casualties are not common in drone strikes, the documents make clear that the Pentagon typically does not know who it has killed.

U.S. airstrikes carried out in northeastern Afghanistan between January 2012 and February 2013 (as part of Operation Haymaker), for example, killed more than 200 people, only 35 of whom were the intended targets. During one five-month period of the operation, according to the documents, nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets. In Yemen and Somalia, where the U.S. has far more limited intelligence capabilities to confirm the people killed are the intended targets, the equivalent ratios may well be much worse.

That the U.S. government can and does kill in this way, and often in countries with which the United States is not even at war, with little protest at home, demonstrates one of the ways imperialism functions: the deaths of “others,” particularly those associated, even if only by virtue of where they happen to reside, with people and places constructed as threats, are not only undeserving of sympathy, they’re also barely noticed.

Writing soon after the November release of the video of the horrific police murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald—shot 16 times as he was moving away from Chicago police officers—New York Times columnist Charles Blow argues that the “only reason that these killings keep happening is because most of American society tacitly approves or willfully tolerates it. There is no other explanation. If America wanted this to end, it would end.”

Blow goes on to say that the “exceeding sad and dreadfully profound truth is that America — the majority of America, and that generally means much of white America — has turned away, averted its gaze and refused to take a strong moral stance in opposition. That’s the same as granting silent approval.”

These observations could just as easily apply to the Obama administration’s brutality toward Faheem Qureshi and the killing of his loved ones—and of so many others around the world. Just as white America must be made to overcome what Blow calls an “endemic anti-black bias” to help bring an end to the grossly disproportionate killing of African Americans by police, so, too, must the United States as a whole be made to “see the issue [in this case drones] as an intolerable human cruelty” to stop the Pentagon’s killing ways abroad.

Clive Stafford Smith, the director of the London-based human rights organization Reprieve, offers a similar analysis while speaking to a crowd of Pakistanis during the film Drone: “Until America sees your children as they see my children, we will never get justice in the world.”

Realizing the radically egalitarian vision implied by these words is obviously no easy task. This makes it all the more important that those of us who see all children, and adults, as being inherently of equal worth back the efforts of those opposing killer drones—from those of courageous U.S. air force veterans publicly denouncing the drone program to peace groups such as CODEPINK.

Supporting such efforts would be one small way to acknowledge what the United States has done to Faheem Qureshi and his family, something the Obama administration has thus far refused to do, and constitute a step in the long journey to a more just world. As Brandon Bryant, one of the air force whistleblowers has asserted, “At the end of our pledge of allegiance, we say ‘with liberty and justice for all.’ I believe that should be applied to not only American citizens, but everyone that we interact with as well, to put them on an equal level and to treat them with respect.”

In other words, we need to act in a fundamentally different way than one which involves the nationalist proclamation of “what makes us different” (and supposedly better).

Joseph Nevins teaches geography at Vassar College. Among his books are Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid (City Lights Books, 2008), and Operation Gatekeeper and Beyond: The War on “Illegals” and the Remaking of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary (Routledge, 2010). Follow him on Twitter @jonevins1 Read other articles by Joseph.