Among the many cock-and-bull stories set afoot by the Bush administration during the lead-up to its attack on Iraq was the one about the now-infamous drones of death. Later, it became sufficiently clear that this alleged threat had no more substance than the others the administration and the lapdog mainstream media had served up to a credulous public.
Although the ludicrously primitive Iraqi drones had no capacity whatsoever to harm the American public, the lethality of U.S. drones is another matter. Predator drones equipped with Hellfire missiles now provide the U.S. government with a means of flying over territory that U.S. ground troops dare not penetrate, observing activities on the ground, and killing people there with, shall we say, a minimum of due process.
In November 2002, for example, BBC News reported: "America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) carried out an attack in Yemen that killed six suspected members of Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network, according to US officials. The men died when the jeep they were travelling in was hit by a missile fired from an unmanned CIA plane — believed to be a Predator drone, the US sources said."
U.S. forces have also used the Predator actively in Afghanistan and, most recently, in the Waziristan region of Pakistan. Today, I read an account of a drone attack near the town of Miramshah in North Waziristan that is reported to have "killed at least 14 people and injured 12 others," including "at least six women and children."
In Afghanistan, such aerial attacks, not always by drones, of course, have created a ticklish dilemma for the Karzai government as it pretends to be a real government, rather than the U.S. puppet it actually is. Official protests have become increasingly vociferous, though I have seen no evidence that the U.S. forces intend to change their operations in response.
What an awesome power the president and, with his authorization, his subordinate officers possess: they can kill people at will, including those persons’ wives and children, with no risk whatever of receiving return fire or other retribution. Surely this is the long-sought culmination of the Republican’s quest to establish "law and order."
What leads me to remark on this matter, however, is not its technological nuts and bolts or its connection with master-puppet relations in southwest Asia, but rather the complete insouciance with which the American public greets reports of deaths by drone. I do not exaggerate if I say that the general reaction is "ho-hum." Well, the average American says, that disposes nicely of another "bad guy." The gratuitous murder of the bad guy’s family members, neighbors, and other innocent persons in the vicinity appears to create no blip on the average American’s moral radar screen. Perhaps Americans do not consider Yemenis, Afghanis, and Pakistanis to be real human beings whose right to life we are obliged to respect?
Is death by drone simply another occasion when the president, having labeled a set of actions as a "war," believes and acts as though he has carte blanche to dish out death and destruction willy nilly?
Of course, reports of drone attacks usually refer to militants, Taliban forces, or al Qaeda members. To this information, we might well respond: yeah, who says? If we are content to assume that U.S. intelligence agents, who nearly always get their information from collaborators in the target territories, really know whom they are targeting, then we are certainly easily satisfied. One does not have to make an extensive survey of U.S. government claims about Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other places in southwest Asia over the past seven years to see that for the most part the U.S. commanders, from the Commander in Chief on down to the sweatiest noncom on patrol, are either more or less clueless or the biggest liars on the planet. I do not rule out that they are both.
The upshot is that the people who cooperate in getting to the point at which someone pushes the button to send the Hellfire toward its selected target may in fact not know for sure whom they are about the kill, or how many others will be killed along with this ostensible "enemy" or who those others are.
Without launching into a massive geopolitical inquiry, we might well pause from time to time to ask, What are U.S. forces doing in Afghanistan and Pakistan anyhow? Surely they are not there to capture or kill the persons responsible for the crimes of 9/11, because they have already proved beyond all doubt that they are incapable of doing so (as Osama bin Laden’s videos periodically remind us). They are, however, all too capable of diverting their energies from that objective toward unrelated goals, such as attacking and occupying Iraq.
We Americans find ourselves, then, observing with extreme moral disengagement as the president and his subordinates murder persons whose identities remain uncertain along with assorted others whose only crime is being in the same area as the targeted individuals — after all, the Hellfire, which makes a very big blast, can scarcely be described as a surgically precise killing instrument.
Moreover, the president’s use of this remote-control-execution device apparently has no geographical limits, because, as he assures us, the "war on terror" has none. Today, a dirt road in Waziristan; tomorrow, the Santa Monica Freeway. It will be interesting to see, when drone attacks are carried out in this country, whether the American public gives a damn.
Robert Higgs [send him mail] is senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute and editor of The Independent Review. He is also a columnist for LewRockwell.com. His most recent book is Neither Liberty Nor Safety: Fear, Ideology, and the Growth of Government. He is also the author of Depression, War, and Cold War: Studies in Political Economy, Resurgence of the Warfare State: The Crisis Since 9/11 and Against Leviathan: Government Power and a Free Society.