"Complaints about civilian casualties have also stirred concern among human rights advocates."
The problem is that a sentence like this — arguably a dead sentence, with a few quasi-facts entombed in an inert moral sensibility — parades as serious news. I mean, it’s lifted straight from the New York Times: from a story about drones, the CIA hit list and our cool new PlayStation way of killing bad dudes (and everyone else in the vicinity). Someone with an active conscience could come upon a sentence like that, in the middle of a painfully ill-focused story on the endless war, and think she must be going insane.
As an archeological find, it’s worth examining in closer detail, but first let me put it in context. The use of pilotless aircraft in Pakistan and Afghanistan to assassinate Taliban or al-Qaeda leaders and other Islamic, America-hating insurgents — with missiles, no less — seems to have hit a snag of legal controversy lately because of the news that one of the people on the list of targets, Anwar al-Awlaki, was born in New Mexico. He’s an American citizen.
This is where my moral consternation begins, and immediately radiates in several directions:
A) In the context of the nearly eight-year-old war on terror (with the Afghan war the longest-running in U.S. history), with uncounted thousands or hundreds of thousands of civilians slaughtered in the hostilities, millions more displaced, and the toxic leftovers of battle sending cancer and birth-defect rates soaring in Iraq and Afghanistan, how does the potential assassination of an American citizen deserve singling out as significant in a way that the killing of non-Americans simply isn’t? Just asking. This isn’t to minimize the issue, but I can’t seem to turn off my outrage that the unstated implications of the controversy are that American lives matter in ways that other lives do not.
B) Why is al-Awlaki on the hit list? According to William Fisher of Inter Press Service, he’s a former imam who "purportedly inspired Islamic terrorists. His sermons are said to have been attended by three of the 9/11 hijackers." There is nothing the least bit illegal about any of this; the fact that it merits a death sentence from a rogue intelligence agency, the corralling of which is on no one’s agenda, bespeaks a post-9/11 value hemorrhage in our society that disturbs me to the core. Our government is infected with what I can only call the Nazi virus.
C) Murder by drone. The use of robot aircraft and target takeout by missile fire is modestly controversial in and of itself, perhaps, though the controversy seems to be counterweighted, at least in mainstream reportage, by the military’s enthusiasm for drones. When a potential target is an American who isn’t situated in either Iraq or Afghanistan, the controversy inches upward. I’m sorry, but I still haven’t gotten around on the concept of robot war or the insanity of stalking enemy prey with missiles, even if there was the least bit of precision in the process.
The fact that we often rely on preposterously bad intelligence and wind up killing large numbers of civilians with our missiles strikes me, quaintly, as wrong. And by "wrong" I mean insane, stupid, counterproductive, criminal — a means of murder guaranteed to inflame hatred toward us, complicate our "mission" and prolong the war. But then again, this is a war against evil, so we already know that it’s endless.
All of which brings me back to the New York Times and the helpful, informative sentence quoted above, which I unearthed in a recent Times Online "topics" piece on drones. Mostly the story is from a military point of view and reports on what seems to be the adolescent glee of intelligence and military brass over how disruptive robot air strikes are to enemy operations.
Toward the end of the story, statistics about collateral damage are cited from two sources. The New America Foundation estimated that, since 2006, drones have killed 500 militants and 250 civilians; the ratio was a little better in the Long War Journal, which estimated 885 dead militants, 94 dead civilians. Not cited, for some reason, was a Brookings Institution study, which found that for every militant killed by drones, 10 civilians are taken out. This is a heart-stopping ratio of cruelty that should instantly decommission all future robot assassination missions.
The fact that it won’t is due in no small part to the tepid, morally inert reportage of the mainstream media, as typified by that sentence, which entombs the humanity of all who read it: "Complaints about civilian casualties have also stirred concern among human rights advocates."
When we bomb children, we garner "complaints," same as we would if we trample on someone’s flowerbed. These complaints then "stir concern" — you know, like when the milk goes sour — not among people in general, but specifically among professional do-gooders, "human rights advocates," who monitor and fuss over dead civilians anyway.
Nothing in this language presses on the conscience or interrupts America’s daily business. There is no hint of the value of the lives we destroy, no laying of those lives in our laps. There is only fog and numbness, and the war drones on.