Featured in our news section, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has published an important new investigation into America’s drone war in Pakistan, finding that many strikes have deliberately launched follow-up attacks, killing people “who had gone to help rescue victims or were attending funerals.” As Glenn Greenwald points out (again) the Bureau’s methodology for tallying civilian deaths is very rigid and “virtually guarantees significant under-counting of civilian deaths,” but nonetheless the report finds that “at least 50 civilians were killed in follow-up strikes when they had gone to help victims” and “more than 20 civilians have also been attacked in deliberate strikes on funerals and mourners.” The high-end estimate for total casualties in the U.S. drone war, according to the Bureau, is 3,019, including up to 815 civilians (175 of them children).
Here’s what I think is the most important passage of the report:
Naz Modirzadeh, Associate Director of the Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research (HPCR) at Harvard University, said killing people at a rescue site may have no legal justification.
‘Not to mince words here, if it is not in a situation of armed conflict, unless it falls into the very narrow area of imminent threat then it is an extra-judicial execution’, she said. ‘We don’t even need to get to the nuance of who’s who, and are people there for rescue or not. Because each death is illegal. Each death is a murder in that case.’
Even if most of the public doesn’t know these facts, millions of informed people do know. What’s interesting is that Obama’s image isn’t tarnished at all, because, after all, he is the president. A common refrain among libertarians is that if commonly accepted government actions were carried out by private individuals, it would be thought of as unthinkable violence and theft unachievable by even the most hardened criminals. Consider Obama, who has spearheaded this policy of rapidly intensified drone campaign in northwest Pakistan, as a private individual. Of course, this reduces him to a mass murderer. But his image and prestige remains that of a Presidential Leader of the Free World and a Nobel Peace Prize winner to boot, not of Ted Bundy.
Another quick thought experiment, also brought up in the Bureau’s report, is to think what the reaction of the Obama administration would be if their drone war were being carried out by another state, say Russia or China. Very clearly, it would be vehemently condemned. Obama’s top counterterrrorism adviser, John Brennan, defended the drone program with this: “Because we are engaged in an armed conflict with al- Qaeda, the United States takes the legal position that, in accordance with international law, we have the authority to take action against al-Qaeda and its associated forces.” Indeed, that is almost precisely the excuse used by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in killing well over 5,000 Syrians. He says his country is being threatened by terrorists and he is legitimately protecting Syrians and his government with appropriate force. Obama responded to that excuse by calling Assad’s crackdown “indiscriminate violence” and highlighted the “murder” of innocent Syrians “including women and children.” After his administration pushed for a UN Security Council resolution aimed at removing Assad from power, Obama said, “Any government that brutalizes and massacres its people does not deserve to govern.”
And what about someone who has institutionalized extra-judicial execution and committed mass murder of innocent men, women, and children? Does he deserve to govern?