A few years ago, I read The United States and Torture, a collection of essays by lawyers, historians, journalists and scholars edited by Marjorie Cohn, a professor of law at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law. I had kept abreast of the news and thought I was up to snuff on the subject, but The United States and Torture showed me there was more to learn than I had ever imagined.
The same is true of Drones and Targeted Killing, a new collection of essays Professor Cohn has assembled to address the legal, moral and geopolitical issues raised by the United States’ embrace of assassination as a central, go-tool in combating terrorism. Just out, Cohn’s book may not sound like light reading, but the 14 chapters written by legal experts, journalists, policy wonks and activists are readable and absorbing and, like her book on torture, highly informative.
Since coming to power, the Obama administration has dramatically increased the use of targeted killings, chiefly, though not exclusively, by unmanned drones. Though it claims drone attacks are highly accurate, causing little collateral damage, it has yet to document that or to provide any accounting of the number of people killed. Studies of specific attacks by independent monitors find a higher number of civilian deaths than the government acknowledges.
Are drone strikes serving a strategic purpose? A study by the Stimson Center released in June says it is doubtful. The Council on Foreign Relations reports that of the estimated 3,000 people killed by U.S. drones, the vast majority have not been Al Qaeda or Taliban leaders but low-level anonymous insurgents engaged in attacks against their governments, not international terrorism plots. The New American Foundation tracks drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen and reports about 2 percent of those killed by U.S. drone strikes are militant leaders. These are figures that should make Americans wonder about the other 98 percent, but as Vicki Divoll, a former C.I.A. lawyer who now teaches at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., notes, “People are a lot more comfortable with Predator strikes that kill many than with a throat-slitting that kills one.”
Drone attacks not only kill individuals, they terrorize whole communities and affect the fabric of daily life. A chapter in Drones written by Medea Benjamin after a trip to Yemen and Pakistan to investigate the effects of drone strikes there describes the fear and helplessness people feel on seeing drones hover overhead for days at a time. People do not attend community events for fear of being attacked; many children are afraid to go to school. The use of “double taps” to target rescuers going to the scene to help victims is a war crime and has had a chilling effect on aid workers. Members of one humanitarian organization told researchers their policy was to wait for six hours before going to the scene of a drone strike.
Like torture, extrajudicial assassination is illegal, a violation of both American and international law. In the post 9/11 era, Americans seem complaisant about both. But unmanned drone attacks are another step toward normalizing war, making continuous war appear remote, risk-free and acceptable. Fully automated drones capable of choosing targets without human involvement are in the pipeline; this will make killing even more removed from public concern and thus control.
Do drone strikes make us safer? Many Americans assume so, but Cohn quotes a former commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, on the hatred they engender, fueling radicalization and leading to the recruitment of more terrorists.
Terrorism by state and nonstate actors is symbiotic. The one encourages the other. Drone strikes have proliferated because of their relative cheapness in terms of dollar cost and loss of U.S. lives, but drones are a tactic, not a solution. Much as Americans might like to, we cannot kill our way to tranquillity and peace. To reduce terrorism, we have to address the conditions that give rise to it, including, as it happens, the expanding use of extrajudicial killings that violate our laws, our notions of justice and our religion.
South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu has written a fine foreword to Cohn’s book. But where are the moral voices in this country—particularly those of church leaders—condemning a policy that places assassination at the heart of U.S. foreign policy?