A few days ago, the U.S. military killed at least 73 innocent people in Syria. We were trying to bomb the bad guys of ISIS, but instead something went wrong and we killed a bunch of innocent people. This latest horror from Syria is nothing new; almost a year ago, in August 2015, a report from a group of independent journalists found that U.S. airstrikes in Syria and Iraq had killed more than 450 innocent people, including 100 children.
And it’s not just the bombardment campaign against ISIS that is resulting in America killing innocent people. This is part of a broader pattern of America killing innocent people all over the Muslim world in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan and Yemen and even Iran as part of America’s ongoing foreign policy of “keep bombing the Muslim world until everyone loves us.”
We killed 42 innocent people—including medical staff and patients—at a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan in October 2015 (the attack was described by the Pentagon as unintentional, resulting from a series of errors and miscommunications). We killed 37 Afghan civilians (including 10 women and 23 children) at a wedding party in 2008 (this is one of many Muslim wedding parties during the past 15 years that have been interrupted by American bombs or drone strikes). We kill so many innocent people in so many ways that we don’t even fully know how many we’re killing or why they’re being killed. A 2015 report from the Intercept found that 90% of the people killed in drone strikes in Afghanistan were “not the intended targets” of the attacks.
We’re killing innocent people in countries where we’re not even officially at war. We bombed the shit out of another wedding party full of innocent people in Yemen. It’s happening all over the Muslim world, and most Americans just seem perfectly fine with all of this. America’s drone strikes and accidental bombings of civilians have become a steady background noise; it’s like in our typical Attention Deficit Disorder American way, we’ve all silently decided that this is the price we’re willing to pay—loss of other people’s innocent lives—as long as it gives us the feeling of being “safe” from another big terrorist attack.
But can’t we at least ask a few uncomfortable questions? Such as:
1) In the long run, is our drone strike program really keeping America safe?
2) How long do we want to keep doing this drone strike program? Another 10 years? Forever? (We can’t even technically call the drone strikes a “war” anymore, because it’s operating in an extralegal shadow realm where quaint ideas like “declaring war” no longer apply.)
3) Are we really eliminating terrorist masterminds and existential threats to American security here, or are we just bombing wedding parties and burning hospital patients alive and ruining families and sowing anti-American rage and despair throughout the Muslim world? Are we creating more future terrorists? Are we making the world less safe and more violent in the long run?
4) Are we setting a bad standard of conduct that might come back to haunt us someday when other countries get drones of their own? What happens someday when the terrorists get drones? If we’re creating an international legal standard that it’s OK for America to bomb all these other countries with drone strikes, what’s to stop other countries from bombing America with drone strikes someday, other than our own presumed superiority in defending our airspace?
5) How should liberals feel about this? We hated George W. Bush for his warmongering and the many uncountable thousands of people who died in his name in Iraq and Afghanistan, but shouldn’t we be more critical of Barack Obama for being so enthusiastic about drone strikes? Sure, Obama’s cool and funny and his wife does carpool karaoke, but c’mon. This is insane. We’re killing lots and lots of innocent people every year, with no end in sight, and no one on the left seems to care, because we’d rather marvel at the latest viral video of Obama freestyling with Lin-Manuel Miranda. Have progressives not done enough to hold Obama accountable for this uniquely terrible use of American military power? Isn’t American militarism, imperialism and slaughter of innocents just as bad when it’s being administered by a cool black president?
Of course, in a way, the drone strike program is nothing new. America has a long tradition of creating collateral damage and causing unintentional loss of civilian life during war, in the Muslim world and beyond. Back in 1985, we even (accidentally) shot down an Iranian airliner (Iran Air Flight 655) with 290 innocent people on board. In 1986, we bombed Libya and killed 15-30 Libyan civilians; this was unrelated to our more recent 2011 bombing of Libya which also killed Libyan civilians and helped turn the country into a failed state.
Is it any wonder that lots of people in the Muslim world don’t particularly trust America? What possible justification can we offer for taking so many innocent lives?
It basically comes down to this: America keeps saying to the world, “Don’t worry: We’re the Good Guys!” America wants everyone to judge us by our best intentions, not by our actual results.
But if you’re an Afghan farmer whose wife and children have just been obliterated by an American drone strike, does it matter to you whether it was an “accident?” If you’re part of a Syrian family desperately fleeing ISIS madness and civil war violence, and you see your little brother get his legs blown off by an American bomb, does it really matter to you that the bomb was dropped due to a series of unfortunate miscommunications?
America says that we have to keep killing people with drone strikes, because there are terrorists out there who are a threat to us and who want to hurt America, and we need to keep killing them until they’re all dead. So by that logic, consider this thought experiment: the predominantly Muslim nation of Turkey recently went through a failed military coup. The increasingly dictatorial ruler of Turkey, Recep Erdogan, has blamed the coup on a dissident Muslim cleric named Fethullah Gulen, who has been living in exile in Pennsylvania since 1999.
So if it’s OK for America to accidentally kill innocent people in other countries because we’re trying to kill bad guys who want to hurt our government and undermine our way of life, does that mean it would be OK for Turkey to do a drone strike on U.S. soil and accidentally kill lots of U.S. civilians here? Glenn Greenwald raises this very same question in a recent article titled, “Would Turkey Be Justified in Kidnapping or Drone-Killing the Turkish Cleric in Pennsylvania?” I don’t have a good answer. Do you?
Why is it OK for America to do something to other countries that we would be horrified to have done to us? Sure, Turkey is an unstable democracy with an increasingly authoritarian president, so they don’t have much moral high ground. But do we?
Of course, the moral case for drone strikes is: drone strikes cause less collateral damage and result in less loss of life—on both sides—than conventional bombings or other means of warfare. Drone strikes are supposed to be precisely targeted. There is supposed to be a process in place to decide which people are targeted for a drone strike “kill list” to ensure that legal standards are upheld and innocent people are not killed. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than 20th-century style carpet-bombing or massive invasions by ground troops. America deserves to protect our national security interests, and terrorist networks are decentralized stateless actors that cannot be dealt with via typical “declarations of war” and other diplomatic terminology. (Do you really believe that I believe any of this? Does it all sound like Orwellian sophistry? I don’t really know the difference anymore.)
But is any of this really good enough for the long-term? What if we’re not really killing enough of the bad guys to make it worth it? What if we’re killing too many innocent people and losing the battle for public opinion in the Muslim world? What if the world doesn’t trust America anymore? What if Americans had to live by the same standard that we impose upon the rest of the world: you have to put up with a foreign country delivering death from above, with no recourse and no right to complain?
I don’t know all the answers, but this whole drone strike thing just feels wrong and gross to me. It makes me glad that I don’t work in politics. It’s bad enough that I’m paying taxes to support all of this killing and stupidity; at least I’m not making it my life’s work. I feel like America’s not going to be able to get away with this forever. We can’t just distractedly keep bombing the Muslim world via remote control for another 15 years while the rest of us sit at home being safe and fat and happy, can we?
Just because we “can” bomb Muslim weddings with impunity doesn’t mean it’s the right long-term answer, from a moral or strategic perspective. We should want to be better than this. If we surrender the moral high ground, if we become known for killing Muslim civilians in an illusory pursuit of “security,” we’ve already lost. America needs to live by a higher moral standard than “might makes right.” Because we might not be the mightiest country on Earth forever.