The Common Good
July 2013

Hellfire from Above

by Steve Holt | July 2013

More than 1,000 civilians have been killed by U.S. drone strikes. Obama, technology, and the myth of redemptive violence.

ON THE AFTERNOON of Dec. 14, President Obama stood in the White House press room, tears in his eyes, and spoke for many Americans who had watched the terrifying events unfolding in Newtown, Conn.

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“I know there’s not a parent in America who doesn’t feel the same overwhelming grief that I do. The majority of those who died today were children: beautiful little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old,” he said. “They had their entire lives ahead of them—birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own.”

A little more than a month later, on Jan. 23, a pilotless aircraft owned and operated by the United States and controlled remotely by an individual on U.S. soil launched a targeted attack on the riders of two motorcycles in Yemen. The attack missed its target. It hit the house of Abdu Mohammed al-Jarrah instead, killing several people—including al-Jarrah’s two children.

There was no press conference for the al-Jarrah children.

It was President Obama himself, in fact, after his inauguration in 2009, who authorized an expansion of the U.S. drone program launched under George W. Bush. The “Authorization for Use of Military Force,” passed shortly after Sept. 11, gives the president broad authority to use force against those involved in the 9/11 attacks or those who harbor them. Drones have become President Obama’s weapon of choice.

The first reported drone strike against al Qaeda occurred in Yemen in 2002. U.S. covert drone strikes have killed more than 3,000 people since 2004, in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Of that number, nearly 1,000 were civilians—including an estimated 200 children. (The U.S. military has also used drones in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.)

While America’s drone program has drawn tremendous criticism from abroad and some criticism from across the U.S. political spectrum, the response from the mainstream religious community has been tepid. With the notable exception of Catholic activists who began protesting outside the Creech Air Force Base drone “battle lab” near Las Vegas as early as April 2009, there has been very little moral outrage—not only for the drone program’s civilian casualties, but also for its circumvention of legal due process.

Drone warfare demands a religious response. These “seemingly omniscient and omnipotent camera planes, flying high above, meting out death and judgment based on images,” says theologian Sarah Sentilles, are utterly theological.

Christians follow a savior who preached and lived nonviolence. He told his disciples not to take revenge, to turn the other cheek, to love their enemies, and not to repay evil with evil. He refused to react violently when false accusations by religious and political leaders were levied against him, and was willing to lay down his life for a broken world. When the kingdoms of this world choose to use violence—especially sinister, secretive modes of violence such as covert drone wars—the church, a “peaceable kingdom,” according to ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, stands in opposition.

When Christians support U.S. drone wars—even if passively through our silence—we risk setting aside core tenets of our faith in favor of a secular “whatever it takes” policy. Some Christians, such as those found at the Christian universities training those piloting drones from behind a desk, may be seduced into applying a theology of “exceptionalism” to their actions—for example, that terrorism and the “war on terror” are so unusual that normal rules do not apply or that God favors America’s position in the world. This can also include a spiritual sanctification for drone strikes under the rubric of “fighting terror.”

Evil is often carried out by “good” people who think that what they are doing is right. “Whether it be the ‘preservation of civilization,’ ‘making the world safe for democracy,’ ‘reducing the crime rate,’ ‘peace, harmony, and freedom,’ or even ‘the spread of the gospel,’” writes theologian Lee Camp, “carrying a big stick,” it is thought, “can now be done with a ‘spiritual’ focus, and thus for ‘good.’” The United States may also claim a kind of exceptionalism for its actions in the world, but, as Camp writes, “all nations and peoples are under God” and will be judged.

ON THE ISSUE of drones, Yale ethicist Stephen Carter recently said, “We are forced to trust the government that it is abiding by the ethics of war.” But what are those ethics?

So-called “just war ethics” cited by Obama officials in their discernment of targeted assassination by drones have their Christian origins in St. Augustine’s writings from the fifth century. But for roughly three centuries prior to Augustine, the consensus among Christians was that war and violence were counter to the teachings of Christ. During this time, no Christian author approved of Christian participation in battle, and early church theologian Tertullian even advised soldiers who converted to Christianity to either “quit the army, or be martyred by the army for refusing to fight.”

Augustine became the first theologian to establish rigorous moral principles to be applied before a war could be launched and during the conduct of war.

Originally intended to limit, restrict, and prevent war, most states have used these principles to justify war. President Obama has specifically cited “just war” as the philosophy by which he makes military decisions.

Just war principles stipulate that all citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war. In cases where governments seek lawful self-defense by use of military force, it can only be in the case when: 1) the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations has been lasting, grave, and certain; 2) all other means of putting an end to the aggression must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective; 3) there is a serious prospect of a successful end to the aggression; 4) the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.

For a recently released video titled What Religious Leaders Want to Tell Obama on Easter, the production company Brave New Foundation asked Christian leaders and theologians to respond to the characterization that drone warfare abides by just war guidelines.

“There are too many questions—concerning the continuing authority for a ‘war on terror,’ the protection of civilians, the lack of transparency about the [drone] program—to call this just war,” said Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, professor of theology at Chicago Theological Seminary. “Drones are particularly dangerous as they tempt us, as well as other nations, to consider war ‘easy’ and ‘cheap.’ The age of drones, unless checked, will be an age of permanent war.”

Thistlethwaite’s critique of “permanent war” has merit, given reports from investigative groups and several high-level officials that U.S. drone strike policies foment anti-American sentiment and may even push some to side with terrorist groups. Thus, drone attacks may lead to “evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated,” fostering a never-ending cycle of violence.

In January, President Obama called the drone program “a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists.” However, a “list of active terrorists” is not the same as having been found guilty of a crime under the law. For too many of the “targets,” their alleged acts of violence are potential acts, not “certain” acts.

Yet the U.S. has carried out more than 500 of these covert drone strikes, killing more than 3,000 people. And when one adds in drone strikes in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 1,000 civilians have been killed—one-third of the total number of Americans killed on 9/11.

“How can we hold our heads high,” asked Father Joseph Nangle, a Franciscan friar,  “when remote-controlled killer aircraft like drones are raining death and destruction on populations half a world away from our borders, on women, men, and children who pose no threat to our safety and well-being?”

Beyond civilian death and injury, tens of thousands of people report hearing drones humming high above their homes 24 hours a day. They live in constant fear of being the next victims. Testifying in April before a Senate subcommittee on the legality and impact of Obama’s targeted killing drone program, Yemeni youth activist Farea al-Muslimi made a chilling statement about the psychological effects of drones in Yemen: “Women used to say [to kids], ‘Go to sleep or I will call your father.’ Now they say, ‘Go to sleep or I will call the planes.’”

In conventional warfare, impending conflicts must pass through numerous checkpoints, including multiple security advisers and the U.S. Congress, which then gives or withholds authority for the president to take the country to war. The most important checkpoint is, perhaps, the court of public opinion, wherein the American people hear the government’s grounds for going to war and engage in public debate.

The development and expansion of the drone program went through no such proc-ess. In fact, a single person within the chain of command can initiate a targeted assassination by drone—even against an American citizen.

An internal Department of Justice document obtained by NBC News in February laid out the Obama administration’s legal rationale and parameters for the use of lethal force against suspected terrorists, including U.S. citizens abroad. The first condition for the use of lethal force requires that “an informed, high-level official of the U.S. government has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States.” President Obama (as President Bush did before him) continues to cite the Authorization for Use of Military Force as the law that allows the U.S. government to unilaterally attack anyone around the world by citing intelligence from just one “high-level” official.

While the Obama administration says that it is only going after senior al Qaeda leaders who pose an “imminent threat” of violence against the U.S., evidence suggests the U.S. is breaking its self-imposed rules about who it will strike, and how.

In April, McClatchy Newspapers reported that during a 12-month period ending in September 2011, 45 percent of strikes in Pakistan were notagainst upper-level al Qaeda at all, but against alleged lower-level militants. The drone assassination program creates an environment where killing the potential enemy is simply easier than capturing them.

HAS OBAMA GOTTEN a free pass on foreign policy? To the extent that many of the anti-war forces that vociferously opposed President Bush—including anti-war Christians—have gone missing during Obama’s drone wars, then yes.

Last October, tea party leader Jack Hunter wrote in The American Conservative that to be pro-life means to be anti-drone. “As an American, I’m outraged. As a pro-lifer, our policy of drone strikes is something I cannot abide,” said Hunter, signaling that opposition to the drone wars could be a point of unity for progressive and conservative people of faith.

Libertarian rock star Ron Paul has spoken out against America’s incessant intervention abroad, including the use of killer drones. His son, Sen. Rand Paul, famously staged a 13-hour filibuster on the Senate floor to protest a drone policy that may allow attacks on U.S. citizens on their home soil. Although he has since walked back his criticism of drones, with his filibuster the younger Paul brought together Americans of many political persuasions who declared that they would “stand with Rand” against a secretive, and possibly unconstitutional, drone program.

For Christians, of course, the constitutional issues aren’t the central reasons for opposition to drone warfare. Drone strikes are signs, symbols, and stark reminders of the government’s reliance on waging violence to secure “peace.” For theologian Walter Wink, that approach by the world’s “powers and principalities” runs counter to the saving way of Christ.

“The belief that violence ‘saves’ is so successful because it doesn’t seemto be mythic in the least,” Wink wrote. “The myth of redemptive violence thus uses the traditions, rites, customs, and symbols of Christianity in order to enhance the power of a wealthy elite and the goals of the nation narrowly defined. It has no interest in compassion for the poor, or for more equitable economic arrangements, or for the love of enemies. It merely uses the shell of religion—a shell that can be filled with the blasphemous doctrine of the national security state.”

Many Christians oppose drones simply because we obey scripture. In these days of “permanent wars” and rumors of war, it’s easy to lose heart—but Christians must not give in to fear. We already know the One we follow has won—not with a sword, but with a towel, putting himself at the loving service of others, even his betrayer.

Steve Holt (@thebostonwriter) is a freelance writer living in Boston.

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