Is the U.S. scapegoating Al Qaeda? It’s an odd question, I know, but it reared its ugly head as I read about the new reports from Amnesty International and Humans Rights Watch on U.S. drone strikes. The scapegoating mechanism is a very precise instrument that accrues enormous benefits to the scapegoater. By accusing their scapegoat of wrongdoing, a scapegoater ingeniously hides from the reality of their own guilt. Now here’s the weird thing: a scapegoat does not have to be innocent to function as a scapegoat. Scapegoats can be evil, nasty, ruthless, amoral sons-of-bitches and still function perfectly well as a scapegoat. Which is why I ask the question: Is the U.S. scapegoating Al Qaeda to hide from its own guilt?
With that in mind, I invite you to read these few excerpts that raised the question for me, with key phrases in boldface:
From the New York Times article on the reports:
In interviews over the past year, residents [of Miram Shah, Pakistan] paint a portrait of extended terror and strain within a tribal society caught between vicious militants and the American drones hunting them. “The drones are like the angels of death,” said Nazeer Gul, a shopkeeper in Miram Shah. “Only they know when and where they will strike.”
From Amnesty International:
… people in North Waziristan are frequently caught between attacks by armed groups and Pakistan’s armed forces. The local population lives under constant fear of inescapable violence by all sides.
The U.S. drone program has added to local suffering, with people in the region now also living in terror of death from U.S. drones hovering in the skies day and night.
“The tragedy is that drone aircraft deployed by the USA over Pakistan now instill the same kind of fear in the people of the tribal areas that was once associated only with al-Qa’ida and the Taliban ,” said Qadri.( Mustafa Qadri, Amnesty International’s Pakistan Researcher)
From the Human Rights Watch report on target killings in Yemen:
“The U.S. says it is taking all possible precautions during targeted killings, but it has unlawfully killed civilians and struck questionable military targets in Yemen,” said Letta Tayler, senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch and the author of the report. “ Yemenis told us that these strikes make them fear the U.S. as much as they fear Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.”
These excerpts paint an uncomfortable portrait of similarity, even identity, between drone strikes by the U.S and terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Has the U.S. become a terrorist, the very thing we have spent over a decade, billions of dollars and more than 6,000 American lives to defeat? When we accuse Al Qaeda and their ilk of being terrorists, do they function as a scapegoat for us so that we can deny our own culpability as terrorists ourselves?
Many Americans resist and resent the implication that drone strikes are the same as terrorist attacks. Supporters of drone strikes point out that they are actually the very opposite of terrorism. Why? Because by targeting enemy leaders, the claim is that drones actually limit civilian casualties while terrorism aims to generate as many civilian casualties as possible. It’s an important distinction to drone strike supporters, but it’s a distinction that is lost on the people of Miram Shah, North Waziristan, and Yemen, as we saw in the excerpts above. These victims of drone violence are claiming to be terrorized equally by both sides, yet both sides couldn’t care less about their suffering. America and our enemies minimize their claims and perhaps what is worse, justify their suffering with the same logic: our goal is so good and just that the suffering of a few innocent victims is a tolerable and necessary evil.
My sense that the U.S. is indeed scapegoating terrorists depends upon some clear signs that scapegoating is taking place:
Scapegoating depends on clinging to distinctions that don’t matter . These are distinctions such as “When we kill or terrorize innocent civilians it’s totally different than when our enemy does.” The distinction that our violence is different than their violence collapses as we listen to the stories of our victims who claim that terror is terror, regardless of the source or the justification.
Scapegoating depends on silencing the victims . The U.S., Al Qaeda, and the Taliban refuse to listen to or even acknowledge the accounts of suffering coming from their victims. How could we continue to think of ourselves and our cause as good if we actually listened to the victims of our goodness?
Scapegoating allows the scapegoater to deny responsibility . By trading accusations of wrongdoing, the U.S. and terrorist organizations can hide from their own culpability. How easy it is to say, “He’s the bad guy! I’m just trying to defend myself and root out evil.” It’s so easy that when it comes to terrorism, everyone is doing it.
As I said at the start, the trickiest thing about scapegoating, and why it can be so hard to detect, is that a scapegoat can actually be guilty of wrongdoing and still function as a scapegoat. In other words, there is no doubt that Al Qaeda is guilty of terrible atrocities, but the U.S. continues to use them to hide from the truth of our own wrongdoing. The same can be said in reverse: as these new reports show, there is no doubt that the U.S. is guilty of terrorizing civilian populations and causing civilian deaths. This in turn enables Al Qaeda to use the U.S. as a scapegoat to justify and deny their own wrongdoing.
If we want to create a true distinction from Al Qaeda and the Taliban, a distinction that would actually matter, we need to face the truth of how we have become mirror images of our enemy, willfully and without remorse using violence and terror to achieve our ends. We need to recognize that the only way to create a meaningful distinction is to abandon the use of violence and terror. The U..S needs to bring an end to the use of drone strikes and the entire global war on terror. When we find the maturity to stop scapegoating Al Qaeda we may discover a higher calling than waging global war – to become world leaders in the search for global peace.