A fundamental principle [of ancient Greek tragedy], often overlooked, is that the double and the monster are one and the same being.
- René Girard, Violence and the Sacred (p. 160)
The debate about the use of drone strikes in the so-called “War on Terror ” has shed light on an inevitable calculus of war: how many civilian casualties can be tolerated in pursuit of our goals? President Barack Obama, in his speech on May 23 at National Defense University, referred to the drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, admitting, “It is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in all war.” But of course, our wars and our use of drones were conceived as a legitimate response to the civilian deaths on 9/11 and a defensive maneuver to prevent future attacks.
Obama Defends Drone Attacks
In his speech, Obama further justified the use of drones by stating it reduces the number of civilian casualties compared to boots-on-the-ground wars. Though the numbers are hard to determine, it has been reported by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that civilian casualties caused by our invasion of Iraq number somewhere between 55,000 and 60,000. In Afghanistan, from the time reporting began in 2007, the Guardian reports that the total number of civilians who have lost their lives in the armed conflict to be 14,728. For drone strikes, the highest estimates put total civilian deaths at around 950, indisputably a better number.
The Illogical Logic of Violence
Reducing the number of deaths caused by our use of violence is a worthy goal, and Obama does seem genuinely engaged in drawing the number down. So for the sake of argument, I will take him at his word. But (you knew there was a but coming!), he is trapped, as so many of us are, within the logic of violence.
At first I had no problem with domestic drones joining the plethora of surveillance cameras to “keep us safe.”
Big Brother — keeping his eye on me from above in stores, in traffic and everywhere else — would find my personal reality show boring. As a pastor, I’m used to living in a fishbowl. Besides, as John Calvin said, if you fear the eye of a human more than the eye of God, you have spiritual issues to address.
But then, there may be another problem with increased surveillance and flooding our nation’s skies with drones. Let’s take traffic cameras as an example.
The pace of U.S. drone strikes is dramatically slowing. During the month of May, there was one strike in Pakistan and one in Yemen. The new restrictions announced by President Obama in his May 23 speech may be having an effect.
So on a Friday afternoon, here’s some good news on the drone front. In the U.K., Domino’s Pizza released a video of an experimental "DomiCopter" remote-controlled drone delivering two pizzas. Huffington Post reports:
We're crossing our fingers that Domino's new "DomiCopter" -- a drone that delivers pizzas -- is real. In a recent test video, the contraption traveled about four miles in 10 minutes on a two-pizza delivery in the U.K.
Domino's hired creative agency T + Biscuits to develop and test out the contraption. Founder Tom Hatton told NBC that so far, the DomiCopter has been a success. "If anything it went quicker than a pizza boy," he said, pointing out that the DomiCopter doesn't need to stop at red lights. "We were amazed at how easy it was going to be."
Six British Christian peace activists were arrested and detained for 24 hours for protesting at the RAF base from which British drones in Afghanistan are controlled. It is the first anti-drone protest in the U.K. to result in arrests. Ekklesia reports:
Six peace activists, representing the group Disarm the Drones, have become the first in Britain to be arrested and charged for anti-drones related offences. The nonviolent peace activists managed to breach security at Britain’s top security drone control base in Lincoln.
The six, who are Christian peace campaigners, planted a peace garden in RAF Waddington yesterday morning (3 June 2013). They also displayed images of the victims of drone attacks and may have located the precise place where UK attacks are programmed.
Read more here.
In what was largely a formality following last month’s popular elections, Pakistan’s parliament yesterday elected Nawaz Sharif as prime minister. In Mr. Sharif’s first speech, he said that he wanted better relations with the U.S., but included among his priorities an end to drone strikes. According to the Associated Press:
"This daily routine of drone attacks, this chapter shall now be closed," Sharif said to widespread applause in the parliament hall. "We do respect others' sovereignty. It is mandatory on others that they respect our sovereignty."
But he gave few details on how he might end the strikes. Many in Pakistan say the strikes kill large numbers of innocent civilians — something the U.S. denies — and end up breeding more extremism by those seeking retribution with the U.S.
Read more here.
Akbar Ahmed, Islamic Studies chair at American University, writes in the New York Times this morning about the effect of both violent extremist groups and U.S. drone strikes on traditional tribal societies.
Drone strikes like Wednesday’s, in Waziristan, are destroying already weak tribal structures and throwing communities into disarray throughout Pakistan’s tribal belt along the border with Afghanistan. The chaos and rage they produce endangers the Pakistani government and fuels anti-Americanism. And the damage isn’t limited to Pakistan. Similar destruction is occurring in other traditional tribal societies like Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen. The tribes on the periphery of these nations have long struggled for more autonomy from the central government, first under colonial rule and later against the modern state. The global war on terror has intensified that conflict.
In recent decades, these societies have undergone huge disruptions as the traditional leadership has come under attack by violent groups like the Taliban, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Somalia’s Al Shabab, not to mention full-scale military invasions. America has deployed drones into these power vacuums, causing ferocious backlashes against central governments while destroying any positive image of the United States that may have once existed.
Read more here.
A spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban confirmed that Waliur Rehman, the group’s second-in-command, was killed in yesterday’s drone strike. Ahsanullah Ahsan also announced that an offer to begin peace talks with the new Pakistani government was being withdrawn.The Associated Press reports:
The militant group had said earlier that it was open to peace talks. But Ahsan said Thursday that the Taliban believe the government approves of the drone strikes so they are withdrawing their offer of peace talks.
"We had made the offer for peace talks with the government with good intention but we think that these drone attacks are carried out with the approval of the government so we announce the end of the talks process," he said.
The incoming government, headed by Nawaz Sharif, promised in the campaign that it would work to bring about peace after years of violence. A U.S. drone has now called that into doubt.
Read more here.
In the news this morning are reports of a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan that killed seven people, including the unconfirmed death of the number two leader of Pakistan’s Taliban. It is the first strike since Pakistan’s election, and the first since President Obama’s speech last week on drone policy. Reuters reports:
A U.S. drone strike killed the number two of the Pakistani Taliban in the North Waziristan region on Wednesday, three security officials said, in what would be a major blow in the fight against militancy.
The drone strike killed seven people, Pakistani security officials said, including Taliban deputy commander Wali-ur-Rehman, in the first such attack since a May 11 general election in which the use of the unmanned aircraft was a major issue.
Wali-ur-Rehman had been poised to succeed Hakimullah Mehsud as leader of the Pakistani Taliban, a senior army official based in the South Waziristan region, had said in December.
Read more here.
News reports over the weekend had Pakistani reactions to President Obama’s Thursday speech on drones.
DAWN reported a statement from the Pakistani Foreign Office:
The Government of Pakistan has consistently maintained that the drone strikes are counter-productive, entail loss of innocent civilian lives, have human rights and humanitarian implications and violate the principles of national sovereignty, territorial integrity and international law.
The Associated Press reported that while Pakistanis welcomed the speech and its more restrictive rules on drone strikes, there was also disappointment that strikes will continue:
Obama has finally responded to the popular sentiment in this country, which is fiercely against the drones, and I think that shows a certain sensitivity," said Mushahid Hussain, chairman of the defense committee in Pakistan's Senate. "But for the people of Pakistan that is not good enough unless there is a cessation of drone attacks."
Several Pakistani officials and analysts noted that the President’s comments could help in improving relations between the U.S. and the new government in Pakistan.
Saying that drone killings were “effective” and “legal,” President Barack Obama defended the program in a policy speech this afternoon at the National Defense University. He also conceded that “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.”
The administration, he said, has “worked vigorously to establish a framework that governs our use of force against terrorists—insisting upon clear guidelines, oversight and accountability that is now codified in Presidential Policy Guidance that I signed yesterday.” He did not go into specific detail, but indicated it included more restrictive targeting criteria along with measures to prevent civilian casualties (“before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.”)
The president said that “the use of force must be seen as part of a larger discussion about a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy. Because for all the focus on the use of force, force alone cannot make us safe.” And as an important part of that strategy, “we must help countries modernize economies, upgrade education, and encourage entrepreneurship.”
Over the next days and weeks, we will certainly learn more, and we will see what happens on the ground.