The Moral Case For Drones: Part I

 (Asim Rafiqui)This is the first part of a three-part series of essays that asks us to challenge the language and the history used to justify the continuing American drone campaign in Pakistan. This first part explores briefly the use of language and creation of history. The second part examines the language behind the moral argument for drones. The third part focuses on the use of the terms ‘terrorist’, ‘Taliban’, and ‘Al Qaeda’ and how a re-writing of history is essential to their use against those who are resisting the American presence in Afghanistan.

These foundational pieces underpin my broader argument against the use of drones in Pakistan’s tribal areas, and my conviction that extra-judicial killings are not only murder, that they are creating and increasing the very pathologies we fear, and that the Pakistani legal community and institutions have fallen prey to the hegemony of an American perspective, and failed to protect the rights and lives of Pakistani citizens.

What defines an imperial power? There are many ways to answer this question – military might, political influence, economic strength being some of the more obvious answers. But I would like to venture that one of the defining characteristics of an imperial power is its hegemony over language, and the way the rest of the world speaks about and understand events – political, economic, cultural and military, unfolding around us. An imperial power sets of the tone of a debate, the terms used to engage in it, the questions used to further it, and the perspective considered appropriate to it.

By this definition there is no doubt that the United States of America is the world’s pre-eminent imperial power, possessing the ability to corral most of the globe to the tune of its economic, political and military priorities and perspectives, and set the limits of language and meaning by which we understand these priorities. Other nations may boast larger economic growth rates, or more millionaires, but they still cannot match the American hegemony over popular understanding and interpretation of geo-political events (War Against Terror, building democracies, Islamic fundamentalism etc.), economic development strategies (Structural Adjustment Programs, free market economies, trade liberalization etc.) and cultural preferences (rap music, Hollywood movies, artistic productions etc.).

In a world with near ubiquitous media access, the control and influence over language has taken on even greater importance. In fact, one could argue that today, how reality is presented and described is far more important than reality itself. I think this was best captured in something that Karl Rove, then an aide to George W. Bush, said to a journalist that:

We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

The creation ‘of our own reality’ of course implies a corruption of language to describe it. A powerful nation does what it wants but an imperial one goes one step beyond: it also sets the limits of the language that is used to describe what it does, and how to understand it. It tells you how to understand reality and what words to use to describe it. And when that imperial nation is engaged in military conflicts around the world, what it attempts to define is how we speak about the unjustifiable, the immoral and the brutal.

As George Orwell, in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language pointed out:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

An imperial power can also re-arrange history such that its actions and behaviors are explained by a modified and improved ‘version’ of how things are. This is the privilege of power, and the arrogance of those who wield it. It is the hegemony of thought which is carried and disseminated by the long tentacles of a media machinery – through television, radio, cable television, telephones, computers and hand-held devices, to every individual citizen and convince them to forget what they have actually experienced, and remember only what they have read, seen (on the screen!) or heard. As Mark Danner pointed out in a piece called Words in Time of War: Rhetoric, Truth and Power, that:

That relativist conviction—that what the unenlightened naïvely call “objective truth” is in fact “a discourse” subservient to power, shaped and ordered by the ruling institutions of our society is by no means new; on the contrary, it has served for decades as the fertile truism at the root of much fashionable academic discourse.

And certainly since the World Trade Center attacks, the defence of the indefensible – pre-emptive and unprovoked war and invasions, torture, extra-ordinary renditions, extra-judicial assassinations, indefinite detentions, wire tapping and surveillance of a both domestic and foreign, has become a full-time undertaking. Each of these actions – repeatedly sanctioned and approved by the current Obama presidency, has required thousands of pages of legalese, public speeches and of course, propaganda material to justify, explain and mollify.

Otherwise respectable academics, intellectuals and professionals have been seduced, if not out-right coerced, into offering their support for these practices that perhaps some decades ago would have been denounced with clear and simply opprobrium. From Salman Rushdie’s cowardly justifications for the American attack on Afghanistan, to Martin Amis’ lunatic rantings about the dangers of Muslims and Islam, we have found some of our best and finest trapped in the very language dictated to them from the ‘creators of reality’ sitting in the offices of the White House, the Justice Department and of course the CIA and the FBI. In fact, so corrupted has the intellectual and rhetorical space become that, as Mark Danner argued in a piece called After September 11: Our State of Exception, that :

Americans, believing themselves to stand proudly for the rule of law and human rights, have become for the rest of the world a symbol of something quite opposite: a society in which lawbreaking, approved by its highest elected officials, goes unpunished. Thus President Obama’s exhortation that the country look forward and not back takes on a different coloring: the country has entered a twilight world when it comes to the law and is unlikely soon to emerge from it.

The imperial prerogative to define the terms of a political, military, cultural or economic debate have never been more in evidence than in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11th, 2001. George Bush’s cowboy style ‘You are either with us, or with the terrorists’ of course set the intellectual high water mark of his administration and how they were going to navigate the ‘new’ post-9/11 geo-political reality. In the aftermath of that attack the nation was able to ‘justify’ large-scale pre-emptive military invasions of two sovereign nations, and do so in violation of all international law, and without the approval, tacit or formal, of any international peace, law and international relations body. The stage was set for an imperial rhetoric that would have to increasingly defend the indefensible.

Today, we find the American administration – and its coterie of legal and justice officials, having to twist themselves into positions so complicated, contradictory, and hypocritical to justify policies and practices that we would before have never imagined. As Glenn Greenwald so brilliantly summarized recently:

The polices adopted by the Obama administration just over the last couple of years leave no doubt that …[there is no] winding down, the war apparatus that has been relentlessly strengthened over the last decade. In the name of the War on Terror, the current president has diluted decades-old Miranda warnings; codified a new scheme of indefinite detention on US soil; plotted to relocate Guantanamo to Illinois; increased secrecy, repression and release-restrictions at the camp; minted a new theory of presidential assassination powers even for US citizens; renewed the Bush/Cheney warrantless eavesdropping framework for another five years, as well as the Patriot Act, without a single reform; and just signed into law all new restrictions on the release of indefinitely held detainees.

And all this has been achieved by a careful, Orwellian chess game with language, and the exploitation of America’s hegemonic power over disseminating this across the globe. Today, in Pakistan’s news papers, television media, and drawing-room debates, it is not infrequent to hear pundits, academics, intellectuals, politicians, and ordinary citizens, parrot the language of American power, and the justifications of its unjust use against the citizens of the country.

The drone campaign in Pakistan – a country the New York Times journalists Scott Shane called ‘…the world’s unwilling test ground for the new weapon.’ as taken the lives of hundreds.


Killed-Per-Year-Dash22(Source: The Bureau of Investigative Journalism)

It is an aerial bombardment campaign against the citizens of a nation that is not at war with the United States of America. They claim that the territories of Pakistan – particularly those in North and South Waziristan, are being used by terrorists, to carry out attacks against American forces in Afghanistan.  The moral justifications for the campaign are in fact offered each time a major American newspaper reports a drone strike. These justifications follow a careful script, the source of which is found in the official statements and legal arguments offered by the members of the Obama administration. In these media pieces, and official statements, language because a weapon of war, and sets of basis of justifying extra-judicial killings. To unpack the argument, to return ourselves to a common sense perspective on the drone way, we have to start by looking at the words that are used, the sentences that are thrown together, and the history that is offered.

In the next piece I look at a few media pieces, and a speech by John O. Brennan, the Deputy National Security Advisor for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, where he laid out a moral and efficiency argument for the use of drones. These media and official statements will give us an opportunity to understand how language obfuscates and confuses, and how history is re-written to fit the reality those in power actually want. It will help us see the obfuscations that underpin the drone campaign, and how these cannot be seen as anything other than murder.