The Bodies of Those Who Happen to Be in the Way

Ta-Nehisi Coates on our perpetual state of war:

The president is anti-torture — which is to say he thinks the water-boarding of actual confirmed terrorist Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was wrong. He thinks it was wrong, no matter the goal — which is to say the president would not countenance the torture of an actual terrorist to foil a plot against the country he’s sworn to protect. But the president would countenance the collateral killing of innocent men, women and children by drone in pursuit of an actual terrorist. What is the morality that holds the body of a captured enemy inviolable, but not the body of those who happen to be in the way?

Good question. Is it the idea that unbearable pain is more immoral than a quick death-from-the-skies? Is it because the calculations for potential blowback work out a certain way? Post-Bush, I think these kinds of issues are far more nuanced than progressives have allowed themselves to believe. I hope our consciences are limbered up, because there’s still a lot more wrestling to do.

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23 thoughts on “The Bodies of Those Who Happen to Be in the Way

  1. …to foil an actual terrorist to foil a plot against the country he’s sworn to protect.

    While I am entirely opposed to both the use of torture and the random killing of foreigners (I see no moral difference between doing so with drones vs bombs, and I get really fucking annoyed with the people who whine about the drones to the exclusion of complaining about the rest of the goddamn illegal war), the quoted sentence is the kicker. To wit, it is known that torture is not a useful means of gathering reliable information; no amount of torturing Kalid Sheikh Mohammed would foil any plots against anyone. Drone strikes, on the other hand,. definitely kill people, and those people will definitely not be involved in any more actions against U.S. interests (regardless of whether they were before or not). It’s still counterproductive as well as immoral, though, since everyone you kill has family and friends, and the fact that the U.S. just offed your buddy/relative is going to be a pretty strong motivator for a lot of folks to start violently opposing the U.S. (So, of course, is being kidnapped, imprisoned, and tortured, or having that done to your family and friends; atrocities lead to atrocities).

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  2. There’s no nuance needed. Both torture and drone strikes are reprehensible, and drone strikes have the added problem of being an invasive act of war that violates the borders of other sovereign nations. The fact that anyone thinks there should be a debate about this is the daunting part.

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  3. I’m sure that Mr. Fidalgo will be delighted to have the following column in today’s Washington Post, which defends Obama’s drone policy, brought to his attention. Considering that the author hasn’t said anything positive about the president since he was elected, it is rather astonishing.
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/charles-krauthammer-in-defense-of-obamas-drone-war/2013/02/14/3a69d76c-76e5-11e2-aa12-e6cf1d31106b_story.html

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  4. slc1 points us to an article where neo-con Charles Krauthammer is singing Obama’s praises on this policy. Well he is not the only neo-con to do so. So have John Bolton, Peter King, Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann.
    Ta-Nehisi Coates refers to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as an “actual confirmed terrorist”. Confirmed by who? Because he sure as hell is not convicted of anything as he is nearing around ten years of detention at Guantanamo with no verdict and a “trial” barely under way. There was a plan to try him and others in a NY Federal Court a few years ago as a way from getting away from the Bush kangaroo court “military commissions”. What happened to that plan? The Obama DOJ squashed it.
    Sorry Paul, the only reason this “nuanced” is because it’s not the evil Republican doing it. Bush apologists used to say the exact same thing. “He’s the commander in chief”, “He has to make decisions based on information you don’t have”, bla bla bla. I am pretty sure you and most other fellow progressives would be up in arms if Romney had won the election and decided to pursue these same policies.

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    • Sorry, I don’t see these as black and white. I’m in no way arguing FOR any of these policies, and most certainly not in any kind of blanket-approval. (Though I do approve of blankets.) All I’m saying is that these questions are never as simple as “this is always wrong” or “this should always be an option.” Believe me, few are more sickened by or weary of the state of perpetual war than I.

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    • Oh, and if you’re reading me as saying “Obama does it, so it’s not as bad,” you’ve got it all wrong, or I’m a terrible writer to make you think that.

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      • This is what you said:

        Post-Bush, I think these kinds of issues are far more nuanced than progressives have allowed themselves to believe.

        I take “Post-Bush” to mean “Obama”. If I misunderstood I apologize.

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      • By post-Bush I mean in the aftermath of the mess that’s been left. The cleanup, the repair, the unfinished things, minus the neo-con ideological drive for world domination. The situation, not the guy in charge.

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      • That Obama inherited a colossal cluster-fuck is well-known. However what Obama promised was a clean slate and to restore America’s credibility abroad.
        Part of said cleanup would have been to put Bush officials on trial (aka follow the law). Instead, we got “look forward, not backward”. Or closing Guantanamo, which he promised to do on his second day in office. The spectacle of Bush and Cheney proudly profiting off their admissions of torture is entirely Obama’s fault. Not a single US official has so far been tried for torture or extraordinary rendition. He came into office with huge majorities in both houses of Congress and doing this would not have cost him politically.
        Obama has also taken credit for ending the war in Iraq, when in reality he simply executed an agreement that Bush had already signed.
        Killing US citizen Anwar Al-Awlaki and later his 16 year old son in Yemen was a 100% Obama decision. Going after Wikileaks was entirely an Obama decision. The list goes on.

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  5. The main question I have after reading this and comment #2 is: is there some reason why drone strikes should be more reprehensible than any other act of war?
    Basically, is the situation with regard to drone strikes considered reprehensible because of collateral damage, or because it’s an act of war in a situation that doesn’t call for acts of war?
    I ask because the way I see it, the former would lead to similar condemnations of any act of war which could result in dead civilians – which is essentially all of them, not just drone strikes. The latter only condemns drone strikes, but it also is limited to these specific drone strikes – it allows for a situation in which they would be used as part of a legitimate war.
    For that matter, there are probably more options than those two that I’m not thinking of.
    Also, to answer the question posed in your quote – as I understand it, that idea that some types of pain are worse than others is just about accurate. Not sure if it’s the best example to use, but the one that sprang to mind was that there are some weapons which you are simply not supposed to use (chemical weapons being a good example) due to them having a high chance of inflicting maiming yet nonfatal injuries or causing too much suffering as they kill… yet killing enemies by shooting them is acceptable, for certain values of the term.

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  6. Lyrandar: you don’t think it’s fairly obvious why it would be considered more cowardly to use a remote controlled airplane to shoot mislies as opposed to an actual pilot that can be caputured or killed?

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    • It used to be cowardly to shoot a man at a distance with a gun rather than hack away at him with a sword or a club. The distance involved is just greater.

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  7. Against any of the insurgent forces we currently face, a Navy submarine with Tomahawks is in the same situation… for that matter, most of those fighter jets with actual pilots are in that situation as well. Even in a legitimate war against a declared enemy, as long as we still have the Marines and the Army, there will always be someone taking advantage of longer ranged weapons who we can call more cowardly than the people who are in the thick of things. I don’t believe that makes them less moral.
    And you make that argument as if the drone pilots can’t be captured or killed. It would be more difficult, yes – probably closer to near impossible, given that essentially no one has the capability to strike the US mainland that easily. That doesn’t mean that the risk of such a thing happening is zero, though.

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  8. you don’t think it’s fairly obvious why it would be considered more cowardly

    Only superficially. The bravery of the operator should not be the issue here. It’s not like Obama or Krauthammer etc. are in any kind of physical risk either way. If one decides to pursue a systematic campaign of murdering people from afar using proxy killers obtained via poverty draft and the recruitment of children I’d have to say that your own personal physical bravery is not really the pressing issue. I guess the real question is, having decided to systematically murder strangers on the other side of the world, is it somehow brave of me to expose those agents I employ to do the actual murdering to increased risk?

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  9. Really? Someone sitting in a secret underground bunker in front of a monitor has effectively zero chance of being caught. Reducing American casualties is one of the reason for using drones in the first place.
    Anyhow, the larger questions and arguably more important are 1) Why is there a secret kill-list that authorizes strikes against US citizens? 2) Why is the CIA operating weaponry against targets? 3) Why are we bombing countries that we are not actually at war with?
    Nathair: Yes, it should be an issue. War is also a political act. The part about “winning hearts and minds” actually does mean something. The weaponry and tactics used are careful considerations as are the anticipated enemy responses.
    In fact mid last year there were discussions about awarding drone pilots with medals for (wait for it) “bravery”: http://www.salon.com/2012/07/10/bravery_and_drone_pilots/

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  10. Nathair: Yes, it should be an issue.

    I’m sorry, you are saying that we need to intentionally increase the risks to the poor bastards actually doing the killing in order that we might score political points for “our” bravery? Well, ethically speaking, that’s certainly an interesting position. Do you really think that sending troops physically into Pakistan (for example) to murder Islamic Pakistani folks the old fashioned “brave” way would win “us” the hearts and minds of the surviving Islamic Pakistani folks?
    I think the real issue is that drones allow America to murder internationally without the government having to risk political points at home for getting even more American soldiers killed and mangled. The deaths of dusky foreigners has just never been that much of an issue for the voting public.

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    • I’m sorry, you are saying that we need to intentionally increase the risks to the poor bastards actually doing the killing in order that we might score political points for “our” bravery? Well, ethically speaking, that’s certainly an interesting position. Do you really think that sending troops physically into Pakistan (for example) to murder Islamic Pakistani folks the old fashioned “brave” way would win “us” the hearts and minds of the surviving Islamic Pakistani folks?

      None of the above. Why in the name of Thor is it a good idea to be bombing Pakistan? Or Yemen? In the absence of *any* legal basis: Don’t send troops in. Don’t use armed drones operating by the military. Don’t send armed drones operated by the CIA. That is my position.
      Here’s a fun exercise: Look at drone attacks through the eyes of those they are used against, ie the “poor bastards” who are the only ones getting killed in a little place called the real world. Let’s take it a step further and say that you’re a recruiter for the Yemeni insurgents. You don’t think that it provides them a much easier propaganda point to advertise the fact that Americans aren’t even “brave” enough to kill women and children in person? That funerals are being bombed from the safety of bunkers?

      The deaths of dusky foreigners has just never been that much of an issue for the voting public.

      Citation needed.

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      • Don’t send troops in. Don’t use armed drones operating by the military. Don’t send armed drones operated by the CIA. That is my position.

        No. your position was that personal physical bravery should be the issue. Go ahead, reread posts 8 and 9.

        You don’t think that it provides them a much easier propaganda point to advertise the fact that Americans aren’t even “brave” enough to kill women and children in person? That funerals are being bombed from the safety of bunkers?

        See? You are suggesting that America should put its killers at greater risk, demonstrate their bravery, make it a “fair fight” for propaganda reasons.

        Citation needed.

        Pick one: Afghanistan. Iraq. Yemen. Pakistan. Somalia. Etc.

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      • How the actual operations can and are being portrayed is a description of reality.
        The fact that I would prefer we neither shot missiles from drones nor sent in the military into countries without a declaration of war has no effect on this reality, but it is my opinion nonetheless.
        By “citation” I would ask that you provide a poll or something similar since you’re describing public opinion

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  11. Am I and Mr. Near Earth Object the only people in the world who are sufficiently cynical (or post-cynical?) that this is not a one-sided issue?

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