“I used to say of apartheid that it dehumanized its perpetrators as much as, if not more than, its victims,” Desmond Tutu wrote recently in the New York Times. He asked, “Do the United States and its people really want to tell those of us who live in the rest of the world that our lives are not of the same value as yours?”
Tutu’s words appeared in a short letter, tucked quietly into the Times’ editorial page. The subject that provoked his indignant correspondence was drone strikes.
Controversy about drones heated up in America after the leak in February 2013 of a secret memo from Obama’s lawyers. The document attempted to provide legal justification for the assassination of U.S. citizens, including those with no formal charges against them. (Two such citizens, believed to be associated with al-Qaida, were killed in a 2011 strike in Yemen.)
Then, in hearings before the Senate, the White House’s pick to be the new CIA chief, drone enthusiast John Brennan, didn’t bother denying that an aerial assassination would be permissible by the administration’s standards even within the U.S. itself.
Sadly, it’s hard to get Americans too worked up about drone strikes in far-away places like Pakistan and Afghanistan. But the idea of the president assassinating his own citizens via remote control seems to have crossed a line. In response to widespread backlash, Congress is discussing a court that would oversee the inclusion of any Americans on Obama’s “kill list.”
Yet only U.S. citizens would merit the review. And this disregard for the lives of non-citizens is what prompted Tutu’s condemnation. “Would your Supreme Court really want to tell humankind that we, like the slave Dred Scott in the 19th century, are not as human as you are?” he wrote. “I cannot believe it.”
Unfortunately, there is reason to believe. Barack Obama is not George W. Bush. He’s no neoconservative, utterly dismissive of diplomacy and eager to launch new invasions. The differences matter. Still, when it comes to expanding executive power, abusing international law, and extending government secrecy to conceal extra-legal practices, Obama has bolstered Bush’s approach to the “War on Terror.”
His behavior comes with an additional danger: that activities which would have produced outrage under a conservative administration are given a pass when executed by a president who can use a Nobel Peace Prize for cover.
U.S. troops leaving the Middle East are being replaced with unmanned air patrols. The UN reports that drones fired 506 weapons in Afghanistan in 2012, up from 294 the year before. Obama claims that his administration has worked to reduce the number of civilian casualties. But it has done so partly by defining all military-aged men killed by a drone strike as legitimate military targets by default.
Are you between age 16 and 60 in a part of the global South targeted by the Pentagon? Until proven innocent, you’re counted as a combatant if hit.
Such dehumanization has real consequences. Defense analyst Spencer Ackerman cites an example that made even a top officer—the now-retired General Stanley McChrystal—question NATO’s tactics. After a surveillance drone identified a man in Afghanistan “digging in the ground” at night, the general’s forces presumed he was burying a bomb. They launched a helicopter attack to eliminate this supposed aggression. However, Ackerman writes, “McChrystal later learned that tilling soil at night is a tradition among Afghan farmers, and the dead man posed no threat.”
Ten years ago, the largest coordinated international protests in history rallied against George W. Bush’s impending invasion of Iraq, contending that a “War on Terror” waged with disregard for human rights and the rule of law would only make the world a more dangerous place.
The truth of this argument holds, and the need for public outcry remains, even if Obama is the one holding the kill list.