The CNN headline last week read, "Two suspected U.S. drone strikes killed seven al Qaeda militants and eight civilians in the southern part of Yemen on Tuesday. It was the latest of several U.S. strikes in Yemen, which is home to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, described by U.S. officials as the al Qaeda affiliate that poses the most serious threat to the United States." Oh, and "At least seven civilians were injured."
As I've stated many times, in the war on terrorism, Americans have traded our values for a false sense of security and are now left with neither.
We cast aside the lives of innocent people for the purpose of killing a single terrorist, or a few terrorists, or seven terrorists as we did in Yemen last week. And, for the most part, the American media mentions these civilian deaths as a footnote.
Is there a difference in killing a civilian by way of a high-flying drone or by way of a gun at close range? Can we really say that these are accidental deaths when we knowingly fire a missile into a crowd to target a single militant? Can we justify this killing in the name of self-defense? Can we really tell the difference between the militants and the civilians? How many civilian deaths are too many in exchange for the death of a single terrorist?
Americans have been using drones to kill people at a safe distance for many decades. But these unmanned aircraft have become highly sophisticated and far more common in America's efforts to find and kill terrorists. In Yemen alone, CNN reports that there have been 24 drone attacks occurring during the Obama administration.
Perhaps no country has suffered more from U.S. drone strikes than Pakistan, unfortunately situated on the border with Afghanistan. According to data collected by the New America Foundation and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, there have been about 300 drone attacks in Pakistan since 2004 resulting in up to about 3,000 deaths. The Bureau reported that up to 815 of these deaths were civilians, including 178 children.
In fact, all of these numbers are estimates, as no one knows the real number of attacks or the number of deaths from these attacks, especially those conducted by the CIA. Some in Pakistan report that the majority of people killed in the drone attacks are civilians, not militants. In November of 2011, for example, a U.S. drone accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers who were mistaken for militants. As a result, drone attacks were halted, but resumed two months later.
Writing for the January issue of The New Republic, David Bell defends the use of drones as a way to save money and "cut troops, ships and planes while concentrating our military energies more than ever on drones, spy technology, cyber warfare, jammers and special operations forces." Indeed, technology has changed the nature of warfare, but has also made us less sensitive to the killing of innocent civilians.
I wish we could have used a drone attack to kill former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. It would have been cheaper and safer, especially for U.S. soldiers and local civilians, than invading Iraq at a cost of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars. But the increased use of drones has not occurred with a correlating decrease in money spent on "troops, ships and planes" as suggested by Bell. Our military budget is higher than ever.
Hundreds of thousands of civilians have died in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and other places in our war against terrorism. Yet, none of these places is less likely today to give birth to a future terrorist who now hates us for killing their child, parent, brother or sister caught between a faceless U.S. drone and a militant in their village.