In the US we are constantly regaled with stories in the media of high-level people in al Qaeda being killed by drone strikes and how few civilians have been harmed. We are constantly reminded of how precise drones are. But of course, all that means is that there is a high probability that a drone hits the target that it was aiming at. It says nothing about whether the target was the right one to begin with, even if one concedes that the US government has the right to target and kill anyone it pleases.
But to the surprise of no one who follows such things closely, it turns out that the US undercounts civilian deaths and is aided in this deceit by the major US media. The reason that the US media undercounts civilian casualties is that it uncritically adopts the US government’s assertion that whoever it targets is a terrorist. In addition, president Obama adopts a monstrous definition of who can be considered a terrorist.
It is also because Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent. [My italics-MS]
Even here, note the exculpatory language used to minimize the enormity of what is being done. Treating any young male as an enemy and summarily killing them is a monstrous act that is indefensible. But we are told that this is a ‘disputed’ method, as if there are some credible reasons in favor of it. But you can be sure that if another country that is not an ally of the US did something similar, there would be widespread outrage at the idea that being in the vicinity of some place or person constitutes proof of guilt and justifies aerial death.
The radio program On the Media had a segment (transcript here) in which they interviewed Chris Woods of the UK-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism on why the US media and the international media differ on the number of civilian casualties caused by the drone strikes. It exposes the pitfalls of the kind of access journalism that is common here and which I have condemned many times before. As Woods says:
I think a lot of the reporting that takes place in the United States on drone-related matters is by national security correspondents, and there is a narrative in Washington that says that drones are a good thing and that reports of civilian deaths are exaggerated or are propaganda from militants – and I’ve heard that many times. You know, ultimately, as we’ve seen multiple intelligence leaks from administration figures, from agency figures, this is a rewards-based system, and if you annoy the intelligence community or you annoy your sources in the White House, you don’t get the goodies.
Woods was also interviewed on Democracy Now!.
My ears pricked up when an NPR report on June 12 started to speak about ‘concerns’ in the US about the use of drones. At last, I thought, we would hear something about the troubling deaths of civilians or the appalling idea that the US government can kill whomever it likes. But no. According to the report:
Tom Parker, policy director for terrorism and counterterrorism at Amnesty international, says the U.S. needs to be careful because its rationale for the use of drones could be abused by others. For example, the Chinese could use it to go after people it considers a national security threat — maybe Uighur or Tibetan activists living in a third country, he says [My italics-MS]
Note the implication that when the US does something, it is perfectly legitimate, but the same practice done by others constitutes ‘abuse’.
Is it any surprise that John Bellinger, a State Department legal adviser during the George W. Bush administration, says that virtually no other country buys the argument that what the US government is doing with its drones is self-defense and thus is acceptable under international law?
As long as the US media continues to shield the US public from the reality of what the government is doing in their name, people will be puzzled as to why other countries seem so upset about it.