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Drone killings and the barbarity of Joe Klein

On a program on MSNBC’s Morning Joe following Monday’s debate, co-host Joe Scarborough was musing uneasily about the significant new developments in warfare that the current drone program has created, where someone in America operating a joystick can blow up people half a world away, with widespread death inflicted upon people who just happen to be near the target. This was a topic that was passed over without discussion in the debate.

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Scarborough said, “If you’re between 17 and 30, and within a half-mile of a suspect, we can blow you up, and that’s exactly what’s happening.” Allegedly liberal Time columnist Joe Klein defended this practice, repeating that cherished illusion of Obama supporters that only ‘bad guys’ get killed and that it saves American lives.

When Scarborough said, “This is offensive to me, though… It seems so antiseptic. It seems so clean. And yet you have four-year-old girls being blown to bits … this is going to cause the U.S. problems in the future”, Klein responded with the extraordinary statement that what is important is not that four-year old girls get killed but the nationality of the girls. He says, “The bottom line, in the end, is: Whose four-year-old gets killed? What we’re doing is limiting the possibility that four-year-olds here are going to get killed by indiscriminate acts of terror.”

So there you have it. A conservative former Republican congressman is disturbed by the US having a policy that results in the deaths of children in far-flung lands while the liberal Obama supporter says that it is perfectly fine to kill children over there in order to prevent children being killed here, and besides they are not ‘our’ children so who cares?

As Glenn Greenwald points out, this is the mirror image of the defense given by terrorists captured trying to plant bombs in the US, which is “Why shouldn’t we do to your children what you are doing to ours?”

On NPR, Philip Reeves had a disturbing report on a similar defense given by some in Pakistan over the horrific shooting of schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, with them asking why there is so much outrage over her shooting when the US routinely kills innocent people all the time in the remote tribal areas and no one makes a fuss in the west.

As Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”


  1. sunny says

    “killed by indiscriminate acts of terror”

    – A statement that describes the actions of both sides. In fact an alien landing on earth would not be able to discriminate between the two sides.

    War is bad enough but the video game approach to war is reprehensible.

  2. smrnda says

    Warfare should at best be seen as a necessary evil, and the killing of children should never be thought about in such a casual fashion.

    I’d also like to see some probabilities on what the likelihood of 4 year olds in the US getting killed really are. I’m pretty sure it’s fairly likely in the nations we occupy, so what Klein is really saying is that it’s okay to subject foreign four year olds to a high chance of dying to decrease an already much smaller chance of *our* four year olds dying. As usual, American lives count many times over.

  3. Reginald Selkirk says

    I’d also like to see some probabilities on what the likelihood of 4 year olds in the US getting killed really are.

    If that four year old was in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001; the probability was pretty high.

  4. says

    we can blow you up

    “can” does not imply “should”

    Those darn 3rd-worlders! They just hate us for our liberties willingness to thoughtlessly slaughter them.

  5. sundoga says

    I agree with the sentiment, but not the assumption. “Push-button war” has been the reality since the last days of WWII, when we were bombing Japan at will with aircraft their defence systems could hardly even reach. Nuclear deterrance was (is!) the same thing, just on a bigger scale.
    Our use of drones and distantly-guided weapons is not the problem. Our willingness to annihilate a square mile to kill one human target is.

  6. says

    sundoga writes:
    Our use of drones and distantly-guided weapons is not the problem. Our willingness to annihilate a square mile to kill one human target is.

    Do you think you’d feel exactly the same if you were on the incoming end of the equation?

  7. fastlane says

    When Joe Scarborough is the voice of reason, it’s time to take a long, hard look in the mirror.

  8. Mano Singham says


    That’s not how probabilities should be used. It cannot be used after the fact to narrow the range of options and then calculate the probability as if it were before the fact.

    For example, the probability of my being hit by lightning is quite small. If by some chance I am hit, one cannot then run the clock back and say that my probability of being hit within a small area around my prior location is now high.

  9. sundoga says

    Honestly? I don’t think I’d give a damn whether what was hitting me came from a drone, a howitzer, a manned aircraft or a guy half a mile away with a launcher. I’d just be wanting it, WHATEVER it was, to stop.

  10. Reginald Selkirk says

    That’s not how probabilities should be used. It cannot be used after the fact to narrow the range of options and then calculate the probability as if it were before the fact.

    Right. So we can’t calculate the probability of a 4 year old in the US being killed by Al Qaeda terrorists in a world where we do not vigorously go after Al Qaeda terrorists wherever they hide; because a world in which we do not go after Al Qaeda terrorists wherever they hide does not exist.
    And I won’t go into equating collateral damage with deliberate targeting of civilians.

  11. Corvus illustris says

    I’ll save Carrier the trouble: your original estimate shoold be treated as a Bayesian prior, and it is perfectly legitimate to go to the posterior-Bayesian distribution. This does not turn the clock back. Of course, if you persist in repeatedly getting hit by lightning at that spot … /(tongue removed from cheek)

    Unfortunately, it seems clear even without Bayes that if we persist on blowing up other people’s 4-year-olds, the probability of ours taking hits will increase dramatically–as the 9/11 events demonstrated.

  12. Enkidum says

    Please explain how your response connects in any way to Mano’s objection. You’re saying its illegitimate to calculate probabilities of a hypothetical (which is total horseshit, but that’s neither here nor there). He’s saying it’s illegitimate to use information obtained after the fact to change your estimation of probabilities before the fact. You see the difference?

  13. says

    Yeah, that’s precisely the point. The widespread use of drones makes the use of deadly force on a mass scale easier than all those other options you mentioned. All those other means of destruction require a physical presence in the area, and necessitates a much higher degree of support infrastructure actually in the area. This all greatly increases the cost, effort, and risk to “our side.”

    When we make bombing the shit out of people easier and easier, then it also becomes easier and easier to make the decision that someone needs to be bombed. Drones remove the cost, risk, and effort from the equation. And since we apparently don’t consider “collateral damage” to be a significant deterrent, there’s less incentive to stay our hand than ever before.

    This makes criticism of drone attacks valid, and demonstrates why this type of “push button warfare” is not merely an extension of warfare of the past.

  14. Corvus illustris says

    “Nuclear deterr[e]nce was (is!) the same thing, just on a bigger scale.

    Well, not really: the extent to which we had close calls is only coming out slowly, but–if only due to luck–there were never any nuclear duels. With “collateral damage,” whether by drone or by starvation or denial of medical supplies, the US is setting up a situation in which we may have “collateral damage deterrence”: you kill our children, we shall without fail kill yours, so stop it! That low=tech Vergeltungswaffen can be as effective as rocket-powered ones has already been demonstrated.

  15. says

    World War II was ultimately the peak of mechanized warfare, the apogee of an arc that started with the Civil War.

    Sherman realized that supporting a mechanized war required civilian effort as well as a military effort, because without industrial complex and civilian support, an army could not fight. So Sherman worked down south to attack the southern industrial and agricultural base, knowing that without those, the Confederate army couldn’t fight indefinitely.

    This is why we bombed cities in WWII, because those cities housed the industrial support the Axis relied on. In fact, Hiroshima was chosen for the first atomic bomb test because it was not an industrial city and therefore had been spared, and so would more clearly show the destructive power of the atomic bomb.

    The “war on terror”, however, simply cannot follow this format. This is not a war being fought between multiple countries. It is a war being waged by theocratic sects on anyone who doesn’t agree with them. Tactics that worked in WWII simply serve to give more credence to these people.

  16. sundoga says

    Really? I recall the raids on Tripoli in the ’80s, the bombardment of Iraq’s nuclear weapons program by Israel, Clinton’s strike on the Sudan. In each case, the result was the same: massive destruction visited on the target, zero losses. And those were manned attack aircraft.
    I would maintain that, given the technological disparity between the West and anyone we’re likely to fight, the threat to our own personnel is minimal, regardless of methodology. And if a war is worth prosecuting, which is a big question, then it is worth prosecuting to the best of our ability, which means using all of our technological capacity.
    If we’re not going to allow collateral damage to be a significant deterrant, then we’re going to keep levelling villages regardless of the weapons used to do it. I think people are forgetting that a sword is merely an object, devoid of meaning or purpose. Those things are granted by the wielder, and the actions to which it is put.

  17. says

    I think a serious part of the equation is that we hope that if someone is going to come rain fire and death on us, that we have a ghost of a chance of killing a few of them in return while they are doing it.

    Drone strikes are the ultimate coward’s weapon. They place the attacker where they cannot be responded to. What do you think the end result will be? If someone were to attack me with a rifle, I could go out and swap bullets with them and they might win but they might know they’d been in a fight. If someone bombs me from high altitude with a B-52, they will not even know whether or not they destroyed me like an unfortunate insect. But, by not taking to the field of battle, and using coward’s weapons, the only way the target can retaliate is by also using coward’s weapons. The end result of this cycle is to place all humans in the firing line, which is usually just fine with the power elite because they’ve already removed themselves very far from it and made damn sure they’re well-guarded and protected.

    I am always reminded of the great quote in “Battle of Algiers” when someone complains that it’s cowardly to put bombs in baby carts and the response is, “give us some machine guns and artillery like you have and we will gladly give you our baby carts.” The problem with drone strikes is that they illustrate with tremendous clarity how absurdly imbalanced the forces are that are being used. Which ought to raise some hackles, because any rational being who sees a superpower going after an individual ought to be skeptical about that superpower’s claim to being a great respector of individuals and rights. Eradicating terrorism by being a bigger better terrorist is a strategy doomed to create bigger better terrorists.

    I’ve tried hard to not couch this response in terms of morals but rather in terms of why and how drone strikes emotionally impact their targets and encourage them to seek revenge.

  18. says

    Nuclear deterr[e]nce was (is!) the same thing, just on a bigger scale.

    The idea of MAD was that neither side would attack the other because both sides would lose. As it happened, that insane logic held humanity together long enough for one side to win the cold war by other means.

    With drone wars, there is no balance of power. It’s all one way. It’s one side can destroy the other, and the other can do nothing but hunker down and hope they survive. If you wanted to argue an apples to apples comparison, imagine the cold war, except that one side had all the nukes and missiles and the other had rocks that they could throw really hard.

    There’s a moral difference, as well, between arguing that you’re balancing your forces to defend against an approximately equal and opposed power*, and that you desire to be the absolutely dominant power so that you can (and do) do whatever you want.

    (* We now know that during most of the cold war our leaders were deliberately lying to make it sound like the Soviets were ahead of us, when they were in fact far behind)

  19. says

    When we make bombing the shit out of people easier and easier, then it also becomes easier and easier to make the decision that someone needs to be bombed.

    Consider that the US has never gone to war with a country that had a credible chance of bringing destruction to our cities in North America.

    We love to bomb the crap out of people who can’t bomb us back. For those who argue nihilistic realpolitik that’s OK but paybacks are a bitch. Remember the killings in Rwanda? That was a long-simmering class struggle that exploded into payback time when the colonial powers broke down. None of us will, hopefully, live to see it, but someday the wheel may turn and our descendants will reap as we are sowing, today. If we’re concerned with our moral legacy, we should be concerned with this.

  20. sundoga says

    It was never my intention to make the situation seem “balanced”, but rather to point out that this, too, was destruction carried out at a great distance, with no real relationship between the actor and the acted-upon. That this type of “war from a distance” is neither new nor remarkable.

  21. sundoga says

    I see your point, Marcus, but I truly see no real difference between this and any of the other long-range killing machines we’ve developed. An artilleryman in Afghanistan can rain death just as surely and invulnerably from his firebase; a bomber pilot can take off from Diego Garcia, fly to his target, vapourize it, and fly back with no greater danger than your morning commute. Possibly less.
    If we blame the tech we are letting the true malefactors off the hook. The people who say it’s okay to destroy a village to kill one target, to hit a bus with a hellfire to ensure the death of a “terrorist”. It isn’t the method, it’s the methodology that we need to change.

  22. Shawn Smith says

    Consider that the US has never gone to war with a country that had a credible chance of bringing destruction to our cities in North America.

    Minor nitpick–the British did bring destruction to Washington D.C. in the War of 1812, and the Germans could very well have visited destruction on American cities if they hadn’t gotten into a shooting war with the Soviet Union. Perhaps you meant “since WW2,” but there were some dicey moments during the Cold War, namely during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Oko false alarm incident.

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