Do #MuslimLivesMatter? US Officials Dismiss Civilian Casualties in the Middle East


Michael Hayden, CIA Director from 2006–2009, claims in a recent New York Times op-ed that the US drone program is “the most precise and effective application of firepower in the history of armed conflict.” He goes on to say that the US military takes painstaking measures to ensure civilians are not harmed in drone strikes.

Hayden also acknowledges unfortunate mishaps, such as when the grandson of a target was sleeping on a cot outdoors near the target, trying to escape the summer heat. A drone strike killed them both. Hayden writes that “a child died, and we deeply regret that he did. But his grandfather had a garage full of dangerous chemicals, and he intended to use them, perhaps on Americans.”

Without having seen the intelligence, and without the background to assess it, it is impossible to know whether the target in Hayden’s example is legitimate, although one is not reassured that the CIA Director believes the target may have intended to use the chemicals on Americans. More importantly, however, the expression of regret seems incredibly perfunctory, and mirrors the typical US military response when civilians are droned to death in faraway places, which is essentially to say “we are sorry, but shit happens.”

The broader problem with Hayden’s rosy view of the effectiveness and precision of the drone program is that it just doesn’t square with the facts. According to a major report, “The Drone Papers,” released by The Intercept in October and based on classified documents and inside sources, during just one special operations campaign in northeastern Afghanistan between 2012 and 2013, US special operations airstrikes killed more than 200 people, only 35 of whom were the actual intended targets. The Intercept’s documents further reveal that “during one five-month period of the operation…nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets.”

The Intercept report is extremely detailed, and it utterly explodes the myth that the drone program is “precision killing.” As one of its inside sources notes, “Anyone caught in the vicinity is guilty by association,” and when “a drone strike kills more than one person, there is no guarantee that those persons deserved their fate. … So it’s a phenomenal gamble.”

Not surprisingly, the Intercept’s report received scant attention in the major media. Some major organizations, such as the Huffington Post and the Guardian, did cover the report, but America’s two premier national news organizations, the New York Times and the Washington Post, either ignored the story or buried it on the back pages.

While it is impossible to know the exact number of people — and in particular civilians — killed in US drone strikes, several groups have attempted to compile the data, including the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the Long War Journal and the New America Foundation. US drone strikes are primarily carried out in four countries — Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. While the groups tracking drone strikes differ somewhat on the number of total casualties in these countries, they all estimate thousands killed, including hundreds of civilians.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, for example, estimates US drone strikes in Pakistan from 2004 to the present killed roughly 2,500–4,000 persons, of which 500–1000 were civilians. Furthermore, Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Clinic issued a major report in 2012 that claimed drone strikes deaths are underreported by even the major tracking groups, and argued for more clarity and transparency from the US government.

Whatever the actual number of deaths from American drone strikes, it is clear that the program is far from “precise and effective,” as former CIA Director Hayden claims. One can only hope that as time passes, more accountability and light is shed on the program and its toll on civilians. This toll includes the not insignificant number of completely innocent mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters in far-off lands who have their lives taken away from them when US bombs and missiles reign down from the sky.

Unfortunately, from the safety of American shores it is far too easy to dismiss or ignore the drone program, which continues to be one of the worst aspects of President Obama’s decidedly mixed legacy. Even worse than ignoring the program — as most citizens and media have done — is to joke about it, as President Obama did at the 2010 White House Correspondent’s Association dinner, when he noticed the pop group Jonas Brothers in the audience and quipped:

“The Jonas Brothers are here; they’re out there somewhere. Sasha and Malia are huge fans. But boys, don’t get any ideas. I have two words for you, ‘predator drones.’ You will never see it coming.”


Lest one think Obama’s dismissive remark on the suffering inflicted on foreign and predominantly Muslim peoples by the drone program was an outlier, we have only to remember that there have been similar cases in the past by other US officials. One of the most infamous occurred in 1996, when then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was interviewed on 60 Minutes about the devastating toll that US economic sanctions on Iraq had taken on Iraqi children following the 1991 Gulf War. During the sanctions regime, children were found to be suffering extremely high rates of infant mortality due to lack of food and medicine, among other things.

Here is the exchange between the 60 Minutes interviewer, Lesley Stahl, and Albright:

Stahl: “We have heard that half a million children have died [because of sanctions against Iraq]. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And — you know, is the price worth it?”

Albright: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it.”

While Albright’s answer is certainly one of the more callous and cringe worthy statements uttered by an American official in the past several decades, what is noteworthy is that it seems to reflect a disregard for the lives of “other” — meaning foreign — people. It is also true that in recent US military interventions, foreign has largely meant Muslim.

Albright, it should be remembered, was recently caught in a kerfuffle while campaigning for Hillary Clinton. During an appearance with Gloria Steinem, Albright declared that there was a “special place in hell” for women who don’t help other women,” implying that the many young women who support Bernie Sanders are doomed to Hades.

With regard to the 1990’s Iraq sanctions and their toll on children, Albright has since stated — and written in her book — that she spoke inartfully during the 60 Minutes interview and that she regrets her statement. Nevertheless, it seems to reflect once again an indifference on the part of US power brokers to the suffering of foreigners, the vast majority of them Muslim.


Finally, to come full circle on Iraq, we have General Colin Powell’s famous statement regarding Iraqi casualty estimates following the close of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The war lasted approximately 6 months, and was a classic example of assymmetric warfare, with US forces predominately using airpower to devastate Iraqi ground troops, who were essentially sitting ducks.

A notably vicious interlude occurred at the close of the war, on the night of February 26–27, on the infamous “Highway of Death. “ Iraqi ground troops were retreating along the six-lane highway that runs from Kuwait City to Basra, Iraq, and were intensely bombarded by US air forces. Roughly 1,500–2,000 Iraqi vehicles were estimated to be hit or abandoned, and the bombardment produced media images of carnage so viscerally shocking that some have speculated it was a factor in President George H. W. Bush’s decison to declare an end to hostilities the next day.

Whether or not the attack was necessary, General Powell produced one of the classic lines of recent US military campaigns when, at a press briefing following the close of the war, it was noted by the media that some had estimated over 100,000 Iraqi soldiers and civilians had been killed (roughly 150 Americans died from battle-related causes). Powell’s reply to the Iraqi casualty estimate was “It’s really not a number I’m terribly interested in.”

Indeed. Powell would go on to reinforce his disregard for Iraqi deaths by notably making the case at the United Nations Security Council in 2003 that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that posed an imminent threat to US and world security. His presentation at the UN helped pave the way for the now-infamous failed 2003 US — Iraq war, which would claim the lives of 5,000 Americans and 500,000 Iraqis.


Returning to the title of this article, the question posed was do #MuslimLivesMatter? I am not prepared to state the affirmative or the negative on this question, as it is too broad and multifaceted for a simple answer. Clearly we can say that Muslim lives within the United States matter more to many US policymakers, media and citizens than those Muslims in the Middle East who are unfortunate enough to be caught in the crosshairs of an American military campaign. After all, the US military is not bombing or otherwise actively killing Muslim-Americans.

Yet even this point must be qualified, however, as Islamophobia and violence toward Muslims in the US is on the rise. The rise is fueled in part by right-wing media, and also undoubtedly by the rise of Donald Trump, who has called for a complete ban on Muslims entering the United States, and who now stands on the precipice of the Republican nomination for President.

I am also not prepared to say that US policymakers, media and citizens place less value on Muslim lives abroad because they are Muslim. Indeed, over the past 2 years the Islamic State has been slaughtering Muslims by the thousands, and the US has intervened to fight the Islamic State, whether for self-interested or noble reasons or more likely for both. Moreover, there have obviously been other examples where US government and military actions have been taken to cooperate with, protect or aid Muslims, as opposed to harming them.

But what we can say with certainty is that foreign lives matter less to many US officials, media and citizens than American ones — as evidenced by the scant attention or criticism applied to the drone program — and that most of these foreign lives are also Muslim. This is certainly not a grand revelation. Many would argue that this sorting is in fact a natural dynamic that all global citizens engage in, the separation of “other” from “us” and the relative valuation of lives based on nation of origin, religion, income, etc.

Nevertheless, how we assess or critique the drone program, and in particular how we handle the valuation calculus many US policymakers, media and citizens employ to determine the relative worth of foreign and Muslim lives, is entirely up to Americans. More broadly, it is also up to the world at large. But certainly, a change is needed, if for no other reason than droning to death less people, and particularly less innocent people, is a good thing.

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