“Clinical”, “surgical”, “targeted”, “precision”. As US massacres-by-drone continue across the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia, their ugly accomplice is the bastardisation of language. Human rights group Reprieve have just calculated the number of innocent victims each drone strike claims, posing the question: by what standards are 1,150 civilians — almost half a World Trade Centre — an acceptable price for 41 “terrorist suspects”? How is this “surgical precision”?
That’s assuming the targets are who we are told. In almost every case, we are forced to take the US government at its word.
The media play along. Yet if Russia or Iran bombed Western “terrorists” day in, day out, would journalists take their word for it? Would we allow such attacks to continue all but unnoticed?
Instead, the US presents itself as a surgeon at the operating table — as do the press. A choice metaphor transforms brutal violence into humanitarian aid: if cutting someone open is gruesome, “surgery” sounds friendly — a temporary, restorative, proportionate act for the patient’s good.
The contrast with Western discourse on “terrorism” — that is, Muslim retaliation against the West — could hardly be more blatant. “They” are barbarians; their killings wilful, bloodthirsty, indiscriminate.
In 2001, the Guardian contrasted
“the west’s commitment to do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties and the terrorists’ proven wish to cause as many civilian casualties as possible … Let them do their worst, we shall do our best, as Churchill put it. That is still a key difference.”
In fact, US policy resembles Israel’s war crimes under brutal megalomaniac Ariel Sharon — who, in one infamous incident, dropped a one-tonne bomb on a densely-populated civilian area in Gaza, claiming to target one man.
As Israel-Palestine scholar Norman Finkelstein points out, if Hamas bombed a bus, claiming “we meant only to target the bus, not the passengers”, people would laugh. Yet from Israel and Western governments, we take the same absurdities deadly seriously.
In 2001, Bush’s lawless kidnapping and torture at Guantanamo Bay horrified and disturbed the world.
Now, imprisonment without trial continues — and alongside it, execution without trial. Where Bush began by kidnapping, Obama assassinates.
Drone strikes have butchered 28 innocent people for every “suspect” targeted. Is that morally acceptable?
If so, why not an attack that kills 4 jihadists and 52 civilians? Applying the moral logic of drone strikes, we would have to declare it a great success.
Yet this is a description of the 7 July 2005 bombings in London.
We commit grave acts of terror on a single pretext: that our targets might commit grave acts of terror.
How do our governments get away with it? Why do drone strikes prompt so little response?
The first answer is that they are invisible. They take place in distant, unfamiliar countries, and we see almost no footage.
The second is propaganda. The Pentagon labels victims “enemy combatants” — when mentioning them at all. Rather than challenge the label, the media echoes it.
The third is racism. To imagine that our governments would use drone strikes in America or Britain is laughable. We would have no difficulty recognising them as acts of terror; their perpetrators would be tried and punished.
Yet so little value do we assign lives in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan that deliberate mass executions barely raise an eyebrow.
Even this, though, casts Obama’s policy in too kind a light.
In some cases there is no evidence that our targets are “terrorist suspects” at all.
Third, the Pentagon conducts “double-tap” strikes, hitting the same area twice in quick succession, bombing anyone trying to help the victims of the first attack.
Fourth, as the New York Times discovered, the White House “counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants … unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent”. “Shoot first, ask questions later”; “guilty until proven innocent”: these used to be scathing, satirical phrases. Under Obama, they are policy.
Just as they would here, drone strikes in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia make people angry and want to hit back. So to commit mass murder, the Western public pays twice — both today, in public funds, and tomorrow, in the inevitable violent backlash against us.