Earlier this week a paper in the U.K. reported that the target for the ﬁrst drone attack on U.S. soil had been chosen. He was a bad, bad man. He was on the run. He was a danger.
Other news outlets picked up on it. Soon it was trending on my newsfeed. Most people were scared. Some wanted to see him “get what he deserved.” Some were curious in spite of themselves. It’s natural to wonder about it, the drone. A frightening word, even. An ominous sound or a brainless, deadly automaton.
I was relieved to ﬁnd the story quickly repudiated. No, there was not to be a drone attack on U.S. soil. Someone was reporting on a “thought experiment.” But the people in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia don’t have the luxury of that relief. For them, the fear is real and it is every day.
I kept reading about this undeclared war. Couldn’t stop myself. There is a kind of visceral horror that accompanies the understanding that these are machines, unmanned, to kill people. Many of the victims are civilians. A Feb. 5 New York Times article reported the words of a friend of two civilian victims of a drone strike in Yemen: “We found eyes, but there were no faces left.”
I try to tell myself this is not different from a bombing (also abhorrent, by the way). The government has asked for our help. But why is this our responsibility? And who, then, is responsible for massive civilian casualties of a war we won’t admit we’re ﬁghting? Perhaps this is the true terror of the drone attack; it removes the agency not just from the victim, but from the assassin as well.
If the stories of the attacks are chilling, even more so is how very believable that “thought experiment” was, especially in light of recently released government documents. On Feb. 4, NBC obtained a Department of Justice “white paper” on the legality of drone strikes against U.S. citizens who are on foreign soil at the time. This 16-page memo ultimately concludes, “The condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a speciﬁc attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.”
No due process. Citizen or no, there is no Bill of Rights if the government believes you are a terrorist. And it doesn’t even need “clear evidence” to do so.
I’m not trying to be inﬂammatory. I don’t like paranoia. But I’ve read all 16 pages of that document and, frankly, I’m terriﬁed. Because these assassinations (let’s call them what they are) are not particularly good at separating the Bad Guy from the Innocent Bystanders. Anyone in the wrong place at the wrong time could be killed. And if these start to occur on U.S. soil, any of us could be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and we would not know until it is too late.
The worst part about this, for me, is the deep and abiding sense of betrayal that I feel as a staunch liberal (heading into Green territory) who voted for Obama because I was in a swing state and I felt it was the right thing to do. Now, after drone strikes in undeclared wars and the continuation of Bush-era erosion of due process and privacy laws, I am no longer so sanguine. I have been duped. If these policies happened under George Bush, there would be outrage. But we’re so relieved to have someone who pays even basic lip-service to the rights of marginalized groups that we are choosing to ignore the erosion of the rights of everyone.
I’m not saying that any “other guy” would have been any better. I’m lamenting that I must either choose between a candidate who does not think that I am a human being and a candidate who at least acknowledges that I am a human being, knowing that neither is above ordering the deaths of civilians in other countries.
The day of the Sandy Hook shooting, I called my mother, who is an elementary school principal, and we cried on the phone for two hours. I believe very strongly in gun control, and data support it. I spent a lot of time being outraged by the people who believed they needed to protect themselves from the government. I still ﬁnd it preposterous; a single man with a gun can do a lot of damage to an elementary school, but will not put a dent in the U.S. military.
But for the ﬁrst time, I understand some piece of their fear. And that is the scariest thing of all.
Mia Lehrer, Trinity ’12, is currently a graduate student in geology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her column runs every other Wednesday.