Fighting terror with terror

Despite its rhetoric, the US government continues to disregard the loss of civilian lives in drone strikes.

Thomas Friedman has suggested that for every drone strike the US launches, it should help Yemen build 50 new schools [Reuters]

On December 12, the New York Times reported that “what appeared to be the second American drone strike in the past week” had killed at least 11 people in Yemen, as they drove home from a wedding. The article offered additional noncommittal details such as that “[m]ost of the dead appeared to be people suspected of being militants linked to Al Qaeda.”

Reuters supplied a different version of the incident, citing 15 fatalities and a claim from local security officials that a party of wedding attendees had been “mistaken for an al Qaeda convoy”.

The ease of confusing wedding guests with terrorists has, of course, been demonstrated time and again in the war on terror, as evidenced by mainstream media headlines over the years such as “US bomb blunder kills 30 at Afghan wedding“. Funeral attendees have also been popular targets, a practice discussed in Glenn Greenwald’s 2012 dispatch for Salon: “US again bombs mourners.”

Last month, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported that, “[s]ix months after President [Barack] Obama laid out US rules for using armed drones, a Bureau analysis shows that covert drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan have killed more people than in the six months before the speech.”

These statistics highlight the apparent disingenuousness of Obama’s May 2013 remarks at the National Defense University, where he lamented civilian casualties of drone strikes and insisted that “the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power – or risk abusing it.”

The ‘targeted kindergarten’ solution

Abuse of power is not the only complicating factor when it comes to America’s application of military might, however.

Stressing the “threat posed by the Yemen-based branch of Al Qaeda, which has tried to blow up United States-bound airliners since 2009”, the Times article on the most recent drone casualties adds as an afterthought:

“[T]here are concerns that the drone strikes themselves may aggravate the problem. In the wake of last week’s attack on the [Yemeni] Defense Ministry’s fortified headquarters in the capital, Sana, some Qaeda-linked websites said the militants were seeking revenge for drone strikes, repeating a theme often heard in villages where drones are audible overhead.”

One curious solution for tempering the effects of drone damage on the local population has been proposed by Times foreign affairs columnist-cum-imperial apologist Thomas Friedman, who in 2010 had the opportunity to chew qat – “the mildly hallucinogenic leaf drug” – at the home of a Yemeni official. This encounter produced a “new rule of thumb” according to which every US Predator drone missile fired at Yemen should be accompanied by assistance to the country in “build[ing] 50 new modern schools that teach science and math and critical thinking – to boys and girls”.

In Friedman’s hallucinated vision, this formula would effectively counteract Islamic fanaticism: “If we stick to something close to that ratio of targeted killings to targeted kindergartens, we have a chance to prevent Yemen from becoming an Al Qaeda breeding ground.”

Not explained is what curricular measures will be implemented in said “targeted kindergartens” to ensure that pupils do not experience anger or resentment when their civilian compatriots are slaughtered by US military technology.

Towards perpetual conflict

According to a July 2013 Al Jazeera English video report, US drone strikes on Yemen had killed nearly 800 people – primarily civilians – since 2002.

Drone attacks in Yemen mostly hit civilians

In 2009, US cruise missiles were unleashed on the Yemeni village of al-Majalah, initially portrayed as the site of an Al Qaeda training camp. The resulting casualty count: zero dead Al Qaeda operatives, 45 dead Bedouin villagers – most of them women and children.

Such events obviously don’t jibe with Obama’s claims regarding America’s “heavily constrained” use of drones and “respect for state sovereignty”. During his speech at the National Defense University, the president assured the audience that “America does not take strikes to punish individuals; we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people… And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set.”

Apparently, the position of the US, as global superpower, confers upon the country and its executive the honour of determining which human lives are expendable and which are not. Even when civilian collateral damage is acknowledged by the administration, it is rendered less severe in the eyes of US public, thanks to the general demonisation in political and media discourse of certain nationalities and ethnic groups, which prevents civilians, therein, from being awarded the same sanctity of life that is accorded Americans.

Drone strikes undeniably qualify as terrorism, instilling fear in various populations for political purposes. However, US-inflicted terror is coupled with a total displacement of the crime of terrorism onto other entities, ensuring the viability of the war on terror and the commitment to perpetual conflict.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.