Guns and drones

by John Quiggin on December 21, 2012

Glenn Greenwald contrasts the horror over the Newtown mass murder and the immediate political reaction with responses to the deaths of children in US drone attacks. He focuses his criticism particularly on Obama supporters.

While there are many different views, and combinations of views, my perspective (as a non-American who would have voted for Obama) is a bit different. Until Newtown my perspective on US gun violence and drone attacks was pretty much identical

  • They are horrible
  • I thought Obama would change things for the better, but they changed for the worse (no action on semi-automatics, spread of concealed carry and stand your ground, expansion of the drone war)
  • Given the attitudes of the majority of Americans, little hope for improvement
  • Repubs would be even worse

I think most of these views were shared by most participants in the “lesser evil” debate before the election. But what strikes me in retrospect is that the entire debate was focused on drones and related issues. Implicitly, I and I think, most others, regarded gun control as a cause so thoroughly lost that Obama couldn’t be blamed for abandoning it. The Trayvon Martin case changed this a bit, but not much. By contrast, Newtown showed that the apparent pro-gun consensus was if not illusory, at least fragile. In his trademark ‘lead from behind’ style, Obama captured the new consensus and seems likely to push it forward.

The hopeful reading of this is that public opinion about drones could change just as radically, if public understanding improved. At the moment, it’s hard to see that happening without some truly horrible shock, like a drone wiping out a primary school. Perhaps, however, the widespread view among those who have actually examined the drone war, that it’s both cruel and counterproductive, may start to seep into public discussion, as part of a reaction against the culture of violence that supports both drones and guns.

{ 111 comments }

1

ponce 12.21.12 at 7:48 am

Horrible as the drone war is, it’s all we’ll have once we pull out of Afghanistan.

2

John Quiggin 12.21.12 at 7:51 am

Well, some countries have managed to survive a fair while without any wars at all – maybe the US can do the same.

3

ponce 12.21.12 at 8:02 am

I doubt a trillion dollar a year industry can just sit idle.

4

Andreas Moser 12.21.12 at 8:25 am

If you believe that no war is justified, then you should not argue about the drone war, but about war itself. That’s an unrelated argument.
If you are not a pacifist however, then you need to contrast the drone war with other options of waging war (e.g. saturation bombing).

5

Emma in Sydney 12.21.12 at 8:33 am

Andreas, there is a position in between ‘no war is justified’, and ‘we are always at war with someone’. It’s the position most countries hold, actually.

6

Hidari 12.21.12 at 8:33 am

“The hopeful reading of this is that public opinion about drones could change just as radically, if public understanding improved.”

Well precisely. But Americans are not bad people: ındeed the contrast between the niceness of most Americans and the rapacity and cruelty of “their” government is one of the most striking things of the American political system to an outsider.

But who deliberately misinforms the public? Who keeps them in this state of ignorance about what their tax money pays for? Who decides that the deaths of Americans is worth more column inches than the deaths of Pakistani and Yemeni children?

I’m sorry but to take this conversation further we have to have an open and honest discussion about the technicolour elephant in the room: the mass media. Who owns it, whose interests it serves, what it is doing to us. This is a discussion we have started to have in the UK thanks to the “hacking” affair. But to an outsider it seems like it is a debate that is only just beginning in the US. But if progressive politics is to have a future (and maybe it doesn’t) it’s a debate we must have or else the drone strikes and the massacres are just going to cotinue.

7

PlutoniumKun 12.21.12 at 8:53 am

I think the core of Greenwalds argument is not that Americans don’t care about Pakistani children killed by drones, its that there is a deliberate ‘elite’ consensus to make sure this happens by not treating drone victims as ‘real people’ in the media. Of course there are logistical difficulties in giving the same attention to a few dead children in a remote area of Pakistan, but the reality is that the US media hasn’t even tried.

8

ecurb 12.21.12 at 8:54 am

You’re quite right, Hidari. Once the government regulates what the media are allowed to say, they will finally be free to denounce government policy and reveal the truth to the people.

9

Pete 12.21.12 at 9:35 am

I wasn’t expecting the apocalypse to be one of false-dichotomy trolling. First we have someone claiming that the only alternative to the drone war is either total war or total pacifism – simply choosing not to bomb pakistani children is apparently not an option.

Then we have ecurb saying that simply having a discussion about media ownership automatically equates to state censorship – the only choices are Fox lies or government lies.

Something to think about: why have the people who want to hold guns so they can take up arms against the US federal government not allied with the people who are doing just that in Afghanistan?

I’m coming to the belief that these people – gun advocates, war advocates, usually the same people – have as a deep belief that justice requires violence and preferably death. Blood exipiation must be made for an offence against them. To them, letting a burglar go unmurdered is a far, far worse crime than any amount of mistaken murders of people suspected of burglary. Similarly letting a “terrorist” live is far worse to them than the mass murder of foreign civilians. It’s a different, horrific, set of values: American honour killing culture.

10

ecurb 12.21.12 at 9:40 am

Actually Pete, I have been against war since childhood. My mother bought me “when the wind blows” when I was little, and the lesson stuck.

And state regulation of media in the UK is exactly where the “discussion” is headed. Have you not been following the debate over the Leveson Report?

Taking that as an excuse to start ranting about how Americans want to murder everyone they dislike is a little… creepy.

11

Neil 12.21.12 at 10:13 am

Actually, ecurb, it is you who seems not to have been following the debate over the Levenson report if you think it is headed for state regulation of the media. In any case, this has nothing to do with the question whether the mass media distorts political discussion for its own ends.

12

Pete 12.21.12 at 10:28 am

It’s not yet clear what “state regulation of the media” actually means in the context of the Leveson report. There’s already a whole load of law governing what can and cannot be printed in the newspapers, even in the US – state secret law, company trading information, libel law, information relating to cases sub judice, various anonymisations of victims of crime and informers, porn, “offensive” material, etc. The UK has a framework regulating advertising and television. It’s not a police state; libel law is probably the nastiest edge though, which allows well off private individuals to censor as well.

Proportionality, guys. Proportionality. And don’t let the shouting about state controlled media blind you to the risks of a media controlled state ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/20/bernstein-murdoch-ailes-petreaus-presidency passim)

As to “Americans want to murder everyone they dislike … “, clearly there are some Americans looking to kill some people (including hypothetical burglars), for which purpose they own guns. If private gun ownership was just humans looking to hunt animals there wouldn’t be nearly as many guns in the US.

It’s the pro-gun rhetoric which usually manages to strike a note between creepy, bonkers and ominous.

13

basil 12.21.12 at 10:40 am

Have you seen this? I thought it was powerful to experience alongside this comment thread and the massive Greenwald article.

Shailja Patel

14

Hidari 12.21.12 at 10:54 am

Yes ecurb I want the state to run all the media. That’s precisely what I want. Don’t let your common sense tell you any different.

Incidentally how did you feel the media reporting of the Newtown mass murder was? Fair? Proportionate? Calm? Did it illuminate the major points that were of interest? Did the media carefully look at various points of view and logically evaluate them? Did the media take care to observe the various strictures that professionals working in this field advise them to observe? (see link below).

Or was it a bit different?

And how about the difference in coverage of Pakistani and Yemeni deaths versus American deaths? Did the American people take part in a referendum in which they offıcially requested to be told more about American deaths than the deaths of others? Dıd Obama state this was a key issue in his campaign? Do the American people actually have any democratic control over the media they are given at all?

15

ecurb 12.21.12 at 11:13 am

The salient question is “what would reporting look like if a body of ‘regulators’ was given broad powers to quash reporting they feel is against the public interests?”
Because if you take issue with things like “number of deaths reported” and “proportionate coverage”, you’re demanding a body that can control every aspect of news reporting. If not, please tell me how you would change either of those things without it.
How would you feel if republicans got the regulatory commission to demand Wayne LaPierre have equal time to respond when he was attacked on air, or in a newspaper article? Because that’s what my side would do as soon as we managed to appoint the “right” people to the committee.

“Democratic control over the media” is precisely what isn’t needed. Good God, are you serious?

16

Pete 12.21.12 at 11:29 am

It’s very strange arguing with someone who is clearly responding to points that weren’t made ..

17

SusanC 12.21.12 at 11:30 am

When people argue for gun control, their line of argument is (usually) fairly clear, even if you don’t agree with it. The argument against drones, on the other hand seems much more confused.

For a start, is the argument against drones as such, or is it against the wars in Afghanistan (etc.), regardless of the means used to fight them? Is the argument that it is morally OK for a US soldier to shoot up a school full of children, provided they do it in person, but not OK to use a drone to do it? Or is the use of a drone as means irrelevant?

Most of us are familiar with a large amount of dystopian science fiction (e.g. Terminator), so we can immediately think “what could possibly go wrong?” when someone proposes building autonomous killer robots. (Current UAV’s are typically not autonomous).

Some thoughts:

1. Security/cyber warfare. If I recall correctly, the DoD has publiclly admitted that the control systems of US drones have already been hacked (try looking for someones notes from the DARPA Cyber Colloquium, which was unclassified, public, with journalists present). As far as I know, DoD has not blamed a particular enemy for this — either for understandable diplomatic reasons, or because they just don’t know.

It isn’t exactly cheering to know that in the software control system between a soldier at a remote location pressing the “fire” button and the actual weapon, is malware of unknown origin that can press the trigger for them and shoot something they didn’t intend to shoot. We’re already used to frequent malware incidents, but most of the systems that usually get hacked don’t control guns. Worst case might be that Anonymous manage to pull off an attack of this kind, “for the Lulz” as they say. (The Iranian government might be more restrained in what they try to do).

2. Concentration of power. Soldiers aren’t all clinical psychopaths (though, knowing quite a few people in the military, I am sometimes surprised at who has managed to get past the psychological screening[*]. Economists can say “adverse selection” at this point). If guns are controlled by individual humans, at least some of them will refuse if the order is unreasonable enough. (Though, of course, see Milgram’s obedience experiments for why the refusal rate won’t be as high as you might hope). Robots, on the other hand, do what they have been programmed to do. The concern here is that psychopathy (etc.) will be more, not less, prevalant in the small cadre of people who give orders to the large armies of killer robots.

3. Diffusion of responsibility. With guns, the guy who pulls the trigger is almost certainly on the hook as responsible. (Some people can argue that gun manufacturers etc. can share some of the blame). But we know with computer systems, things often go wrong in a way where no-one looks responsible for what happened. This is something of a concern when the “what happened” involves a weapons system.

4. Psychological distance. For non-psychopaths, at least, it is hard to kill someone up close and personal. It possibly becomes easier at a distance, or via a user interface that makes everything look like a video game. (Particularly when we have become accustomed to video game shooters as “not real”). The concern here is that the user interface (to semi-autonomous or not autonomous robots) encourages the commision of atrocities.

[*] Rather than psychopathy, a prior history of dissociative disorders made worse by combat trauma is a more common concern.

18

ecurb 12.21.12 at 11:47 am

Excellent points, but ones that are very hard to put across to the general public.
I think we’re fighting an acceptance of drone warfare that comes from the way it was sold, as a natural development from “humane” precision guided bombs:

“Drones are a Precision weapon system that allows us to use relatively tiny bombs to only kill the Baddies. Drones actually cause much less unfortunate collateral damage than our totally awesome Earthshatterer bombs would. We’d get to have to level entire city blocks with those”

Can I mention that it’s wonderful to see some left-leaning people continue to denounce drone bombings after January 20, 2009?

19

Shining Raven 12.21.12 at 12:33 pm

Well, my problem with drone warfare is quite simple:

It would be totally okay in my book if it was used on a conventional battle field, against military targets. Might keep collateral damage down, in particular if the alternative really is indiscriminate bombing (even if e.g. we might just talk about empty city buildings, which somebody might want to use again someday).

But the way it is used is purely as an assassination tool against individual people, often far away from what one could reasonably consider a battle field. They are used in a context in which there is no immediate military danger from the targets to anybody. They are used in contexts in which a police action would be much more suited to the purported aim of preventing future violence.

I think it is wrong to simply assassinate people if you have other options. And it is also counterproductive, since it only breeds resentment. But of course this is all of one piece with the rest US counterterrorist policy.

Basically every modern state before (Germany against the Red Army Faction, the UK against the IRA, Spain/France against ETA, …. ) has denied terrorists the status as soldiers, has treated terrorism not as a military, but as a criminal matter, and has treated counterterrorism as a police matter, not as warfare. Of course the US after 9/11 had to break with this really well-considered policy, invent some new “enemy combatant” category unknown and unrecognized under international law, and dispense with any guaranties of basic human rights to be able to treat counterterrorism as warfare.

The drone warfare is a direct outflow of this view, since it makes something that by rights should be a police action into warfare, without sufficient safeguards or any guaranty of rights at all to its victims. This is wrong.

Using drones is wrong because is only leaves the option of killing people whom you could just as well arrest and try for their crimes (if they really did commit any), and they cannot take surrender. That is of course also a problem with helicopter warfare on a battlefield, but at least there you are (on a battlefield) normally talking about soldiers. With drones, it solves the pesky problem of actually having to show that somebody was or is a terrorist, and it saves the government the embarrassment of having to admit to mistakes. Not acceptable.

20

miguel cervantes 12.21.12 at 1:02 pm

Good god, you don’t understand the difference between deliberately targeting children,
as is what Basayev and Hamas, and Lanza did, and an i advertent death, by a drone,

21

Trader Joe 12.21.12 at 1:02 pm

@19
Well stated Shining Raven

The only thing I’d add is that drones don’t kill people – people do. The drone and the soldier that operates it is long-extension cord of the power of the state and at this point there is very little sunshine and no oversight over who makes the ‘kill’ – ‘no kill’ decision and why.

22

rea 12.21.12 at 1:13 pm

I don’t understand the fixation on drones. Drones replace other weapon systems that would inflict more indiscriminate casualties (example from my youth–high altitude bombing attacks on Cambodian villages from B-52s). The real issue is not drones, but whether we ought to be fighting in Afghanistan, etc., at all.

23

Pete 12.21.12 at 1:19 pm

There’s also a slippery slope which is generally part of the “war on terror” but facilitated by drones, which is that the body of pseudo-law generated to justify killing civilians of countries which the US is not at war with inside those countries is leaking.

http://www.aclu.org/national-security/aclu-ccr-lawsuit-american-boy-killed-us-drone-strike so there’s the lawsuit about whether it’s OK for the state to order the execution of US citizens abroad. If that is allowed, eventually the same approach will be used in the “war on drugs” or a Ruby Ridge / Waco like situation.

24

SR819 12.21.12 at 1:21 pm

The drone attacks in Pakistan has caused so much devastation that it’s good that people like Greenwald and Monbiot are highlighting it. Pakistan is a nation that is facing multiple threats, from indiscriminate drone attacks, terrorist groups and an aggressive neighbour with imperialist delusions in India.

25

Pete 12.21.12 at 1:22 pm

rea @ 21: Drones provide the seductive option of targeted killing. The number of people killed at once is below the international outrage level. If the US were carpet bombing villages in western Pakistan the Pakistani government might be less tolerant of it.

26

belle le triste 12.21.12 at 1:33 pm

Not to sidetrack too much but this is also somewhat relevant to the issue of an unpoisoned press, and the degree to which the unregulated market has entirely failed to keep it from being corrupted (I mean the Murdoch aspect, not so much the Petraeus element, which is just a giveaway symptom): http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/20/bernstein-murdoch-ailes-petreaus-presidency

27

Watson Ladd 12.21.12 at 2:00 pm

There are many ways to describe Pakistan’s problems. The result of outside forces is not one of them. We must remember the ISI assists the worst elements of the Taliban every day, with government approval. Pakistan refuses to govern the Tribal Areas, a situation that prevents the law enforcement approach from working.

From this perspective al-Queda does not appear different then Pancho Villa’s army when it attacked the US in New Mexico. Jurisdictional arbitrage is ancient, and very well addressed in international law.

28

SR819 12.21.12 at 2:16 pm

Outside forces have contributed to Pakistan’s problems though. The fact that so many civilians and children have died through US drone attacks is not the way to win hearts and minds and probably does more to push people towards extremism. Moreover, the Indian government keeps badgering the Pakistan government about information regarding 26/11 (even though there is no evidence that the government had anything at all to do with it) and this diverts crucial resources away from fighting the Taliban in tribal areas.

29

faustusnotes 12.21.12 at 2:36 pm

I’m still unconvinced that drone war is wrong. There is no fundamental difference between drone war and air war generally, at least as it is prosecuted in Afghanistan. The problem is the war itself, and the idea that it can be prosecuted from the air. Drones offer no moral degeneration from aircraft generally … perhaps you should have written “who needs an air force” instead of “who needs a navy”?

30

David Kaib 12.21.12 at 2:38 pm

“Given the attitudes of the majority of Americans, little hope for improvement”

I think this vastly overstates both the intensity and lack of ambivalence of public opinion on both these issues, and more importantly, the role of public opinion in shaping politics. There are vast areas of policy where public opinion and policy are at odds, and these tend to be areas that aren’t even politically contentious. The public was turning more progressive on the so-called War on Terror in 2006-08 – what shifted was that the Democratic Party adopted positions far closer to the Bush Admin when it was governing than when it was challenging, and polls reflected that. Causation tends to run from elite discourse to public opinion, not vice versa. The reaction to Newtown is certainly consistent with this position.

31

ponce 12.21.12 at 2:57 pm

@28

“I’m still unconvinced that drone war is wrong. There is no fundamental difference between drone war and air war generally, at least as it is prosecuted in Afghanistan.”

It is unique that American “soldiers” are dealing out death from a completely safe position. Military jets are shot at in Afghanistan and they do crash occasionaly.

When you read the transcripts of the drone operators and see them begging and pleading with their surpervisors for permission to launch their missiles into vehicles they know contain children…Please let me shoot…please….Ir’s quite chilling.

They sound like sociopathic McDonald’s fry cooks trying to earn a bonus.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2249252/Brandon-Bryant-Drone-operator-followed-orders-shoot-child–decided-quit.html

32

heckblazer 12.21.12 at 3:11 pm

Air power is a crappy way to fight guerillas, and that was true when it was F-16s dropping JDAMS and it’s true now it’s Predators shooting Hellfire missiles. The reason of course is that it’s extremely hard to verify you have the right target from the air. Drones are a slight improvement because without a pilot they can take greater risks trying to ID what they’re shooting. As for drones making attacks easier by distancing people from the actual killing, I doubt that in practice it’s much different from the distance live pilots feel when they drop bombs on a speck on the ground.

I would draw a distinction between drone strikes in Pakistan and ones elsewhere. For better or worse the US is fighting in Afghanistan, and it faces the recurring problem of groups based in Pakistan crossing the border into Afghanistan to hit a target and then slipping back into Pakistan. As stated above in practice using drones is not a good choice, but in theory I see no reason to object to attacking belligerents.

As for drone strikes elsewhere that are outside an active theater of war for the US, I assume I don’t need to elaborate on how they are, to say the least, problematic.

33

Derek Bowman 12.21.12 at 3:23 pm

Andreas and rea have both expressed the common response to drone arguments that drones are just a tool and so not worthy of special consideration. So rea says “The real issue is not drones, but whether we ought to be fighting in Afghanistan, etc., at all.”

But this response supposes that the premise that drone warfare is no different (or if, different, better than) other forms of warfare can only figure as a premise in a basic modus ponens:
1. If war (or this war) is justifiable, then the use of drones is justifiable (since it’s just a means, and perhaps a better one).
2. War is (or this war) is justifiable.

3. So the use of drones is justifiable.

Given this assumption, they suppose the only debate to be had is the general one about premise 2.

But this neglects the possibility of the objection to drone warfare figuring into a modus tollens:

1. 1. If war (or this war) is justifiable, then the use of drones is justifiable (since it’s just a means, and perhaps a better one).
2*. The use of drones is not justifiable.

3*. So war (or this war) is not justfiable.

This makes the question of drones the primary question in the larger debate.

On the model of the first argument, the seeming strangeness of drone warfare simply introduces irrational noise into an otherwise settled (or at least well-worn) debate.

On the model of the second argument, the seeming strangeness of drone warfare gives us the opportunity to approach those general questions from a fresh perspective.

34

Kaveh 12.21.12 at 3:26 pm

Susan @17, The arguments against the current drone war (not any & all use of drones anywhere) as it’s being conducted are not confused at all if you look specifically at what people are criticizing (e.g. Greenwald–I would be snarky and say ‘if you read the articles’ but let’s not be snarky…).

1) There’s an extreme lack of transparency and accountability. The CIA is in charge of the program, not subject to the same oversight that the military is; private contractors are used in surveying data to find targets.

2) The “double tap” is a common tactic, and possibly a war crime–striking one target, then striking the same place again when people arrive to see what happened or help. This targets first-responders–it’s hard to see what other purpose a delayed second strike could serve–which makes it almost definitely a war crime (as one astute commenter on a news site put it, kill the terrorists, then when their terrorist friends come to help, kill them too; which is probably how al-Qaeda felt about civilians in the WTC, and the NYFD…).

3) re drones vs indiscriminate bombing, it’s not actually much different from indiscriminate bombing, because they operators don’t have good intel and the CIA just classifies any adult male as a ‘militant’ (despite that just about any adult man will go around armed), so the proportion of civilian casualties is probably not much different from indiscriminate bombing.

Drones are not, in themselves, necessarily bad, but the fact that they are in a grey area where existing regulations aren’t clear (or the govt can pretend they aren’t clear–e.g. the double tap), both with regard to how they are applied and in where (whether war has been declared or not), has let the US govt use them to circumvent the rules of war, such as they are.

If you’re talking about drones vs indiscriminate bombing, the latter requires a declaration of war, so are we going to declare war in Yemen& Pakistan? Will Obama seek Congressional authorization for those things? Then maybe the media will start to cover them at least…

35

Barry Freed 12.21.12 at 3:30 pm

Air power is a crappy way to fight guerillas, and that was true when it was F-16s dropping JDAMS and it’s true now it’s Predators shooting Hellfire missiles.

I’m not so sure about this. I think that when combined with (good) human intelligence on the ground, their ability to surveil potential targets for days on end before striking may be proving to be a game changer. And then there’s the development of algorithms which target behavioral patterns – which probably don’t nearly work as well as advertised.

One thing I’m sure of: the double-tap drone strike is a war crime.

36

Ian S. 12.21.12 at 3:45 pm

Question: Are Pakistani and Yemeni children being used as human shields? Or are the killings tragic blunders, or maybe the result of faulty intelligence?

37

Alex 12.21.12 at 3:51 pm

The concern here is that psychopathy (etc.) will be more, not less, prevalant in the small cadre of people who give orders to the large armies of killer robots.

It’s the other way round; an MQ-8 has a remote crew of five. two pilots, two sensor-operators, plus one slot for an intelligence analyst/army liaison/ELINT specialist/linguist/whoever is needed for that particular mission.

38

rea 12.21.12 at 3:54 pm

Drones provide the seductive option of targeted killing

Which beats the hell out of untargeted killing, and begs the question of whether we ought to be killing at all.

It is unique that American “soldiers” are dealing out death from a completely safe position.

It’s hard not to respond to this with strong language. War is not a game–the morality of war does not depend on giving the other side a fair chance of killing us. Chivalry is for upper class twits.

39

Jim 12.21.12 at 3:59 pm

“Using drones is wrong because is only leaves the option of killing people whom you could just as well arrest and try for their crimes (if they really did commit any), and they cannot take surrender.”

How would people be arrested in the majority of situations a drone strike is employed?

40

ponce 12.21.12 at 4:00 pm

@35

Who’s talking about chivalry?

The disconnect from the battlefield turns drone operaters into amoral zombies working in a death factory.

41

SusanC 12.21.12 at 4:00 pm

Ban ‘Killer Robots’ Before It’s Too Late , for example, is focussed on the use of autonomous robots as a mean of warfare, rather than the merits of any particular conflict. The Greenwald article cited in the original post touches a little on the possibly bad effects of this particular means of warfare (esp it’s video-game like nature), but I took it that Greenwald is mainly against the particular conflict in Pakistan etc. (which happens to use drones), rather than drone warfare as such. I think he’s on more solid ground than the arguments against robotic warfare in general.

42

rf 12.21.12 at 4:09 pm

Charli Carpenter has written a bit on this, including the “Ban ‘Killer Robots’” HRW report, here

http://www.whiteoliphaunt.com/duckofminerva/2012/11/global-civil-society-targets-killer-robots.html

for anyone who’s interested

43

rea 12.21.12 at 4:11 pm

the double-tap drone strike is a war crime.

That sort of thing has never been regarded as a war crime on the battlefield. It only becomes problematic when you mix civilians in with enemy combatants–and even then it has to be a balancing test. The presence of armed survivors among civilians and first responders can in some circumtances make a second strike justifiable.

44

rea 12.21.12 at 4:13 pm

“The disconnect from the battlefield turns drone operaters into amoral zombies working in a death factory.”

No, war turns combatants into amoral zombies working in a death factory.

45

Consumatopia 12.21.12 at 4:14 pm

I understand that there’s a lot of stuff not to like about the way we fight war in Pakistan–any place and any time in the country can instantly become a battlefield, and anyone can instantly become collateral damage. And I see that drones are a convenient symbol for what’s gone wrong–they’re the device that makes omnipresent war so convenient for us, and they’re creepy in a sci-fi way.

But I think it’s a mistake to use them as a political rallying point. Once you’ve admitted that there is some military attack you would support, and you have a way to carry that attack out without putting your own countrymen at risk, it’s hard to avoid doing it that way. Perhaps it would make more sense to argue for additional procedural protections for civilians in war zones? Or better enforcement mechanisms for already existing ones?

Unfortunately, I don’t think there will ever be some Newtown-like scenario in Pakistan that makes Americans demand those procedures be changed. I wouldn’t rule out that there could be some cultural shift in some faction or another in America that changes the politics of the issue (e.g. evangelicals and prison reform http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/novemberdecember_2012/features/the_conservative_war_on_prison041104.php ). It’s also possible that if there’s an international consensus against the way we fight war maybe we could be pressured in to changing if that consensus is strong enough (though by “strong enough”, I don’t mean that the consensus is broadly felt, but strongly felt, that other countries are willing to apply trade sanctions or provide aid to our targets if we don’t reform).

But there won’t be a Newtown-like event because we already had a traumatic event in which our leaders promised to do something in the face of a seemingly intractable problem. “And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!” That’s where the drones came from in the first place. And I think that’s been the guiding logic of Obama’s foreign policy–to do whatever is necessary to avoid blame for any future attack. (It’s possible that our drones might infuriate so many Pakistanis and Muslims that terrorism will become more likely, but that’s not a factor because Americans aren’t likely to blame Obama for that. On the other hand, if Obama ended assassinations and we got attacked, he would be blamed.)

46

ponce 12.21.12 at 4:17 pm

@40

I don’t think so.

The risk of in the field combatants getting shot back at puts a natural damper on the gung ho, who cares if we’re killing kids let’s go! attitude that cocooned drone operators exhibit.

47

mpowell 12.21.12 at 4:22 pm

Shining Raven @19:

I’m not very happy with what the US gov is doing in Afghanistan these days, but your characterization of the typical drone target is wildly misguided, in my opinion. We can debate whether they are more properly described as assassination attempts or strikes at dispersed rebel groups hiding amonst civilian populations, but one thing is quite clear: police action is not even remotely an option in the vast majority of these cases. The targets are disporportionality located in remote areas where the prevailing government has no practical control. I would completely agree with you that if arrest were a plausible alternative, employing drone strikes instead would be horribly wrong. But that’s not what’s happening here and claiming otherwise is probably not going to persuade anyone who does not already oppose the strikes.

48

Consumatopia 12.21.12 at 4:30 pm

Which beats the hell out of untargeted killing, and begs the question of whether we ought to be killing at all.

That’s precisely the problem–whether you ought to be killing at all in a particular instance is the most important question. Not all possible instances or the entire war, but whether the particular attack you have in mind is worth carrying out. Drones make it too easy to breeze through that question without spending enough time on it.

It’s hard not to respond to this with strong language.

Sanctimony from people like you is hilarious.

49

Stephen 12.21.12 at 4:36 pm

ponce @42
“The risk of in the field combatants getting shot back at puts a natural damper on the gung ho, who cares if we’re killing kids let’s go! attitude”.

Not sure about that. Surely the experience of being shot at (not enjoyable, I assure you) might just as well inflame the “they’re trying to kill me, let’s kill them all first and who cares if we kill kids as well” attitude?

50

rea 12.21.12 at 4:43 pm

Ponce @ 42–what you are saying is that the war in Afghanistan would be more moral if our side’s casualty rates were higher. With all respect, that’s nonsense, and worse than nonsense.

51

ponce 12.21.12 at 4:43 pm

@45

Here’s a fairly typical transcipt of a drone strike that killed children:

http://documents.latimes.com/transcript-of-drone-attack/#document/p15/a13955

Be sure to scroll to page 15 to see the yellow highlighted section where the drone pilot starts freaking out when “sensor” says he thinks he sees kids in the truck they’re about to incinerate.

52

rea 12.21.12 at 4:49 pm

“Sanctimony from people like you is hilarious.”

People like me? WTF? My position, as I have indicated more than once in this thread, is that we ought to get out of Afghanistan ASAP. It’s not that tactics that are objectionable–it’s the fact that we are killing people to no sensible purpose, and for no discerable reason at this point other than that it would be politically costly to stop.

53

Stephen 12.21.12 at 5:00 pm

Ponce @47:
Sure. Now put that bastard behind a machinegun, somebody hostile starts shooting at him, do you think he would freak out less?

Your initial position, if I may remind you, was that being shot at – or the threat of it – puts a damper on kill-them-all aggression.

54

Matt 12.21.12 at 5:00 pm

spread of concealed carry and stand your ground

For what it’s worth, in the US the federal government has very limited ability to control things like this (especially the later). Not none, but the methods that can be used are indirect and likely to have limited impact, and because of the often reasonably thought to not be worth the political capital. These laws are state law. (Most criminal law in the US is state law, and though federal criminal law has grown greatly in the last 20 years or so, this is mostly via mirroring state law in various ways, not supplanting it.) I tend to think this is less than ideal, though with a very large and diverse country like the US, it’s also not so clear that more centralized decision making on things like this would be right, either. But, to understand issues about law in the US, perhaps especially criminal law, you have to know how the split between state and federal law works, and how this shows that the Obama administration could do very little, if anything, about these particular issues.

55

Consumatopia 12.21.12 at 5:04 pm

Yeah, people like you. You’ve been singing the praises of drones for multiple threads. Both the tactics and the war are objectionable (indeed, it is the tactic which enables the war), and threats of “strong language”, as if you’re our moral superior, are a joke. If the availability of a tactic makes us more likely to kill, that’s a serious problem. Quit trying to explain it away.

56

ponce 12.21.12 at 5:11 pm

@49

I doubt the machine gun operator would carry his weapon over hundreds of miles of rugged terrain just so he could ambush a convoy of civilians.

And also, civilians in the precense of combat troops have a chance to move away from the troops and any potential targets. Innocent drone victims don’t have that chance.

57

Stephen 12.21.12 at 5:22 pm

Shining Raven @19

“Basically every modern state before (Germany against the Red Army Faction, the UK against the IRA, Spain/France against ETA, …. ) has denied terrorists the status as soldiers, has treated terrorism not as a military, but as a criminal matter, and has treated counterterrorism as a police matter, not as warfare.”

Well, for some values of “police matters”, yes. Consider the police actions that ended the criminal careers of Billy the Kid, Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Percy Toplis, Jacques Mesrine … are these morally distinguishable from successful, well-targeted drone strikes?

58

rea 12.21.12 at 5:34 pm

Whereas you, Consumatopia, seem to find a “kinder, gentler” war more acceptable. You’re less offended by shooting up a gang of 17-year olds with AK-47s up in the hills somewhere than by blowing up the evil SOBs who sent them there. You are, however, offended by tactics that make getting people on our own side killed less likely.

War is horrible, which is why we should try to avoid fighting wars.

59

Stephen 12.21.12 at 5:40 pm

Ponce @52

Your first point is, as I am sure you realise, irrelevant to your original argument.

It is also fallacious: in the LA Times article you cited, ground forces had moved very clse to the area of the air strike, by walking a few miles after being inserted from helicopters.

It is also ridiculously biased: the drone operator did not do what he did “just so he could ambush a convoy of civilians”. Unless you are trying to argue the drone had been sent there with the specific intention of attacking a convoy of civilians, and the operator knew what he was doing. Surely not even you can believe that?

And when you write “civilians in the precense of combat troops have a chance to move away from the troops and any potential targets”: well, sometimes they can and sometimes they can’t. Consider the IRA’s attack on Loughgall police station, where they fell into an SAS ambush: two civilians going to work drove into the ambush, and one was killed; all very regrettable. Does that make Loughgall a war crime?

60

Stephen 12.21.12 at 5:45 pm

Rea: War is horrible, which is why we should always avoid fighting wars that are unjust and unnecessary, and do everything we can to win those that are just and necessary.

Opinions as to justice and necessity will of course vary.

61

ponce 12.21.12 at 5:49 pm

Stephen @55,

Did you read the transcript?

The drone pilot is swearing because someone said there were kids near his target, bringing up the possibility he might not get to shoot at it.

If you read the whole thing, you can hear him complaining that he might lose his kill to a rival drone operator and complaining his shift might be over before permission to slaughter the convoy of civilians is given.

62

Stephen 12.21.12 at 6:51 pm

Ponce@65

Yes, I did read the transcript. Please could you indicate which part deals with a request to slaughter a convoy of civilians (as distinct from a request to slaughter a convoy believed, entirely wrongly, to consist of enemy)?

And when you have done that, could you answer my original question?

63

temp 12.21.12 at 7:09 pm

” By contrast, Newtown showed that the apparent pro-gun consensus was if not illusory, at least fragile.”

Can you say what evidence makes you think this? Nothing about the reaction to Newtown suggests to me that the power of the pro-gun side has weakened.

64

Steve S. 12.21.12 at 7:10 pm

“The hopeful reading of this is that public opinion about drones could change just as radically, if public understanding improved. At the moment, it’s hard to see that happening without some truly horrible shock, like a drone wiping out a primary school.”

In Pakistan? Why would that make a difference? Now, if you were to establish a primary school of cute, white, suburban children in Pakistan and massacre them with a drone you might get somewhere.

65

Consumatopia 12.21.12 at 9:18 pm

You’re less offended by shooting up a gang of 17-year olds with AK-47s up in the hills somewhere than by blowing up the evil SOBs who sent them there.

Yeah, real sincere opponent of the war here. Like I said, your sanctimony is hilarious.

You are, however, offended by tactics that make getting people on our own side killed less likely.

No. Think harder. I’m offended by tactics that make war more likely, that will be used more frequently, that make it institutionally harder to avoid wars.

Here is something guns and drones do have in common. As Mark Kleiman said about guns a few days ago, emphasis added:

Sandy Hook reminds us that we have about five times the murder rate of any other advanced country, and that most but not all of the difference is guns, and in particular concealable guns. That’s partly because a bullet wound is statistically more lethal than a knife wound (and more likely to inflict permanent serious injury even if the victim survives) and partly because a gun is the perfect wimp’s weapon, requiring no strength, skill, or physical courage and allowing both physical distance and psychological disconnect between killer and victim.

66

LFC 12.21.12 at 9:31 pm

SR819 @28:
Moreover, the Indian government keeps badgering the Pakistan government about information regarding 26/11 (even though there is no evidence that the government had anything at all to do with it) and this diverts crucial resources away from fighting the Taliban in tribal areas.

This is complete and utter bullshit. (1) The Pakistan govt does have something to do w the Mumbai attack if only b/c it tolerated the presence on its soil of the group that carried out the attack (and the responsibility may go beyond that, in re ISI assistance to the group). (2) The notion that India’s “badgering” w/r/t the Mumbai attacks diverts resources from Pakistan’s fight vs either the Afghan or Pakistan Taliban is preposterous on its face. The ISI and the Pakistan army do what they want, when they want in that regard for reasons that have nothing to do w India’s “badgering”.

I used to write a certain amount about Pakistan and Afghanistan on my blog, not as an expert, just as someone w a background in IR who was following the situation off and on through the newspapers etc. A while ago I pretty much stopped blogging about this subject. (It made little difference, given the small readership, and there were and are much more expert sources of commentary available.) But when I see nonsense like this being purveyed on a site like CT, which a lot of people read, I find it quite disturbing.

67

yenwoda 12.21.12 at 9:33 pm

@ponce #47, “Here’s a fairly typical transcipt of a drone strike that killed children:”

It may be “fairly typical”, but it’s not a transcript of a “drone strike”.

68

chrismealy 12.21.12 at 9:33 pm

Is Greenwald antigun? He’s a libertarian, right?

69

ponce 12.21.12 at 10:09 pm

@62

Stepehen,

The drone pilot was informed there were children in the convoy and still begged for permission to shoot.

As for your original question, a soldier under fire who accidently shoots at a civilian isn’t close to being the same thing as a fat arsed drone operator deliberately shooting at children.

70

Kaveh 12.21.12 at 10:43 pm

rea @58 War is horrible, which is why we should try to avoid fighting wars.

Do, or do not. There is no try.

Steven @57 Consider the police actions that ended the criminal careers of Billy the Kid, Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Percy Toplis, Jacques Mesrine … are these morally distinguishable from successful, well-targeted drone strikes?

Yes, the overall policy is morally distinguishable. Did the police just machine-gun anybody suspected of being in Al Capone’s gang? I’m guessing the answer is no, because they cared about what would happen to Chicago if the police were to just start machine-gunning at suspects anywhere, at any time, with little regard for innocent victims. That kind of “policing” would be unpopular. They don’t care how popular the drone strikes are in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Yemen, though. I think Consumatopia @45 has it right about how Obama thinks his policies have CYA value, even if they actually make attacks on the US more likely.

71

Salient 12.21.12 at 10:46 pm

Is the argument that it is morally OK for a US soldier to shoot up a school full of children, provided they do it in person, but not OK to use a drone to do it?

But the argument is that we shouldn’t distinguish between soldier attacks and drone attacks. Currently people do distinguish, in a major way (for some definition of ‘people’ that I’m too lazy to tease out).

Consider: US soldiers storm a funeral and gun down a couple dozen attendees? Obviously unacceptable, something people would take as grounds for a military tribunal; people would expect the military to disavow the act. Drones swarm in and kill a couple dozen funeral attendees? Nothing to get riled up about; in fact, people openly celebrate it as a success!

That distinction is insane and horrifying, and we need to push back against it.

72

faustusnotes 12.22.12 at 12:08 am

Yesterday the Guardian reported the UK government settled with Iraqi prisoners for 14 million pounds, in respect of 400 incidents of illegal imprisonment and/or torture by its troops. I think that shows that close contact with the enemy doesn’t necessarily lead to improvements in moral rectitude. Similarly, a US soldier recently admitted that soldiers in Afghanistan are targeting children (in the same week as the Newtown massacre).

On the other hand, ponce links to a transcript of a drone attack in which the person with the gun actually has the time and luxury to argue about whether his target is legitimate before he strikes. I can’t see this happening to the same extent either on the ground or in a standard air attack.

The problem here is not the technology, but the targeting policies and morality of the people using it.

73

Hidari 12.22.12 at 9:35 am

I notice that without any exceptions all the commentators on this thread have assumed that drones are something that “we” use against “them” far away.

Get with the program guys.

“An unclassified US air force document reported by CBS (pdf) news expands on this unprecedented and unconstitutional step – one that formally brings the military into the role of controlling domestic populations on US soil, which is the bright line that separates a democracy from a military oligarchy. (The US constitution allows for the deployment of National Guard units by governors, who are answerable to the people; but this system is intended, as is posse comitatus, to prevent the military from taking action aimed at US citizens domestically.)

The air force document explains that the air force will be overseeing the deployment> of its own military surveillance drones within the borders of the US; that it may keep video and other data it collects with these drones for 90 days without a warrant – and will then, retroactively, determine if the material can be retained – which does away for good with the fourth amendment in these cases. While the drones are not supposed to specifically “conduct non-consensual surveillance on on specifically identified US persons”, according to the document, the wording allows for domestic military surveillance of non-“specifically identified” people (that is, a group of activists or protesters) and it comes with the important caveat, also seemingly wholly unconstitutional, that it may not target individuals “unless expressly approved by the secretary of Defense”. >

In other words, the Pentagon can now send a domestic drone to hover outside your apartment window, collecting footage of you and your family, if the secretary of Defense approves it. Or it may track you and your friends and pick up audio of your conversations, on your way, say, to protest or vote or talk to your representative, if you are not “specifically identified”, a determination that is so vague as to be meaningless.

What happens to those images, that audio? “Distribution of domestic imagery” can go to various other government agencies without your consent, and that imagery can, in that case, be distributed to various government agencies; it may also include your most private moments and most personal activities. The authorized “collected information may incidentally include US persons or private property without consent”. Jennifer Lynch of the Electronic Frontier Foundation told CBS:

“In some records that were released by the air force recently … under their rules, they are allowed to fly drones in public areas and record information on domestic situations.”

This document accompanies a major federal push for drone deployment this year in the United States, accompanied by federal policies to encourage law enforcement agencies to obtain and use them locally, as well as by federal support for their commercial deployment. That is to say: now HSBC, Chase, Halliburton etc can have their very own fleets of domestic surveillance drones. The FAA recently established a more efficient process for local police departments to get permits for their own squadrons of drones.

Given the Department of Homeland Security militarization of police departments, once the circle is completed with San Francisco or New York or Chicago local cops having their own drone fleet – and with Chase, HSBC and other banks having hired local police, as I reported here last week – the meshing of military, domestic law enforcement, and commercial interests is absolute. You don’t need a messy, distressing declaration of martial law.

And drone fleets owned by private corporations means that a first amendment right of assembly is now over: if Occupy is massing outside of a bank, send the drone fleet to surveil, track and harass them. If citizens rally outside the local Capitol? Same thing. As one of my readers put it, the scary thing about this new arrangement is deniability: bad things done to citizens by drones can be denied by private interests – “Oh, that must have been an LAPD drone” – and LAPD can insist that it must have been a private industry drone. For where, of course, will be the accountability from citizens buzzed or worse by these things? “

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/21/coming-drone-attack-america

74

Stephen 12.22.12 at 2:01 pm

kaveh@72

I wasn’t asking about overall policy (and I have a low opinion of overall US policy in Iraq or Afghanistan). I wasn’t suggesting that the US police went, or should have gone around in Chicago machine-gunning suspected gangsters while ignoring the risk to innocent victims.

What I was asking, in response to a post that suggested the way to deal with terrorists was police action against criminals rather than military action against enemies, was this:

Given that successful, even applauded police actions have taken the form “locate, identify, kill”, how are such killings morally distinguishable from well-targeted, selective drone strikes that kill only the enemy?

Agreed, many drone strikes are not nearly selective enough. But then, some police actions hit innocent victims too.

75

pluege 12.22.12 at 2:12 pm

Americans will never equate the horrors of obama’s Drone War to gun proliferation or even am “accidental” drone massacre of Americans. The Drone War is against non-American children and in the eyes of most Americans those children don’t even count as people. So while some Americans will espouse some tisk tisk at the shame of the necessary carnage, very few will feel anything other than that its a good thing to have less of “them” in the world.

76

Stephen 12.22.12 at 2:14 pm

ponce@69

I don’t think you understood my original question. You said something to the effect that since drone operators are not under fire themselves, that makes them more likely to think “who cares if we’re killing kids?”. I asked whether being shot at will not make ground troops think “they’re trying to kill us, let’s kill everyone over there first, and who cares if we’re killing kids as well?”.

You replies have been smokescreens and evasions – and I really don’t think the relative sizes of American soldiers’ arses has anything to do with the subject.

77

Stephen 12.22.12 at 2:19 pm

Hidari@73

How is the use of surveillance drones over US soil different, in principle, from the well-established use of surveillance helicopters?

I realise that the differences are, in practice, that drones are much cheaper and less readily detectable, and so likely to be more effective. But in principle?

78

Consumatopia 12.22.12 at 2:57 pm

In principle, differences in practice matters. Cheaper drones mean more surveillance and less accountability, which means less privacy for us and less transparency for the government. Even if they are used in compliance with existing laws (which is arguable), technology changes the context of those laws. New laws should be written that offer more protection.

79

purple 12.22.12 at 3:30 pm

Americans don’t care one ounce about the kids in Pakistan. And honestly, beyond a week of sensationalism, Newtown will also fade quickly.

We’re not an empathetic or nice group of people.

And many tens of millions will trundle off and cheer torture scenes in the upcoming Bin Laden blockbuster. And probably take their kids along.

80

purple 12.22.12 at 3:35 pm

It will be interesting to see what the mighty U.S. does against an enemy that can actually fight back. China, say.

I think we know the answer to that.

81

Kaveh 12.22.12 at 4:42 pm

Stephen @74, I mean, yes, if you want to look at the use of drones without taking into account the policy, and how the availability of drones affects policy, then yes, police actions do sometimes kill civilians and in that respect extreme police actions are not much different from drone attacks. Although I’ve never even heard of a police action that killed dozens of bystanders to kill one target, and I’m sure police actions of this kind are very rare–are any of the examples you gave from within the last 50 years? They sound like they’re all from the Prohibition era, give or take. Are today’s gangsters made of lesser stuff? And you say ‘what if infantry were in the same position, getting shot at, and had to make the decision whether to do something that would harm civilians’. Who says they’re getting shot at? Would a funeral or wedding procession shoot at US soldiers? But some combination of drone operators+military leadership+media+public is happy to assume that a big group of Pashtuns traveling through the mountains armed *might* be “terrorists”, and the fact that they didn’t shoot at anybody is irrelevant because they never had a chance to shoot in the first place because the US is using drones, not infantry. So gunning down a cafeteria full of people to kill a suspected militant every couple of weeks is perfectly okay. Only it’s Pashtuns riding mules in the mountains, not an actual cafeteria. And I guess that sounds more exotic and makes legendary battles with Prohibition-era gangsters (as opposed to shooting up a shopping mall food court because some Zetas are in there) the appropriate comparison. This use of practically mythical, cartoony and quaint depression-era examples is really telling.

You make all of these assumptions, and then ask, ‘what’s the difference between a drone strike and an attack on a gangster by police with machine guns?’–it’s a meaningless comparison that avoids most of the real issues people are talking about.

82

LFC 12.22.12 at 5:17 pm

purple @79

Americans don’t care one ounce about the kids in Pakistan. And honestly, beyond a week of sensationalism, Newtown will also fade quickly. We’re not an empathetic or nice group of people.

Only in the comment threads of a leading serious blog like Crooked Timber could one hope to find such insightful, nuanced social analysis, such reluctance to generalize about the inhabitants of a country of more than 300 million people.

83

Salient 12.22.12 at 5:57 pm

I asked whether being shot at will not make ground troops think “they’re trying to kill us, let’s kill everyone over there first, and who cares if we’re killing kids as well?”

People get personally, intimately upset when they find out soldiers have committed a particular massacre. People don’t get nearly so personally, intimately upset when they find out drones have committed an equivalent massacre. I think that might be because on an emotional resonance level, we understand that soldiers use guns and robots use bombs–in the former case, the soldiers presumably have to target civilians in order to kill them; in the latter case, everyone knows a bomb can unintentionally damage people who are not targets. So there’s an intuitive feeling of intention in the former case but not in the latter. (There’s plenty of ways to reasonably disagree with this hypothesis, but I believe it’s true, and it’s that belief that makes me especially hostile to drone warfare.)

How is the use of surveillance drones over US soil different, in principle, from the well-established use of surveillance helicopters?

Well-established? Whaaaa? We make fun of people who believe surveillance helicopters would ever conceivably fly in to harass them or their community. That’s, like, about as far to the opposite of well-established as you can get.

84

Stephen 12.22.12 at 6:10 pm

kaveh@81

Very patiently: I did not say anything at all that compared drone strikes to”a police action that killed dozens of bystanders to kill one target”. I am not aware that there ever have been such police actions, and if there were I would condemn them as thoroughly a I condemn wildly indiscriminate drone strikes. You do realise that I am against such indiscriminate drone strikes, don’t you?

Are any of the examples I gave from within the last 50 years? Jacques Mesrine, died at hands of French police, 2 Nov 1979. Loughgall ambush of eight IRA volunteers, 8 May 1987. There are other recent examples.

Who says [ground troops] are getting shot at? Ponce@46, that’s who. “The risk of in the field combatants getting shot back at puts a natural damper on the gung ho, who cares if we’re killing kids let’s go! attitude”. I was pointing out that soldiers being shot at may well find their attitude becoming “they’re trying to kill us, let’s kill all of the bastards, who cares who we’re killing”. Wouldn’t you agree?

“So gunning down a cafeteria full of people to kill a suspected militant every couple of weeks is perfectly okay. Only it’s Pashtuns riding mules in the mountains, not an actual cafeteria. ” Now you’re off into wild fantasy. Please quote anything I have posted that says anything of the sort. Or, if you have any claims to self-respect, apologise.

“You make all of these assumptions, and then ask, ‘what’s the difference between a drone strike and an attack on a gangster by police with machine guns?’–it’s a meaningless comparison that avoids most of the real issues people are talking about”.

I never asked that mindless question, which is a figment of your brain. I was responding to one of the real issues someone was talking about here: whether police action, rather than military, might not be the appropriate response to terrorism. I was asking what is the moral difference between an accurate, selective drone strike on terrorists and an accurate, selective police action to kill gangsters. I have not had a relevant reply.

But it probably needs stressing: it is the wild inaccuracy of some drone strikes (and air and helicopter strikes) that I find intolerable, not that it’s drones (or aircraft or helicopters) being used.

85

Harold 12.22.12 at 6:35 pm

Kaveh @81:
“yes, police actions do sometimes kill civilians and in that respect extreme police actions are not much different from drone attacks. Although I’ve never even heard of a police action that killed dozens of bystanders to kill one target, and I’m sure police actions of this kind are very rare–are any of the examples you gave from within the last 50 years? They sound like they’re all from the Prohibition era, give or take. Are today’s gangsters made of lesser stuff?”

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4651110

“20 years ago in Philadelphia, … city police dropped a bomb on the headquarters of MOVE — a radical, armed revolutionary group. Eleven people died in the house, and the resulting fire destroyed 61 neighborhood homes.”
***
“Ten thousand bullets were fired by police into the MOVE house during a one-sided shootout. After a lull of 10 hours, the mayor OK’d a police plan to drop a bomb on the roof of the MOVE house to destroy the sniper bunker. The bomb, containing C4 military explosive, was dropped from a helicopter at 5:27 PM.

The explosion failed to damage the bunker, but started a fire which was allowed to burn. Philadelphia firefighters were ordered by police not to fight the blaze for a full hour. By midnight, nothing but ashes remained of an entire city block. Sixty-one homes and the lifelong possessions of 250 Philadelphia residents were consumed in a biblical tower of flame. Eleven MOVE members died, including five children under the age of 13.

A stunned city awoke the next morning, shocked and bewildered by the enormity of the mistakes made by the mayor and the police. Five children had burned alive, a city block destroyed. And yet no one in authority got in trouble for it. After a special MOVE commission investigation and a grand jury, no one was charged with wrongdoing, no one lost a job or was docked a day’s pay. The mayor was re-elected. When it came to outrage, Philadelphia shrugged.”

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John Quiggin 12.22.12 at 6:40 pm

A lot of the discussion seems to presume that drones are being used only in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Leaving aside their possible domestic deployment they are also being used in Iraq, Yemen and Somalia (at least so it is reported – all of these programs are secret).

87

Kaveh 12.22.12 at 8:10 pm

Stephen: Very patiently: I did not say anything at all that compared drone strikes to”a police action that killed dozens of bystanders to kill one target”.

You asked this: Well, for some values of “police matters”, yes. Consider the police actions that ended the criminal careers of Billy the Kid, Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Percy Toplis, Jacques Mesrine … are these morally distinguishable from successful, well-targeted drone strikes?

Specifying “successful, well-targeted drone strikes” begs the question of whether any use of military drones could be limited to successful, well-targeted strikes. We’re not drone operators, we don’t have any direct control over how individual strikes are carried out. All we can (even potentially) affect is policy. If a policy that guarantees mostly successful, well-targeted strikes isn’t possible, then they are a red herring. So yes, let’s say they’re morally the same. I don’t see what that changes.

Who says [ground troops] are getting shot at? Ponce@46, that’s who. “The risk of in the field combatants getting shot back at puts a natural damper on the gung ho, who cares if we’re killing kids let’s go! attitude”. I was pointing out that soldiers being shot at may well find their attitude becoming “they’re trying to kill us, let’s kill all of the bastards, who cares who we’re killing”. Wouldn’t you agree?

Sure, but if you’ve accepted the premise that they are getting shot at, that ignores one big reason why a military using drones is actually worse than one that occupies with soldiers. We should, as Salient said, hold actions performed with drones to the same standard as actions involving infantry, because the civilian lives are worth the same either way, rather than treating them far more leniently b/c soldiers aren’t physically present.

“So gunning down a cafeteria full of people to kill a suspected militant every couple of weeks is perfectly okay. Only it’s Pashtuns riding mules in the mountains, not an actual cafeteria. ”

This was not meant to describe you, but the portion of the public+govt+media that manage/support the policies. I should have been more clear about that.

John & Harold, domestic police action and drone strikes aren’t killing even hundreds of people a year. If Americans are killed by police action, even with all the entrenched injustices of the US criminal justice system, their families and communities have legal recourse that Afghans and Pakistanis don’t have. As bad as police action in the US is for certain communities & populations, I don’t think it’s as lawless or indiscriminately violent as the US use of drones even in Yemen. The thing that happened in Philadelphia does not commonly happen, you can all point to a handful of examples from the past 40 years, out of the whole of Europe and the US, but this is going on at a vastly higher rate in Afghanistan & elsewhere.

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hix 12.22.12 at 8:47 pm

Drones that by accident only hit the major target as opposed to an entire wedding party as usually, are in no way acceptable either. First because every alleged criminal deserves a trial and second because it is up to those countries where those people live if they agree to extradition. To make things worse, the decission should be no considering that once someone screams terrorist, foreigners usually get no trial. Instead they are locked away and tortured indefinitly without anyone bothering to proof they actually are terrorists.

89

Salient 12.22.12 at 8:52 pm

I was asking what is the moral difference between an accurate, selective drone strike on terrorists and an accurate, selective police action to kill gangsters.

Dude, you’re crazy (I’m being charitable; the alternative is that you’re asinine).

Last time I checked, police apprehend people. Taking action with intent to kill, rather than apprehend, is not a police action. This is a matter of, like, … nevermind, you can’t possibly honestly believe that foreplanned assassination is a police action, can you? Why do people like you drop in, only to be fundamentally disingenuous? What’s your motive?

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James Wimberley 12.22.12 at 8:52 pm

On the media and public attitudes, cf #3, 63, an interesting datum. Murdoch’s New York paper tabloids have given Wayne LaPierre’s performance the other day the full Sun treatment.
Has the managerial split in News Corp. led to a divergence in editorial policy between the broadcast and paper wings? Or is Rupert Murdoch still in hands-on charge of both and just hedging his bets?

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Andrew F. 12.23.12 at 1:05 am

What widespread consensus that air strikes in Pakistan (or elsewhere) are counterproductive? There is a recent – heavily flawed – Stanford/NYU paper focused on Pakistan – and lots of debate. Perhaps greater transparency about the air strikes (should it ever come) will result in a consensus one way or the other, but currently I simply don’t see any consensus other than that within the US government, which is in favor of the campaign. Maybe I’m missing something though. Wouldn’t be the first time.

On the more general subject of whether killing or capturing leaders within terrorist or other organizations is an effective means of degrading the capabilities of that organization, my understanding is that the view that this is, in general, not the most effective means has greater support, though again there is plenty of legitimate controversy (not simply journalistic team A says, team B says, nonsense). See for example here for a favorable view of the strategy, and here for a negative view. But it’s not easy, imho, to confidently extend that debate to a specific case where data is sparse.

More to the subject of Newtown, there is a US reaction against criminal violence – not against all violence. Indeed the air strikes themselves are part of a continuing US reaction to certain acts of violence. Most Americans aren’t pacifists, and most support the air strikes. Most will not react to an analogy between Lanza in Newtown and the US in Pakistan with sympathy.

As to the controversy in the comments regarding unmanned air strikes versus manned air strikes versus assaults with ground forces… I don’t think this is fruitful. If we’re talking about the US efforts to kill so called “high value targets”, then the targeting decisions aren’t being made by anyone physically pulling the final trigger. Neither the UAV pilots nor the F-16 pilots are going to decide. So whether UAVs disconnect the killer from the killing is beside the point.

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Peter T 12.23.12 at 1:57 am

Is the campaign against al-Quaida a matter of law enforcement or war? It makes a difference. War is about a contest between groups of people about their relative power (the specific issues are contested because the sides disagree about their ability to impose their preferences or resist that imposition). There are no innocents or guilty persons (other then members of neutral groups) in two senses – first that everyone in the group will gain or or lose by the outcome, and second that there is no agreed authority to which to appeal. Because wars are about groups, not individuals, people do lots of things that make no sense at the level of individual calculation (like scratching “tell them we did not surrender” on the cellar wall with your bayonet, and then directing artillery fire on your own position, as one Russian unit did at Stalingrad). Or, as here, rushing a person with a gun. It’s not about your aims, it’s about the aims of the group.

And to amplify, the Roman housewife, surveying with satisfaction the family’s spear-won acres in the new colonia and rejoicing in the freedom from domestic labour that the new slave gives her, is not, in any readily-parseable individual moral sense, an innocent. The laws of war are there by mostly tacit agreement to limit the damage done in any single contest, in recognition that those who are up today could well be down tomorrow..

This makes it repellent to the liberal individual mind, and properly so. But still to be understood in its own terms if you want to make sense of history.

BUT – a contest about relative power whose tactics preclude a negotiated outcome is both dangerous and futile. Dangerous because it’s open-ended and, unless the mismatch of power is very great, gives hostages to turns of fortune. It also breeds a level of violent frustration in the subjects and any sympathetic onlookers – the message is that they are “as flies to wanton boys”. For the results, see Khmer Rouge, intifada, the current crop of ghazis across the Muslim world.

Law enforcement is, of course, all about conformity to rules and principles – you don’t negotiate with criminals, you arrest and try them.

Drones (and air power unaccompanied by other means) fall between the two. The US seems uninterested in negotiating an outcome, yet also uninterested in acting in accord with proclaimed principles. It wants, in other words, to conduct a law enforcement campaign as if it were a war – but without also acknowledging the practical constraints that limit and end wars. This can only end badly.

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sherparick 12.23.12 at 3:30 am

About Obama’s “leading from behind” style, it is one that has been shared by a remarkable number of successful politicians and leaders. Although I thought this quote originally came from a a 19th century French politician, the Interent attributes it to Gandhi.

“There goes my people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.” http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/84976-there-goes-my-people-i-must-follow-them-for-i

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Salient 12.23.12 at 3:45 am

Most Americans aren’t pacifists, and most support the air strikes. Most will not react to an analogy between Lanza in Newtown and the US in Pakistan with sympathy.

I wish you were wrong, Andrew, because you’re describing a population of hideous disgusting moral monsters, but… yeah.

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mclaren 12.23.12 at 6:01 am

Ponce offers unintentional hilarity with his comment: “Horrible as the drone war is, it’s all we’ll have once we pull out of Afghanistan.”

Wake up, buckaroo. America won’t pull out of Afghanistan in 4 years, in 14 years, or in 40 years. We’re in Afghanistan to stay. America is now the nation of Forever War: they go on from presidency to presidency, never-ending, ever-increasing. War has become the health of the national security state. The Pentagon and military contractors and congresscritters are never going to let this vast river of gold run dry.

Quiggen writes: “At the moment, it’s hard to see that happening without some truly horrible shock, like a drone wiping out a primary school.”

As Naomi Wolf reports, drones are now being deployed en masse in American airspace. Calls for arming ‘em exponentiate. Just wait while, and you’ll see American elementary schools getting blown up by drone strikes acting on bad intel.

Your new 21st century American slogan: “The sound of an American elementary school burning is the sound of freedom!”

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Hidari 12.23.12 at 10:08 am

“I wish you were wrong, Andrew, because you’re describing a population of hideous disgusting moral monsters, but… yeah.”

But who is responsible for this? Are Americans just born evil? Are they uniquely wicked out of all the people in the world? Who is it that frames the debate in such a way that public approval is almost pre-ordained? Who witholds pictures of dead Pakistani children, choosing instead to concentrate on the “heroism” of “our boys” abroad? Who obfuscates the issues such that the American invasion of Iraq (and de facto invasion of Pakistan, Mali, Yemen and other places) is taken to be a completely reasonable position? Who ensures that opposing voices are not heard?

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Stephen 12.23.12 at 5:47 pm

Hidari@96: at present, the man responsible is Barack Obama, no?

or is he merely a puppet in the hands of Sinister Forces?

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Bruce Wilder 12.23.12 at 6:02 pm

Peter T @ 92

Very nicely parsed examination of why maintaining the distinction between war and the operations of the criminal law is a vital practical as well as moral political necessity.

Unfortunately, U.S. political rhetoric and popular “thinking”, with its “War on Crime” and “War on Drugs”, etc., has already gone far down the road of expedience and the addled thinking of authoritarianism.

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Stephen 12.23.12 at 6:10 pm

mcclaren@95

“As Naomi Wolf reports, drones are now being deployed en masse in American airspace. Calls for arming ‘em exponentiate. Just wait while, and you’ll see American elementary schools getting blown up by drone strikes acting on bad intel.”

Ah yes, Naomi Wolf. Author of an interesting article in the Guardian, “The coming drone attack on America” in which she argues that drones are being increasingly used within the US, that ” ‘There is a real consensus that has emerged against allowing weaponized drones domestically. The International Association of Chiefs of Police has recommended against it,’ warns Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst at the ACLU” and that _therefore_ US drones will be weaponised and used against US citizens.

Not all American fruitcakes are in the Tea Party, it seems.

Reductio ad absurdum: for some time US police agencies have been deploying increasingly large numbers of helicopters. The US armed forces use attack helicopters in combat. _Therefore_ it is only a matter of time till US schools are attacked by police Apache helicopters …

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Stephen 12.23.12 at 6:32 pm

Salient@89

My motive was to to follow up an idea expressed by Shining Raven @19:
“Basically every modern state before (Germany against the Red Army Faction, the UK against the IRA, Spain/France against ETA, …. ) has denied terrorists the status as soldiers, has treated terrorism not as a military, but as a criminal matter, and has treated counterterrorism as a police matter, not as warfare.”

If you were interested in following the argument, rather than spraying about random accusations of craziness, you could have worked that out for yourself.

My point was that, since such actions, and several police actions inside the US, involved accurate, targeted killing of highly undesirable people (and occasionally injuries to innocent bystanders), the moral distinction between that and accurate, or nearly accurate drone strikes does not seem clear.

I would welcome clarification: but all I have seen has been words to the effect that police action always means arresting people and bringing them to trial (it doesn’t), or that drone strikes aren’t accurate anyway – I quite agree, and some have been horrifyingly inaccurate – and therefore there is no point in discussing accurate drone strikes. The logic of that escapes me.

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Stephen 12.23.12 at 6:42 pm

Harold@85

Bloody hell. I’d missed those remarkable events in Philadelphia, 1985: what was I doing then? Oh yes, chronic sleep deprivation experiment, also known as children.

Thanks for the information, which I will file under “Americans: wonderful people, but are they mostly insane, or only a large minority of them?”

Would I be right in thinking that Philadelphia, in 1985 and subsequently, voted overwhelmingly Democrat?

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Salient 12.23.12 at 8:28 pm

But who is responsible for this?

Depends what you mean by ‘this’ I guess. If you mean who is responsible for public approval of barbaric/awful policies, I’d say blame all the people who devised, proposed, and implemented those policies.

My basic justification for this would be, 95%+ of the population don’t have the time and energy and inclination and resolve to seek out and contemplate all the details of their leaders’ initiatives and proposals. And no humane vision for the world should expect that of them–expecting that intense level of participation from a population, and holding them accountable to it, is ridiculous, cruel, and irresponsible. Whereas expecting that kind of intense, alert, aware, and informed participation from our political leaders is sensible, humane, and responsible. (Not to mention, the choices at our disposal don’t allow for ordinary folks to have fine-grained participation in policy-making.)

A possible exception to this assignment of responsibility would be cases where a popular uprising or unrest genuinely forced the leaders’ hands, and even then the protesting population is at most only responsible for the broadest strokes of their demands, not the details of their translation into policy.

Are Americans just born evil? Are they uniquely wicked out of all the people in the world?

No.

Who is it that frames the debate in such a way that public approval is almost pre-ordained?

Politicians who brag about their ‘bipartisan’ accomplishments, for one.

Who witholds pictures of dead Pakistani children, choosing instead to concentrate on the “heroism” of “our boys” abroad?

Geez, slow down, I can only answer so many questions at one time. I’ll go with, politicians who brag about their pro-military street cred.

Who obfuscates the issues such that the American invasion of Iraq (and de facto invasion of Pakistan, Mali, Yemen and other places) is taken to be a completely reasonable position?

I think obfuscation is a second-order effect (…and I have to admit, these questions are sounding more and more like someone trying to rhetorically dump blame on mass media for the second-order effects they generate, while eliding the first-order effects the media is endlessly breathlessly latching onto…).

Who ensures that opposing voices are not heard?

… whose opposing voices? … not heard by whom? …

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Salient 12.23.12 at 8:46 pm

several police actions inside the US, involved accurate, targeted killing of highly undesirable people

This is, at best, a completely disingenuous statement. Absolutely no police actions, inside the US or outside the US, have ever involved planned-in-advance killing of people, highly undesirable or not. This stands in stark contrast to, oh, probably every drone attack ever.

I would welcome clarification: but all I have seen has been words to the effect that police action always means arresting people and bringing them to trial (it doesn’t)

For fuuuuuck’s saaaaake, man, yes it does. There’s your clarification. Yet again. Happy?

By ‘police action’ we clearly specifically mean investigating and arresting people and bringing them to trial. All you’re doing is saying “neener neener police forces do other things sometimes SO THERE! HA! YOU NEED TO FIND A NEW PHRASE neener neener.”

What’s the point of this, insisting that we abandon the straightforward phrase ‘police action’ and forcing us to actually type out “investigating and arresting people and bringing them to trial” every single goddamn time instead of letting “police action” mean that?

Yes, sometimes a bust goes wrong or a perp gets uncontrollably violent and it’s necessary to abandon police action and use lethal force. And yes, there are atrocities committed by police officers and police departments all the time. No, those are not included in what we mean by “police action.” Those are certainly not the routine actions of law enforcement agents. You know that. You’ve known that all along. You’ve known that since we’ve had this exact same argument on previous threads.

Police action absolutely categorically does not include any planned-in-advance killing whatsoever, targeted nor untargeted. This. Is. Not. That. Hard. To. Understand. Stop being disingenuous. Telling you this over and over again only to hear (it doesn’t) is maddening. You normally have a lot more to contribute and it’s normally much more thoughtful than Humpty Dumpty.

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rf 12.23.12 at 9:47 pm

“Consider the IRA’s attack on Loughgall police station, where they fell into an SAS ambush: two civilians going to work drove into the ambush, and one was killed; all very regrettable. Does that make Loughgall a war crime?”

Just to add if I may, as I’m sure Stephen knows well, SAS operations in Northern Ireland (or FRU or any branch of army intelligence so on and so forth), were not examples of ‘police actions’, by any reasonable definition of the term.

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GB 12.24.12 at 7:21 am

When we use the term “the drone war,” it implies a much larger scale of illegality or indiscriminate targeted killings than actually exists. There have been drone strikes in six countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia. In Afghanistan and Iraq, we were at war, so the strikes should be considered the same as any other airstrike. In Libya they were part of the larger NATO mission there. In Somalia and Yemen, the U.S. government worked with the domestic governments to coordinate the strikes, since both of these governments don’t really have a monopoly on the legitimate use of force and needed our help.

So that leaves Pakistan, where we are not at war and the Pakistani government is vocally opposed to the strikes. But like many have said, this is also a government that refuses to address the problems in the FATA, where ISI and the army often work with or are complicit towards local Taliban leaders, and where the government is overall far more concerned with its military build-up against India (for which it uses our foreign aid) than actually working with the U.S. to solve its serious domestic terrorism issues. Conceptually, the drone strikes are not that different from the raid that killed Osama bin Laden — the use of force on an ally’s soil to kill an enemy who hasn’t actually been convicted of a crime. With OBL, the benefit of such action and its potential for public recognition was just much much higher than most drone strikes.

The point is that drone opponents need a more nuanced argument. Either the entire War on Terror should not be happening (and I suppose you could argue Obama should have ended it?), or opposition to drones should focus solely on the CIA’s secret program over Pakistan.

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hix 12.25.12 at 7:59 pm

First, the support of some Islamic dictatorship for drone terror is no standard a liberal democracy should consider sufficient to legitimate her actions. Second, there is no such thing as a legitimate government for the entire Yemen. The “Yemen government” that gave its ok speaks at best for the most influential northern Yemen Sunni tribes, certainly not for the Shiites or Southern Yemen. Those groups fight a more or less active civil war. No surprise some northern tribes would give their ok to drone strikes in South Yemen territory in exchange for US military support. The sad part is, if Southern Yemen were just left alone, they would be the first to throw out Al Quaida themself, since they are far more secular and less tribal than the North.

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John Quiggin 12.25.12 at 9:07 pm

@GB I agree that “drones” as used in the post and the “War on Terror” are pretty much the same thing. That is, they represent the view that the US is engaged in an essentially endless war, with the entire world as the battleground. In this context, drones are both a form of low-cost bombing, with somewhat reduced numbers of unintended casualties, and a method of assassination. This is a horrible combination.

So, yes, the inference of the post is that the War on Terror should not be happening. The US should treat terrorists as criminals as other countries have done.

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ponce 12.25.12 at 9:48 pm

I have a feeling targeted killings of enemies real and imagined using drone technology will be standard operating procedure for more countries in the very near future.

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novakant 12.26.12 at 4:54 am

The hopeful reading of this is that public opinion about drones could change just as radically, if public understanding improved. At the moment, it’s hard to see that happening without some truly horrible shock, like a drone wiping out a primary school.

I’m with you on drones and the so-called “war on terror”. But I’m wondering: don’t you think that the repeated and well documented targeting of funerals, wedding parties and first responders is “truly horrible”? I’m sure it’s just awkward phrasing but you might want to clarify.

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John Quiggin 12.26.12 at 5:55 am

@novakant As with pre-Newtown gun massacres, these things are horrible, but have clearly not been horrible enough to affect US public opinion.

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Antti Nannimus 12.27.12 at 8:12 am

Hi,

Okay, I admit I’m having a very hard time getting over the atrocity committed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. Although we are late into our usually joyful annual holiday season, this year I cannot find any spirit for celebration. Can you even imagine what grievance or insanity would cause someone to attack, mutilate, and murder so many young children? What fresh hell is this? And can you imagine what kind of country would allow this to happen repeatedly?

When the recommended solution is to further arm countless myriads of unwilling people with these awful murder weapons, including even the teachers of our youngest children, then who amongst us cannot recognize the model we are being given?

Yes, in every meaningful sense, this is a civil war.

Is this what our “founding fathers” actually intended with their “Second Amendment” and is this why our children must die? We no longer need to worry here in the U.S. about foreign terrorists killing us, because we are doing such a great job of it ourselves.

Have a nice day,
Antti

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