Illustration by Alex Cook
Right now, as you’re reading this, American remote-controlled planes are flying over mountains and deserts in the Middle East, occasionally firing missiles at people who—in the estimation of an “informed, high-level” official—are engaged in some kind of activities that might, conceivably, harm the United States. Sometimes, these missiles incinerate (as in, consume with fire until their bones and flesh are turned to ash) precisely the wrong people. Very occasionally, the missiles kill American citizens. The Obama administration is doing this without declaring war on any nation in particular, without getting the permission of Congress, and without explaining to the public in detail why it’s OK to order the death of pretty much anyone it wants to kill. Just how broad the administration believes its powers to be was revealed in a Justice Department memo obtained by Michael Isikoff of NBC. “Basically, it argues that the government has the right to carry out the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen,” Jameel Jaffer of the ACLU told Isikoff.
If you are upset about all this, you’re not alone—there are plenty of people on both the right and left who aren’t happy that the executive branch can now kill whomever it wants. Call them antiwar isolationists or civil libertarians or simply people who don’t like to see other people die for little apparent reason and with no explanation. Whatever their name, they came out in force to attack Touré, the liberal writer and talking head who went on MSNBC, the “lean forward” progressive network, to say, in essence, It’s OK for the president to order the deaths of anyone, even American citizens, even 16-year-olds, since they probably hated the USA or whatever. Those who disagree with Obama's drone policy are hardly shy about saying so.
The thing is, they're in the minority, and few people in power have paid much attention to them. Sure, most voters, according to a Fairleigh-Dickinson poll, don’t think that it’s legal to assassinate American citizens abroad (even if you’ve never heard of drones, that’s got to sound like a pretty awful prospect), but take away the “American citizen” part of that question and voters are like, “Oh, sure, kill whoever.” In fact, according to a Washington Post-ABC poll, Americans are perfectly happy with the way Obama is running the war on terror. They like the fact that he’s kept Guantanamo Bay open, even though he said he’d close it—53 percent of Democrats feel terrific about him breaking that particular campaign promise. A whopping 83 percent of Americans and 77 percent of self-identified liberal Democrats approve of Obama’s use of drones to kill people. And remember, the administration has refused to discuss its drone policies in detail so these people are supporting a policy they have no way of understanding beyond, Terrorists bad. We kill bad people.
John Brennan, the counterterrorism advisor largely responsible for designing the drone program everyone loves, is currently going through contentious confirmation hearings to become the head of the CIA. If you’re one of those kooky “the Obama administration should stop unilaterally murdering people by remote control” folks, you hope that these hearings, combined with drone-related lawsuits, that leaked memo, a UN investigation of these targeted killings, and the forthcoming antidrone documentary Dirty Wars will result in what BuzzFeed’s Michael Hastings is calling the “Drone Awakening.” That is, finally the public at large will start understanding just how radical some of America’s counterterrorism policies are and go, “Whoa, this is kind of fucked, right here.”
I’m not optimistic. A fairly significant minority has known for decades that the war on drugs is ineffective and brutal, and we’re only just now baaaarely making marijuana—and only marijuana—legal in some states. It takes a long time for radical policy shifts to happen, and unfortunately, “Let’s stop killing people when we don’t know even who they are” counts as a radical policy shift in 2013. And though the opposition to drone killings contains elements of the right and the left, there’s no antidrone presidential candidate to rally around (except maybe Rand Paul, who has his own problems). During the last presidential campaign, Mitt Romney actually agreed with Obama’s drone policy—he probably figured there was no political upside to arguing against killing “terrorists,” and he was right.
Maybe Americans are fine with drones because they’re largely happy to ignore them—most voters don’t care about foreign policy at all, even though the president has much more control over counterterrorism than he does over, say, jobs and the economy. The test of our love affair with drones will be how we react to them in our own skies. Sure enough, far fewer Americans are in favor of domestic surveillance drones being used to assist cops, and when you ask people if they’re OK with drones helping to issue traffic tickets, they get really upset. So maybe the real drone awakening will only occur when drones are used in routine police work and people become aware that they’re being spied on all the time and don’t necessarily have a lot more rights than the bad Middle Eastern people we’re currently killing on a daily basis. By then, of course, it’ll be too late to do anything. Whoops.
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