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Challenging American Exceptionalism

April 28, 2015
By Marjorie Cohn
portside (April 28, 2015)

It is not just the U.S. image that is suffering. Drone strikes create more enemies of the United States. While Faisal Shahzad was pleading guilty to trying to detonate a bomb in Times Square, he told the judge, “When the drones hit, they don’t see children.”

President Barack Obama stood behind the podium and apologized for
	inadvertently killing two Western hostages - including one American -
	during a drone strike in Pakistan. Obama said, “one of the things that sets
	America apart from many other nations, one of the things that makes us
	exceptional, is our willingness to confront squarely our imperfections and
	to learn from our mistakes.” In his 2015 state of the union address, Obama
	described America as “exceptional.” When he spoke to the United Nations
	General Assembly in 2013, he said, “Some may disagree, but I believe that
	America is exceptional.”
American exceptionalism reflects the belief that Americans are somehow
	better than everyone else. This view reared its head after the 2013 leak of
	a Department of Justice White Paper that describes circumstances under
	which the President can order the targeted killing of U.S. citizens. There
	had been little public concern in this country about drone strikes that
	killed people in other countries. But when it was revealed that U.S.
	citizens could be targeted, Americans were outraged. This motivated Senator
	Rand Paul to launch his 13-hour filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination for
	CIA director.
It is this double standard that moved Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop
	Desmond Tutu to write a letter to the editor of the *New York Times*, in
	which he asked, “Do the United States and its people really want to tell
	those of us who live in the rest of the world that our lives are not of the
	same value as yours?” (When I saw that letter, I immediately invited
	Archbishop Tutu to write the foreword to my book, “Drones and Targeted
	Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues.” He graciously agreed and
	he elaborates on that sentiment in the foreword).
Obama insists that the CIA and the U.S. military are very careful to avoid
	civilian casualties. In May 2013, he declared in a speech at the National
	Defense University, “before any strike is taken, there must be
	near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest
	standard we can set.”
Nevertheless, of the nearly 3,852 people killed by drone strikes, 476 have
	reportedly been civilians. The Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI),
	which examined nine drone strikes in Yemen, concluded that civilians were
	killed in every one. Amrit Singh, a senior legal officer at OSJI and
	primary author of the report, said “We’ve found evidence that President
	Obama’s standard is not being met on the ground.”
In 2013, the administration released a fact sheet with an additional
	requirement that “capture is not feasible” before a targeted killing can be
	carried out. Yet the OSJI also questioned whether this rule is being
	followed. Suspected terrorist Mohanad Mahmoud Al Farekh, a U.S. citizen,
	was on the Pentagon’s “kill list” but he was ultimately arrested by
	Pakistani security forces and will be tried in a U.S. federal court. “This
	is an example that capturing can be done,” according to Micah Zenko of the
	Council on Foreign Relations.
The fact sheet also specifies that in order to use lethal force, the target
	must pose a “continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons.” But the leaked
	Justice Department White Paper says that a U.S. citizen can be killed even
	when there is no “clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and
	interests will take place in the immediate future.” This renders the
	imminency requirement a nullity. Moreover, if there is such a low bar for
	targeting a citizen, query whether there is any bar at all for killing
	foreigners.
There must also be “near certainty” that the terrorist target is present.
	Yet the CIA did not even know who it was slaying when the two hostages were
	killed. This was a “signature strike,” that targets “suspicious compounds”
	in areas controlled by “militants.” Zenko says, “most individuals killed
	are not on a kill list, and the [U.S.] government does not know their
	names.” So how can one determine with any certainty that a target is
	present when the CIA is not even targeting individuals?
Contrary to popular opinion, the use of drones does not result in fewer
	civilian casualties than manned bombers. A study based on classified
	military data, conducted by the Center for Naval Analyses and the Center
	for Civilians in Conflict, concluded that the use of drones in Afghanistan
	caused 10 times more civilian deaths than manned fighter aircraft.
Moreover, a panel with experienced specialists from both the George W. Bush
	and Bill Clinton administrations issued a 77-page report for the Stimson
	Center, a nonpartisan think tank, which found there was no indication that
	drone strikes had advanced “long-term U.S. security interests.”
Nevertheless, the Obama administration maintains a double standard for
	apologies to the families of drone victims. “The White House is setting a
	dangerous precedent – that if you are western and hit by accident we’ll say
	we are sorry,” said Reprieve attorney Alka Pradhan, “but we’ll put up a
	stone wall of silence if you are a Yemeni or Pakistani civilian who lost an
	innocent loved one. Inconsistencies like this are seen around the world as
	hypocritical, and do the United States’ image real harm.”
It is not just the U.S. image that is suffering. Drone strikes create more
	enemies of the United States. While Faisal Shahzad was pleading guilty to
	trying to detonate a bomb in Times Square, he told the judge, “When the
	drones hit, they don’t see children.”
Americans are justifiably outraged when we hear about ISIS beheading
	western journalists. Former CIA lawyer Vicki Divoll, who now teaches at the
	U.S. Naval Academy, told the *New Yorker*’s Jane Mayer in 2009, “People are
	a lot more comfortable with a Predator [drone] strike that kills many
	people than with a throat-slitting that kills one.” But Americans don’t see
	the images of the drone victims or hear the stories of their survivors. If
	we did, we might be more sympathetic to the damage our drone bombs are
	wreaking in our name.
Drone strikes are illegal when conducted off the battlefield. They should
	be outlawed. Obama, like Bush before him, opportunistically defines the
	whole world as a battlefield.
The guarantee of due process in the U.S. Constitution as well as in the
	International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights must be honored, not
	just in its breach. That means arrest and fair trial, not summary
	execution. What we really need is a complete reassessment of Obama’s
	continuation of Bush’s “war on terror.” Until we overhaul our foreign
	policy and stop invading other countries, changing their regimes,
	occupying, torturing and indefinitely detaining their people, and
	uncritically supporting other countries that illegally occupy other
	peoples’ lands, we will never be safe from terrorism.
*Marjorie Cohn is a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, past
	president of the National Lawyers Guild, and deputy secretary general of
	the International Association of Democratic Lawyers. Her most recent book
	is “Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues.”*

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