“Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was killed by a Predator drone.”
So reads one of author Teju Cole’s seven short stories about drones that he tweeted earlier this year. Cole took the opening lines from seven famous novels and adapted them to the modern reality of drone strikes, the one above being from Franz Kafka’s The Trial. According to Cole, his aim was to address “the heavy silence that has surrounded the use of drones to assassinate people outside” America by trying to humanise the victims of these strikes in a culturally familiar way. In doing so, he sought to generate a conversation about what he calls the “empathy gap” that exists when it comes to the lack of criticism of U.S. drone strikes abroad, and the outrage over the possibility that drones could be used to target Americans on American soil.
This outrage at the potential use of drones against Americans in America is both understandable and entirely justified. But there is also a glaring disjuncture between the outrage over domestic drones and the muted reaction to the use of drone strikes against targets on foreign soil. Whether they occur in the U.S or overseas, these targeted assassinations are morally and ethically equivalent and deserve equal outrage.
The drone empathy gap was highlighted by Senator Rand Paul’s marathon filibuster of the nomination of John Brennan to head the CIA on Wednesday and the overwhelmingly positive reaction it received. Paul's speech was a reaction to comments made by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who said that it is possible “to imagine an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate under the Constitution and applicable laws of the United States for the president to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States.” While Holder sought to qualify this by saying that the Obama administration “has no intention” of doing this, his comments were met with widespread criticism.
During his filibuster, Paul argued “that no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court.” The justifiable outrage at the possibility of Americans in America being killed by their own government without being charged or tried is natural. Such a development would constitute a shockingly unacceptable misuse of power by the government.
The same, however, is true of the Obama administration’s use of drones overseas. No one should be killed by an American drone on foreign soil without first being given the same rights to due process that Paul argued are owed to Americans. And yet this is exactly what is happening.
In Response to talk of creating a special secret "court" to review the targeted killing of American citizens, Desmond Tutu wrote: “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? That President Obama can sign off on a decision to kill us with less worry about judicial scrutiny than if the target is an American? Would your Supreme Court really want to tell humankind that we, like the slave Dred Scott in the 19th century, are not as human as you are?”
And I entirely agree with him. A truism it may be, but we are all human. And thus extrajudicial killings should be considered unacceptable and should provoke outrage regardless of where they take place.
While I understand the power of the natural concern one has for the lives of fellow citizens, and that there are political and legal differences between the U.S. government targeting Americans on American soil and targeting people overseas, morally and ethically speaking, as well as under international law, there is no difference and both these situations should be considered outrageous and unacceptable. I accept that these two issues have their distinct components and to an extend may deserve separate discussions, but they are tied together in the sense that they are both the product of the Obama administration’s increasing use of drones to pursue its goals.
Paul’s filibuster is invaluable in that it has people talking about drones and taking a critical look at their use. But the focus of this discussion needs to be widened. While we should concern ourselves with possible future developments in America, we must also be critical of what is actually present practice overseas. Being outraged at the former and not the latter is morally and ethically inconsistent; it creates the impression that people overseas are somehow considered less worthy.
Moreover, as PolicyMic’s Associate Political Editor Tom McKay rightly points out, “Domestic strikes are not a foreseeable future possibility.” By contrast, extrajudicial killings have been a harsh reality overseas for some time. Just ask the families of these children.