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Posted by on Mar 16, 2013 in International | 10 comments

I Should be Happy About the Drone Debate, But I’m Not

During my junior year of college I was interning at a news show and we were filming a bit on 47th street when a young Pakistani man walked up to me. He said that he and some friends were holding a vigil for those who had died in a recent drone killing, and wanted to know how to get press coverage. I didn’t know the number, but a co-worker did, and gave it to him. I was in a public policy class at the time, and we were talking about drones, back when the debate was very inchoate, most newspapers just took the government estimates for civilian deaths, which we have now learned were, and still are sorely underestimated.

Now, everyone’s talking about drones. Rand Paul is filibustering on the House floor, Eric Holder is drawing fire for his suggestion that Americans may be at risk and the possibility of surveillance is regularly being raised. But I can’t help thinking that the national debate is sorely ethnic centered. I searched through transcripts of Rand Paul’s filibuster for references to Pakistan, and I found some, about a dozen, but out of hours of speaking a dozen isn’t very many, especially since there have been no Americans killed on American soil, and thousands of Pakistanis killed while walking to work – it seems like their plight should be at the center of the debate. Drone strikes aren’t immoral if they kill Americans – they’re immoral.

I used Google Trends and data from The New American Foundation to create the following chart. The number of Pakistanis killed by drones each year is set to a baseline of the highest year (2010) and compared to the number of searches for the word “drones.” What can be clearly seen is that while drone deaths in Pakistan reached their height in 2010, and later, in 2011 the year that both Anwar al-Aulaqi and his son were killed in drone strikes interest in the subject barely budged. It wasn’t until early in 2013, when the mere specter of white American being killed on American soil that Americans showed any interest.

chart_1 (5)

This is a shame, but it’s not an unprecedented one: Americans cared little about the plight of the East Timorese, the Rwandan genocide raised interest only afterward and American troops were pulled from Somalia after nineteen American troops died. Most Americans know how many American soldiers died in the War in Iraq (about 4,500) but few are concerned that some 100,000 Iraqis did.

Americans who are concerned about the President’s (drone strikes started under Bush’s watch) authority to be judge, jury and executioner, should be concerned whether the victim is white or brown, Christian or Muslim, American or Pakistani. That’s why the current debate shouldn’t really excite anyone concerned about American imperial hegemony. After his filibuster, Paul received a short letter from Holder: “Does the President have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil? The answer is no.” He then withdrew his opposition to Brennan’s nomination. So drones are only a problem if an American can hypothetically be killed on American soil. That’s a shame.

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  • Thank you, Sean. Many here at TMV have also been slow to focus on the “collateral damage” of civilians who are brown skinned, foreign and Muslim, either ignoring or making all manner of excuse for there deaths. Your article speaks the truth. I hope it will be honorably received.

  • Bravo. I’ve had this thought in my head, too. The use of drones for attack or assassination in general, overseas or no, seems unethical to me, and no one seems to care. So thanks.

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    Perhaps as one of those, here “at TMV” “either ignoring or making all manner of excuse for there [sic]deaths,” I also thank you for your views, Sean. But just wanted to note that in all my “ranting” about drones and their use in support of our national security, race or ethnicity — rightly or wrongly –never came into mind. (Perhaps it should have)

    Thanks, anyway.

  • KP

    “It wasn’t until early in 2013, when the mere specter of white American being killed on American soil that Americans showed any interest.”

    What does that say about our president and attorney general?

  • KP

    Beyond that, I agree. Excellent article.

  • The_Ohioan

    It wasn’t until early in 2013, when the mere specter of white American being killed on American soil that Americans showed any interest.

    This subject has been burning up the blogosphere for several years – al Awlaki was killed in 2011, after all – if you wanted to look for it. What we are now seeing is the demagoging of the subject in preparation of 2016 presidential runs. Suddenly those conservatives/libertarians see a possible problem. A focus for all those black helicopter stories they’ve been scaring themselves with for years.

  • dduck

    ES, and others have been complaining about the many innocents killed in drone attacks for years. I don’t think they were thinking “white”, so I see some spinning going on here.

  • KP

    Thank you dduck. I was searching for a polite way to say that.

  • Thanks, Duck.

    To be fair, the author was talking about mainstreaming of this issue. As a long time civil libertarian and human rights advocate, I may have been reflecting a view that was not (yet) mainstreamed. And, I have raised – though admittedly not as a primary point – that public attention might have been better focused if the civilian casualties had been culturally closer to Anglo-Saxon/Christian.

    The author’s reference to hegemony strikes a particular cord as our “leaders” discuss FISA style courts to approve kills…but only for targets that would be American citizens. Everything about this issue – from second strikes to hit first responders and family members searching for the body parts of loved ones, to bombing funerals without so much as the respect to allow people to bury their dead in peace, to fretting about 2 American targets while more than 3000 “others” have been killed without remorse, to violating international law by invading the teritory of sovereign nations with whom we are not at war and whose consent we do not have, to ignoring the plight of those whose lives and freedoms and hopes for justice and a future escape us because they look different or worship a different “god” – offends my sense of what we as a nation and bastion (supposedly) of good and right and justice should stand for.

    Sorry. Guess I’ve said all that, or something like it, before. Don’t mean to be redundant, but I also don’t care to shut up about it.

  • The_Ohioan


    You should not “shut up about it”. If your facts are correct, go to it. If I have some doubt about your facts, I am impelled, also, to go to it. Here’s the problem. The two organizations (the only one’s I’ve found making the claims you list), New American Foundation and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism must rely, in great part, on Pakistani reporters who are necessarily constrained by the Taliban especially in the North Waziristan area where most of the strikes occur.

    The whole drone strike programs are as murky as the whole al Qaida/Taliban strike programs against ourselves and our allies. Both must be considered when determining how our government must respond to threats against us. Here is a report that gives some indication of just how murky, and difficult it is to obtain the true facts, has become.

    As in the torture debate, we can only believe what seems reasonable to us and judge our government’s actions against the alternatives that seem available. I wish it was as clear to me, as it seems to you, just what is the best thing to do. War leaves very few absolutes in place given the dangers and the players involved – particularly in the Middle East.

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