So now we know a great deal about the esquadron de muerte that the President of the United States commands. Apparently, from across the United States vast amounts of collated intelligence data about the people whom American intelligence agencies wish to have killed flood into a special team of about a hundred people who turn the data into tasteful individualised Powerpoint slides and present them to the President, who chooses who will be slain on the basis of this information (the veracity of which he has no way of checking). It is, in short, exactly as various people envisaged it to be; the American cartoonist Ted Rall imagined the President being briefed on a necessary murder and signing off on it, blissfully unaware that the murder he had signed off was his own.
That might yet happen; historically, amoral murder states have tended to devour their own kin as cheerfully as they have devoured their declared victims.
The mode of murder is to blow the declared victim to pieces with a guided missile, a mode pioneered by the Israelis, who have always been obsessed with comparative body-counts because of the relative Arab-Jew numbers (the “demographic problem”, as Zionist ethnic cleansers put it) and who therefore like killing their enemies without putting any of their own at risk. Some favouring the process refer to it as vapourising, but in fact although the warhead is dozens of kiloes of high explosive, this is not enough to prevent blood, gore, gristle and bone fragments, together with a few recognisable portions of what was once a living, breathing human being, being left behind. It is, however, enough to guarantee that other people will be killed in addition to the target, because for obvious reasons the target is invariably a social being and detonating a large bomb in a community is almost never going to kill only one person.
Sacrifices have to be made to preserve freedom.
The missiles are delivered by large robot aircraft equipped with sophisticated sensors and automatic pilots, so that they can fly to the vicinity of the target without any human intervention, guided by GPS, after which humans fly the robot aircraft, called a drone, to the exact location, identify the target with the sensors, and launch the missile, usually a weapon called a Hellfire. The drone of choice, called a Reaper, carries four Hellfires over a distance of thousands of kilometres. There are drone bases on every continent, although most drones are based in the United States and the headquarters of the whole system is in Tampa, Florida.
This is considered, by many, a rather cowardly system of murdering their enemies. These people seem to believe that it would be far more reasonable if Barack Obama were to do his dirty work personally, taking time off from his normal duties of class against the poor and middle-class people of his country to breeze into Pakistan and whack the people whom he has signed off to be whacked. Should he use a rocket-launcher? A sniper rifle? A submachine-gun like the one used to murder Osama bin Laden in his Inter-Service Intelligence safe-house? A knife? A cheese-wire? Or should the President simply throttle the victim to death with bare hands? (No doubt victims small enough to be throttled without risk to the President’s comfort and health can be identified among the blizzard of Powerpoints.)
However, it isn’t really about cowardice. It was not really cowardly to sit in Lusaka and plan the war against apartheid, and it is not really brave to sit in Washington and plan the war against terror. Rather, it is about the unfortunate fact that it transpires that the people chosen to be murdered are, very often, and perhaps more often than not, people who have no link whatsoever with any force fighting against the United States. On other occasions, the people chosen to be murdered are people who have not committed any crime punishable in the continental United States, but have merely uttered words critical of that country’s policies. In other words, the information upon which those Powerpoints is based is apparently completely useless for determining whether the murders are necessary, or not. From the perspective of fighting against terrorism, Obama might just as well be releasing his missiles at random over populated areas and awaiting developments.
This, of course, annoys people — the survivors of the bombings, and also those who get to hear about the bombings. It is, however, unlikely that the people who are radicalised by drone attacks were not already annoyed with the United States, since drone attacks tend to happen in countries which are under U.S. control or occupation, and where the governments are hideously awful and wholeheartedly supported by the United States. These people are probably not going to dash off and join al-Qaeda, for the fairly obvious reason that al-Qaeda is now aligned with the United States in most respects, its leaders having realised that if they are sufficiently corrupt and subservient they may gain the illusion of power which was all that they wanted. (The internal conflict over this issue seems to have been a major reason why the United States had Bin Laden murdered.)
Nevertheless, these murders almost certainly do not have the deterrent effect which such terrorism is meant to have, along the “shock and awe” principle which the ignorant technocrats of the U.S. “Revolution in Military Affairs” pretend to have invented. Blowing up Slobodan Milosevic’s house, or bombing Saddam Hussein’s houses, did not prevent those leaders from leading their countries. Intimidation does not work well against resolute people whom you cannot easily find. Instead, it builds sympathy for the victims and their organisations. (This was why the apartheid regime eventually opted for secret murders.)
The United States has used death squads before — in central and south America, of course, by proxy, but also directly, by means of the Phoenix Programme in Vietnam. This programme was a CIA project to systematically assassinate the political leadership of the Viet Minh in South Vietnam. Supposedly, some 20 000 people were murdered, including a large number of the political cadres and supporters of the Viet Minh, though doubtless many or most of the victims were murdered by accident or happened to express left-wing opinions or simply were people whom agents of the programme disliked or would gain from the death of. That, at least, was an effectual programme because the murders were carried out by people who could report back immediately on who had died, and because intelligence operatives on the ground had a direct stake in the success of the project, instead of sitting on their backsides in the United States filling in on-line forms. And yet America lost that war, just as it failed to eradicate leftism in central and south America, however many leftists it murdered.
Israel has succeeded in its programme very largely because it has an enormous discrepancy in power, a small area to deal with, small numbers of people to deal with, a highly dedicated populace backing it, and a corrupt, incompetent and fragmented opponent. Even so, the Palestinians continue to fight back after sixty-five years. This does suggest that death squads are not a long term solution.
But this is crude tactical analysis. Of course death squads are not a long term solution to the problem of the existence of enemies. Indeed, the existence of enemies is not something which can be solved by murder or by the declaration of war. Murder and the declaration of war are instead intended to avoid resolving the issue, which can only be done by discovering the ideological roots of such enmity (which in turn is driven by historical facts). In other words, the United States and its allies has done things in the past which makes people hate and fear them and their representatives — and to avoid thinking about this issue, the United States seeks to murder everyone who raises the issue in any substantive way.
This is, of course, an extremely popular programme in the United States. Americans generally believe that the world hates them because they are so much more wonderful than anyone else. Therefore it should be made illegal for anyone to hate an American, and the sanction should be the death penalty. Problem solved!
The actual problem then is the same as that for Israel; America becomes a much more hateful society, and also becomes a society which feeds upon its own hatefulness and believes that in doing so it becomes stronger. One by one, the minor obstacles placed in the path of hatefulness (most conspicuous of which is the U.S. Constitution, but is also the general human sympathy which Americans feel for one another and upon which the functioning of the Constitution in its original form depends) are erased or dismissed from serious attention. What is happening to the United States is very similar to the fictional process depicted in Shakespeare’s Macbeth or in C J Sansom’s portrait of Thomas Cromwell; a person realising that in order to fulfil his desire he must take terrible actions, and in order to take those actions must render himself so terrible that the fulfilment of his desire becomes a terrible thing in itself.
It is, of course, possible that all this will be held at a relatively modest level. So far at most only a few thousand people have been killed by drones. On the other hand, tens or hundreds of thousands have been killed by other American military action driven by the kind of irresponsible paranoid self-righteousness which fuels the drone war. Even more have been killed by destabilisation and economic warfare. The drone war has just brought the matter much closer to the surface, because it is harder to cloak your behaviour in the language of anodyne socio-economic rectitude when you are actually signing death warrants and then executing them. Also, Americans have been made much more conscious of the drone war, and are much more enthusiastic about it than by the economic or proxy wars waged in the recent past, which Americans were often hardly aware existed because their government conducted them without consulting them. In contrast, the drone war was announced in one of George W Bush’s State of the Union speeches and has been conducted with growing eagerness ever since. So in this regard Americans cannot claim that they did not know or did not approve. They both know and approve, and as such they are guilty of the murder of civilians, and are happy because they know that they will never be called to account for this.
But Americans have often found that what they know, and what is true, are two very distinct things.