If a US Drone Strike Kills 150 People, Does Anyone Care?

Americans can sleep easier now that the US military has wiped out 150 more “terrorists.” US airstrikes over Somalia targeted al-Shabab militants, who were, according to Pentagon spokesperson Captain Jeff Davis, planning “offensive operations.” Davis neglected to elaborate on what “offensive operations” were planned by the group.

He did say that they had been monitoring the camp for a while and had a “sense” that the “operational phase was about to begin.” Unsurprisingly Davis failed to elaborate on the details of the “operational phase” or what it might have looked like. Or how they got their “sense” to begin with.

Interestingly, Davis also said that “their removal will degrade al-Shabab’s ability to meet the group’s objectives in Somalia.”

When it comes to the empirical data on this claim, I’m skeptical. Did the invasion of Iraq deter terrorists? How about the so-called “targeted” strikes against alleged terrorists in Yemen, Pakistan and now Somalia? Has the response of terrorist or militant groups to US airstrikes in the last decade given us good reason to think that more bombing will significantly hinder their abilities?

More often, it seems like these airstrikes merely reinvigorate terrorist groups and encourage others to join them. These forms of blowback hinge on the “collateral damage” to civilians who have nothing to do with the conflict in question. After all when these innocent individuals lose their homes, lose their families, or lose their land, what do you think they’ll do? Who does Davis think they’ll blame?

Even if we agree with the numbers Davis gives us (and we have good historical reasons not to), there are still many aspects to question. Let’s assume that the drone strike was “morally good”. It did what it was supposed to: it eliminated the correct targets with absolutely no “collateral damage” on persons or property. This is a big assumption, but let’s grant it for sake of argument.

There remain other moral issues. For one, the consistent othering of people in foreign lands that must occur so that their deaths are more palatable to the American public. This usually involves perpetuating a harmful bias economist Bryan Caplan called, “anti-foreign bias.” Anti-foreign bias in the context of drone bombs or war more broadly helps further the ability to the US government to bomb whomever they suspect is a terrorist, especially if they are outside the US.

And to top it off the government then gets to do so without any due process or any oversight. All of these things set dangerous precedent for the future of US wars. The main problem here is summed up by journalist Glenn Greenwald in the headline of his recent article: Nobody Knows the Identities of the 150 People Killed by U.S. in Somalia, but Most are Certain They Deserved it. Greenwald touches on the aforementioned anti-foreign bias, remarking, “this particular mass killing is unlikely to get much attention in the U.S. due to … the invisibility of places like Somalia and the implicit devaluing of lives there…”

Greenwald makes many great points in his article. But briefly, consider that the US is not at war with Somalia, that there’s no evidence that the individuals who the Pentagon claim were killed were actually killed. Or that the term “militant” has been re-defined as “all military-age males in a strike zone” by the US government. All of this makes the previous claim that only “militants” have been killed, suspect at best.

The US military has no idea who they’ve killed. To quote Micah Zenko, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations and lead author of a 2013 study of drones: “[My research] highlights … that most individuals killed are not on a kill list, and the government does not know their names.”

To quote Greenwald again, the US has a, “we-bomb-wherever-we-want” policy.

And until the Pentagon gives us not only good reasoning behind that policy, but also shows favorable consequences, we should lean towards error and condemn these drone strikes.

And thus we should also condemn the source of these murders, the US government.

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