Drones obliterate shades of gray between militants and civilians

Killing someone because they looked like they were “up to no good” doesn’t really pass legal muster.

Under the Obama administration, the CIA drone program uses what they call signature strikes, as you’ve no doubt heard. Usually, the term “signature” has a positive connotation, as in a characteristic that distinguishes one from others. But, to the CIA, it just means that any military-age males in an area it has decided is a strike zone are combatants. In other words, they look like they’re “up to no good” and deserve to die.

In September, as you may be aware, the Stanford International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic and the Global Justice Clinic at NYU School of Law released a landmark report titled Living Under Drones. In one section it reveals the sheer simple-mindedness of dividing individuals under surveillance into either civilians or militants. In fact, most of those labeled militants should be painted in shades of gray. (Emphasis added.)

Major media outlets in the US, Europe, and Pakistan that report on drone strikes tend to divide all those killed by drone strikes into just two categories: civilians or “militants.” This reflects and reinforces a widespread assumption and misunderstanding that all “militants” are legitimate targets for the use of lethal force, and that any strike against a “militant” is lawful. This binary distinction. … distinction is extremely problematic, however, from a legal perspective.

[First] use of the word “militant” to describe individuals killed by drones often obscures whether those killed are in fact lawful targets under the international legal regime governing the US operations in Pakistan. It is not necessarily the case that any person who might be described as a “militant” can be lawfully intentionally killed.

Even if one buys into the drone program, he or she must acknowledge that

… in order for an intentional lethal targeting to be lawful, a fundamental set of legal tests must be satisfied. For example … the targeted individual must either be directly participating in hostilities with the US (international humanitarian law) or posing an imminent threat that only lethal force can prevent (international human rights law).

But that’s only the beginning of the criteria that should be used in determining if someone is Predator or Reaper fodder.

[First] members of militant groups with which the US is not in an armed conflict are not lawful targets, absent additional circumstances … Further, simply being suspected of some connection to a “militant” organization—or, under the current administration’s apparent definition, simply being a male of military age in an area where “militant” organizations are believed to operate–is not alone sufficient to make someone a permissible target for killing.

… Second, the label “militant” also fails to distinguish between so-called “high-value” targets with alleged leadership roles in Al Qaeda or [the Taliban], and low-level alleged insurgents with no apparent … means of posing a serious or imminent threat to the US.  National security analysts—and the White House itself—have found that the vast majority of those killed in drone strikes in Pakistan have been low-level alleged “militants.”

To make matters worse, along with the CIA failing to properly discriminate about who it attacks

… Often, little to no information is presented to support the claim … that a certain number of those killed were “militants.” And, it is entirely unclear what, if any, investigations are carried out by the Pakistani or US governments to determine who and how many people were killed.

The drone program was key in preventing many of us from throwing our support behind President Obama in the election. In future posts, we’ll examine further atrocities within the atrocity that the drone program as a whole constitutes.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

Is Rachel Maddow becoming the thing she hates?

Rachel Maddow caricature by DonkeyHoteyAs anyone who follows current events via the so-called “liberal” media knows, much is made of the low-information voter. Well, by much I suppose I should say very little. Naturally, the term is at best condescending, at worst, pejorative. The low-information voter is, in essence, the voter that derives his or her opinion on the basis of reports from outlets such as Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, or Drudge Report, just to name a few examples. The case made is that the information provided by those outlets is either merely horribly distorted, out of context, distracting, spun out of control, flat out wrong, or intentionally deceptive. If it’s not true, if the argument is invalid, if the reasoning is unsound, then what is presented is simply not information. I leave it to the judicious reader to determine whether or not such a characterization is apt.

The unspoken complement to the low-information voter who gets the news from the other side would naturally be the high-information voter. “Get your news from us,” MSNBC may as well suggest, “and you may rest assured that you have a solid foundation upon which to build your political opinion.” In many respects, there appears, to my way of thinking, a significant element of truth to this. However, no self-respecting spin-doctor, regardless of position relative to the aisle, will point out that they frame their views very carefully for your consumption. They will make no mention of events upon which they do not want you to reflect. They will certainly not call your attention to their more covert below-the-belt punches.

It falls to the complementary high-information voter who follows the news by way of pundits such as Chris Matthews, Ed Schultz, Rachel Maddow, and Lawrence O’Donnell to remain steadfast in the pursuit of critical thought. Hell, take that as a given. That you are a critical thinker, an astute observer of events, a keen analyst of trends, a professional Connector of Dots is a foregone conclusion. As part of this select viewership, you are of the voting elite!

The signal to noise ratio from the putative left wing talking heads on MSNBC may be significantly better than that found elsewhere, but that does not necessarily mean that the signal approaches perfection by a long shot. They would certainly have you feel confident in your superior awareness as if their adherence to truth and the genuine spirit of journalism were necessarily the case.

But, what if? What if the material being presented only appears to contain information? Statements are uttered. Assertions are made. In and of themselves, these may even be factual. But what if MSNBC’s vaunted pundit celebrities string these assertions together in such a way that they yield unsound arguments? How information rich would the content then be if we make the bold assumption that the actual information presented for your consumption and assimilation really just boils down to the conclusions reached? The rest is just the window dressing, neatly lined up, all in a row, to lead you inexorably, not just to a conclusion, but to the kind of conclusion which only a fool would deny. And we, superior consumers of editorial disguised as news that we are, are surely no fools.

If we follow along like a good little audience long enough, bleat when told, roar on command, might the commentators and/or their writers get lazy occasionally? Or worse, smug in their all-too-frequent fallacies and glaring sins of omission?

Take, for example, Rachel Maddow. The following is from her November 8, 2012 show, addressing the subject of Mitch McConnell’s snippy response to President Obama’s victory speech.

Mr. McConnell put out a statement saying that what`s clear to him about this election is that the voters have not endorsed President Obama`s first term.

The fact that the president won the election is not an endorsement of the president?

Filling in a little bubble next to the man`s name on a piece of paper is technically how we endorse a person in America. But Mitch McConnell does not see it that way.

Consider, McConnell is one of the left’s favorite people to despise. Anything Rachel says about him is just about certain to get one’s hackles up, as if on command. And here’s that smug, turtle-necked bastard repudiating the value of President Obama’s re-election before the mic at the president’s podium even cools down after his rousing rendition of Kum Ba Ya. Anything she says can only be pure gold, right?

But, what if? What if there is something intellectually dishonest about what she says here? Can it be? Noooo.

Here’s the actual quote from Mitch McConnell’s statement, as found at NBC affiliate WPSD’s website:

The voters have not endorsed the failures or excesses of the President’s first term, they have simply given him more time to finish the job they asked him to do together with a Congress that restored balance to Washington after two years of one-party control.

Consider first of all, Dr. Maddow is no intellectual slouch. Her PhD isn’t in mixology, even if that may be an enjoyable sideline. When she does what she did here, I have a difficult time attributing it to mere laziness.

First, she paraphrases McConnell poorly. In her version, he stated that Obama’s re-election was not an endorsement of his first term. On even cursory inspection, one notes that McConnell actually says the election was not an endorsement of failures and excesses. These characteristics of Obama’s first term are not necessarily synonymous with the term itself, though she makes that connection for her viewers off-handedly.

Then she proceeds to attack McConnell’s drastically altered position. How is President Obama’s re-election not an endorsement of the man?

Funny, no matter how I try, I cannot equate the term with the man, much less the failures and excesses of the term with the man. McConnell said no such thing. Yet, Maddow lays into him, fast and furious, as though McConnell is evidently an imbecile for failing to see how the election is clearly an endorsement of the man.

And we, the high-information voters, are quite likely to have cheered, either silently or aloud, as she deftly tore Turtleneck a new one…on the basis of specious reasoning.

Don’t get me wrong. I also cannot stand McConnell. Were I to find out his fate was to spend the remainder of his days with nettles in his underwear, I’d smile like a Pez dispenser and my heart would pop out. But the left simply cannot arrogate to itself the intellectual and moral high ground, cry foul over obstruction, no matter how systemic it may be, and then engage in the same kinds of tactics one might expect from the opposition media. Not without becoming hypocrites. Not without being exposed to the charge of cynically manipulating their audience. And what a waste of talent this example makes of her, since what he said invites all manner of legitimate repudiation.

How on earth are we to expect one side to reach across the aisle to the other in the spirit of genuine compromise if the folks we look to for authenticity make liars of themselves with this kind of partisan hackery? Was McConnell correct in his assertion that the election was not an endorsement of the failures and excesses of Obama’s first term? That is an important conversation to have. Thanks to Rachel Maddow’s deceptive spin-doctoring, however, we know we won’t be seeing that conversation on her show. Tragically, we probably won’t be seeing that conversation on any show.

Another conversation we won’t be watching on her show involves whether or not Paul Ryan’s budget is a suitable vehicle on which to ride to victory.

In this case, Rachel is quite clearly pleased at her superior wit and political savvy:

This is handwriting — this is my — that`s my actual handwriting. That`s how bad my handwriting is on the printout of a newspaper article that I read when I first got into work today. When I went back to look for the article this afternoon, I realized that is what I had written in the margin of the article not paying attention to the fact I was doing it. I just wrote the word “ha” five times and then an exclamation point and star.

Here`s why I did that without noticing I was doing it. It`s a quote in this “New York Times” article today from Oklahoma Republican Tom Cole. What does Tom Cole — Congressman Tom Cole think about Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan losing this election?

His take away is this: “The Paul Ryan budget passed a pretty big test. We had to run around the country and defend it. The Ryan budget proved itself a viable platform on which to run and be reelected.”

Wow. Just to reiterate, this is what happened on election night [shows slide of presidential election results – FB]. How does this constitute the Ryan budget passing a big test? The Ryan budget took a big test but it did not pass that test. Those are two very different things.

To borrow a bit of Rachel’s smugness, HA HA HA! What a maroon! What, did she miss the memo that Ryan won his House seat? Gee, why might that have been? Could it possibly have anything to do with his budget ahem budget proposal (since it’s not actually a full budget, after all)?

Rachel, Rachel, Rachel. If you want to play the role of arrogant, self-righteous jackass, here, let me show you how. A) Make sure your argument hews very, very closely to the fucking bone. Stick with the truth. Considering your targets, that’s sufficient. B) Mock his low-information voters viciously for not being able to tell the difference between a budget and a budget proposal. C) Spend a few extra seconds mocking his magical math. D) Wish his district well with what wished. They got what they deserve, and the rest of the nation is spared his deciding vote on the Senate floor.

When you’re done, however, you might want to ask youself, “am I becoming what I hate?” When you engage in these intellectually dishonest tactics, you belittle yourself and do the nation a disservice by helping to convince a substantial part of the population that they share with you a moral high ground which you evidently do not occupy. Along the way, you aid in the obstruction of genuine progress by actively interfering with conversations that must be had.

Honestly, you make me sad. I used to like your show, and those of your fellows (excepting that annoying twit Matthews), until I started paying attention.

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Image credit: Caricature by DonkeyHotey, licensed under Creative Commons.