Non-combatants: More than just numbers

Kristee Boyd argues that targetted assasinations often kill innocents and only generate more terrorism.

If you fight terror with terror, how can you tell which is which? 

– Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris in ‘Standard Operating Procedure’

The Obama administration has finally released an official report estimating numbers of civilian casualties killed by drone strikes in states that the US is not officially at war with. The report estimates that between 64 – 116 ‘non-combatant deaths’ have occurred overall in Pakistan, Yemen, Libya and Somalia during Obama’s two terms in office. These estimates are far below those of non-governmental reports. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, for example, estimates that the civilian death toll in these countries could be as high as 801 and other sources report that as many as 1000 such non-combatant deaths have occurred in drone strikes since Obama took office.

A number of issues have been observed within the White House’s “dubious” death toll, beginning with the fact that civilian drone strike casualties in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria were not included. Jeremy Scahill has written extensively on what he labels a ‘global assassination program,’ wherein the US government acts as judge, jury and executioner, working through ‘kill lists,’ pre-emptively assassinating potential criminals before crimes have been committed. The UK government is an active participant in this global assassination program. One of the most concerning aspects of official death tolls is that, according to multiple reports, military aged males are routinely classified as ‘enemies killed in action,’ unless there is specific evidence to the contrary. As such, it is extremely difficult to assess the accuracy of governmental reports on accidental civilian deaths resulting from drone warfare.

Regardless of either governmental or non-governmental tolls, figures in a report are not capable of conveying the horror that is unleashed in a drone strike that kills even one ‘non-combatant.’ Jeremy’s Scahill’s Dirty Wars: The world is a battlefield tells the story of Anwar Awlaki, an American citizen, who was targeted and assassinated by the US government in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011. Two weeks later, Anwar’s teenage son Abdulrahman Awlaki was assassinated in another drone strike, during an outdoor barbeque with his cousins.

US military reports classified Abdulrahman as a ‘military-aged male,’ neglecting to mention the fact that he was a 16 year old “skinny, smiling, curly-haired” American boy, much loved by his extended family. Jeremy Scahill also points out that the teenager’s grandparents were upstanding community citizens who actually “had great affection for the United States.” In Dirty Wars, Abdulrahman’s grandmother shares her grief and recounts the severe depression she was experiencing after his death. And what did the US Government have to say about the death of this innocent teenager? Former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs stated, “I would suggest that you would have a far more responsible father.” As such, Gibbs believes that, in order to fight the endless war on ‘terrorism,’ it is justifiable to not only exact the death penalty without trial on an American citizen but also to murder his teenage son and other family members as part of the process. As quoted above, if you fight terror with terror, how can you tell which is which?

Recent research shows us time and time again that fighting terrorism in this way is only serving to perpetuate the very violent extremism that we are trying to eradicate. See for example Mutaza Hussain’s “Retired General: Drones Create More Terrorists than They Kill” in The Intercept “Obama’s drone war a ‘recruitment tool’ for Isis” (Pilkington and McAskill) and “The New Guantanamo”: The Psychological Impact of US Drone Strikes in Pakistan” by Vijay Luhan. So what are the alternatives? There is a growing body of research on the effectiveness of non-violent approaches to combatting terrorism. Professor George Lakey highlights the following 8 approaches that have been used successful in various counter-terrorism contexts:

  1. Ally-building and the infrastructure of economic development. There are proven links between poverty and terrorism. Addressing levels of poverty in a democratic way has been proven to reduce terrorism.
  2. Reducing cultural marginalization
  3. Nonviolent protest/campaigns among the defenders, plus unarmed civilian peacekeeping
  4. Pro-conflict education and training. Suppressing conflict has been known to spark acts of terrorism. Therefore, allowing people the freedom to express and work through grievances is a proven method of resisting terrorism.
  5. Post-terror recovery programs
  6. Police as peace officers: the infrastructure of norms and laws. Along with the concept of community police officers working to promote peace, Lakey asserts that states need to adhere to their human rights obligations and to hold officials accountable for violating these obligations.
  7. Policy changes and the concept of reckless behaviour. Lakey asserts that reckless behaviour by states can “almost beg for a terrorist response.” It is the responsibility of citizens to keep their governments from taking such destructive actions.
  8. Terrorism has been reduced or completely eliminated in some cases through effective negotiation techniques.

Indeed, the notion that a problem as dangerous and complex as ‘terrorism’ can be addressed with non-violence is often met with scepticism. However, consider the alternative – continuing with the current counter-terrorism tactics of targeted assassinations within endless official and unofficial wars, resulting in the deaths of hundreds or thousands of innocent victims. If there is even a slight possibility that my government could one day murder my teenage son for a crime that I might commit, I for one am willing to consider the other possibilities.


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