A Game of Drones
Torture, Guantanamo, Kill Lists, Unconscionable Casualties, and Obama's Second Term
It's hard to take a protest seriously when it consists of 10 protesters. The fact that some of those protesters are dressed in orange jumpsuits intended to evoke Guantanamo doesn't really help, especially considering they're protesting across the street from a Cheesecake Factory. The Cheesecake Factory makes everything seem ridiculous—the people stuffed impatiently into the lobby, the waitstaff in their impractically all-white uniforms, the homeless kids begging for specific types of cheesecake out front. The Cheesecake Factory makes me think of Trouble, the little white Maltese dog that belonged to disgustingly wealthy hotelier Leona Helmsley, who tabloids called "The Queen of Mean." When Helmsley died in 2007, she left Trouble $12 million in a trust, more than she left any of her grandchildren—hell, more than she left to any other human being. She willed her poor chauffeur a hundred thousand dollars, placing his value at exactly 120 times less than Helmsley's dog.
The sight of customers enveloped in the huge booths of the Cheesecake Factory, pawing through their gigantic menus and poking their forks into their enormous entrées—an Over the Top Meatloaf Sandwich, say, washed down with a Twisted Salted Caramel Pretzel shake off the "Spiked Milkshakes" menu—is always hilarious. They look less like humans and more like, say, small hypoallergenic dogs that have had all the life intentionally bred out of them.
Outside, it's a frigid Friday night in downtown Seattle. Very few pedestrians take any notice of the protesters. A few stop to shout angrily ("Impeach Obama!" or "Waterboarding works!"), but only a handful even bother to take a flyer or ask what the protesters are doing. What they're doing is representing activist group The World Can't Wait, shouting at passersby about torture, assassinations, and murders committed by robots on the other side of the planet. They're standing on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Pike Street in front of the Regal Meridian 16 movie theater, ostensibly protesting the movie Zero Dark Thirty, although none of the protesters I talk to have even seen the movie. A couple of them admit that they want to see it, even as they hand out flyers accusing the movie of "represent[ing] the CIA's view of the world," which is to say that it justifies torture and the illegal detentions of innocent human beings.
When I mention to ringleader and spokeswoman Emma Kaplan that this is more like a protest against President Obama, she says she's heading to Washington, DC, with The World Can't Wait next Tuesday to protest the inauguration. That inauguration has been on my mind a lot lately. On the one hand, it's the celebration of a resounding victory over the Paleolithic conservative movement that has erupted in this country like a bad case of thrush. On the other hand, it's a national confirmation of a president who has done a lot of things in his first term that I find morally repugnant.
Almost every day that I covered the 2012 presidential election for The Stranger, I would get at least one e-mail, tweet, or comment on a story asking me how I could justify planning to vote for President Obama. These messages would mention one or two selections from a long menu of his misgivings: drones, Guantanamo, the kill list, the perpetuation of the Patriot Act, the war on drugs, the TSA's pointless and humiliating security theater. A good number of these queries came from concern trolls—Republicans trying to foment discord among Democrats by pretending to be outraged about the continuation of these (largely) Bush-era policies—but most of them came from progressives who were struggling with their conscience.
Here's the basic math that I did: An Obama presidency would be less morally reprehensible than a Romney presidency. Let's for the purposes of this essay set aside the domestic issues (where Obama's positions were clearly superior). When you looked at Obama's weakest moral points—most of which relate to foreign policy—he still wielded more moral authority than Romney, who surrounded himself with George W. Bush's foreign policy advisers. Whereas President Obama has mostly stayed within the (grossly extended) boundaries established by the Bush administration, a Romney presidency might likely push those boundaries out even further. The Obama administration seemed likelier to use diplomacy in a foreign policy crisis, whereas Romney was banging the drums of war against Iran back when he was an obscenely wealthy piece of political trivia in Iowa in the fall of 2011.
When I present this math to Kaplan on the sidewalk in front of the movie theater, she isn't so sure. She doesn't see any discernable difference between Romney and Obama, and she thinks that in many ways, an Obama presidency could be more harmful than a Romney presidency because liberals tend to become complacent when liberals are in power. Kaplan believes that at least Democrats would care about the erosion of civil liberties under a Republican. "I talk to liberals all the time who think that Guantanamo is already closed, just because President Obama is in office and he promised to close Guantanamo" when he was running for president, she says. As for drones, the New York Times reported that as the 2012 election neared, President Obama's staff "accelerated work... to develop explicit rules for the targeted killing of terrorists by unmanned drones, so that a new president would inherit clear standards and procedures." (The story proves both my point and Kaplan's: Obama's people didn't trust Romney not to broaden the drone program, but they were apparently blind to the hypocrisy of their own power mongering.) Kaplan didn't vote in the 2012 election, and she believes that voting isn't going to bring about the changes that need to take place.
Kaplan isn't alone in believing that Obama is a criminal on a global level. In a video posted Saturday by Al Jazeera, Noam Chomsky declared that President Obama "has no moral center... if you look at the actual policies [of the Obama administration], they're pretty shocking." Chomsky explained, "The drone assassination campaign is... just a global assassination campaign."
If it's an assassination campaign, it's a terribly inexact one. Drone strikes begin as lists—I imagine them as clean lines of names on white pieces of paper—presented to President Obama by his national security team a few times a month. The president looks at the names, he listens to the cases against these people he'll never meet, and then he decides who should die. More than 300 drone strikes have been launched in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia under his command, and the death toll is estimated at higher than 2,500. This is more power than any one human being should possess.
On December 11, a graduate student from New York University named Josh Begley started tweeting every recorded US drone strike in chronological order under the name @dronestream. On February 2, 2010, to pick a day at random, a cluster of eight drones in North Waziristan launched at least 17 missiles, killing dozens and missing their intended target. Two vehicles filled with rescue workers trying to help victims of the strikes were also destroyed, with an unknown number of casualties. There are plenty more like that. A lot of innocent people, including children, have died. We know some of their names, but some of them are (and probably always will be) anonymous. This is the sort of thing that will keep you up nights, if you let it.
You can make the argument that if radio-controlled airplanes weren't doing the killing, air force pilots would be, or soldiers on the ground. A lot of Americans favor drones because it takes our troops out of harm's way. But that presupposes that American lives are more valuable than the lives of innocent people in other countries. If you believe that, if you believe that a 3-year-old girl from Minnesota has intrinsically more value to the world than a 3-year-old Pakistani girl, you probably don't have a problem with any of this. And I probably wouldn't be able to talk to you for more than two minutes without wanting to vomit.
There are others who argue that the moral dirtiness of drones is the price we pay for being a global superpower. The majority of people who die in drone strikes, the argument goes, are planning to take the lives of other human beings; we're just hitting them before they can kill others. But wouldn't it send more of a message to capture these criminals and put them on trial for conspiracy to murder? Doesn't the idea of blowing people to smithereens from a remote-controlled airplane send the message to younger generations in these nations that brutal, seemingly random violence is how you get your way? Isn't this the same sort of thing we marched against George W. Bush for, back in 2003?
But then, can you show me an American president who doesn't sign his name in blood? If you really look at the record, doesn't every one of the 44 men who've had that job have a Waco, a Japanese internment program, a Trail of Tears, a popular war built on false evidence, a secret Cambodian bombing on their conscience? Abraham Lincoln is the closest thing we have to a secular American saint, and his legacy is built on the 750,000 deaths of the Civil War.
Some of the protesters outside Zero Dark Thirty believe that a second American revolution is required to cleanse our national shame, that we need to tear the whole system down and start over. But as long as we're (almost) all fed and employed and inconceivably comfortable when compared with almost every other human being who ever lived, that simply isn't going to happen. Most of us vote for the person we believe to be morally superior and hope for incremental change toward the good. There is historical evidence for this; politics isn't the story of leaps and bounds, but of hesitant steps. Where we are now as a nation is a destination at which we could not have arrived without the work of millions of people who slowly ground themselves to dust for us. The angriest among us can scoff at this idea as the mincing moral equivalence of a sellout, but to ignore that we move toward betterment by crawling for thousands of miles is to ignore the elephant of history sitting square on your chest.
Besides, are any of us really clean? To live in America right now is to be the beneficiary of untold suffering. Just because we've outsourced our slave labor doesn't make slave labor less real. One of the protesters flashes anti-torture signs on a tablet computer that was surely made by an impoverished person working for pennies in an unsafe, unregulated factory. At least some of the shoes that the protesters wear were made by children in a factory somewhere you have never heard of. Across the street, in the warm, eggnog-colored glow of the Cheesecake Factory, diners are tucking into meals made from the suffering of animals that can definitely feel some form of pain. If the moral high ground were the most important requirement for the survival of our species, we would have fallen into extinction a long time ago. Instead, we walk around in our shiny coats with our big dumb smiles and we eat our Skinnylicious® Chicken Enchiladas, followed by the guilty pleasure of a Chocolate Tuxedo Cream™ Cheesecake, which we totally deserve because we've been so good lately.
I bet President Obama thinks about this a lot. He's demonstrated the ability in his writing to walk into tangled thatches of philosophy and to delineate a clear, if circuitous, path through to the other side. But I'm glad that Kaplan is going to be there at the inauguration with The World Can't Wait, holding up a big sign about drones and civil liberties. I hope the president catches a glimpse of her sign out the window of his limousine when he's in the motorcade heading down Pennsylvania Avenue. I hope it makes him think about what he does, one more time, before he takes the oath. And I hope the rest of the country sees her, too. Without people like this, the noisy ones, the dissatisfied ones, the rowdy ones who are willing to throw themselves headfirst into the jeers and disapproving glares of the pedestrians in a hurry to get to Gameworks or H&M, we'd never get anywhere at all.
This article has been updated since its original publication.