“Just war” or Just war?

It’s fittingly ironic that I spent part of yesterday afternoon reading and ruminating on President Obama’s 2009 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in preparation for a documentary I’m developing called [Necessary] Evil, only to end the day reading about the drone strike in Yemen that killed 15 people who were on their way to a wedding. A few quotes from Obama’s speech stood out to me in relation to this event, particularly his definition of a just war:

war is justified only when… it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the force is used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.

Let’s just deal with the last point–sparing civilians. To the best of my knowledge, everyone in this wedding party who died was a civilian. You might say this was an isolated incident, a case of mistaken identity. Well, the latter may be true, but certainly not the former. A recent study by Human Rights Watch concluded that 70 percent of the people killed in the 80 drone strikes they studied were civilians.

Add to this the phenomenon known as signature strikes, whereby drone operators are authorized to fire on people not because they have any evidence that they’re terrorists; merely because they happen to fit a certain profile. (i.e. a male of military age carrying a weapon). Never mind the fact these are summary executions, as this article points out, men “living in tribal areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan or Yemen have a long tradition of carrying personal weapons as a sign of manhood, ‘signature strikes’ are prone to kill many civilians.”

That reminds me of another quote from Obama’s speech:

Terrorism has long been a tactic, but modern technology allows a few small men with outsized rage to murder innocents on a horrific scale.

Hmm… I’m not sure how small or angry the drone operators are, but I do know that the group that decides whom to target is relatively small, and technology has certainly allowed a few people in a comfortable, air-conditioned room in Washington or an underground bunker in Kansas to murder thousands of innocents on a horrific scale.

Then Obama approvingly quotes Martin Luther King, who said,

Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and complicated ones.

Sure enough, many critics have noted that drone strikes and other forms of targeted assassinations are playing a key role in recruiting people to join al-Qaeda in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and every other country where they’re carried out. Of course, Obama is quick to follow up MLK’s words by saying he can’t be guided by the example of such people alone:

I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have stopped Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism–it is a recognition of history.

In other words, violence may be futile, but what other option do we have? Furthermore, he equates abdicating violence with “standing idle.” In doing so, he glosses over the complexities of history, showing little awareness of the global and domestic circumstances that allowed someone like Hitler to come to power, and how his arrival on the scene–not to mention al-Qaeda–are merely manifestations of the “new and complicated” problems of which MLK spoke. These figures are the legacy of past conflicts. So to resist them is far from noble. It’s merely a way of taking responsibility for a problem we essentially created through our stubborn refusal to adopt creative, non-violent solution to our problems.

I’ll end with a final quote from Obama’s speech that I think is particularly pertinent to yesterday’s incident–and America’s targeted assassination policy in general:

America–in fact, no nation–can insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves. For when we don’t, our actions appear arbitrary and undercut the legitimacy of future interventions, no matter how justified.

I couldn’t have put it better myself. Perhaps it’s time Obama dusted off his speech and read it again.

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