“Where you die matters.” We know the names of the children killed in Newtown, CT. We know the names of those killed in the Boston Bombing. The lives and deaths of those killed in these tragedies are important because journalists did their jobs and covered the stories. But if you die in a drone strike in Pakistan, you are a nameless enemy.
Journalist and author Jeremy Scahill spoke this Tuesday to a packed house at the Free Library of Philadelphia while promoting his new book and upcoming film, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield. Scahill, an award-winning investigative journalist, two-time recipient of the George Polk Award, correspondent for Democracy Now!, Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at The Nation Institute, and best-selling author of the book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, discussed our foreign wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen and the new rise of covert operations and assassinations by the U.S. around the globe.
What has changed since Bush was in power? Scahill began, “Here is Obama’s change,” he closed the CIA’s black sites in Poland and Thailand only to take over an old French base, Camp Lemonnier, in Djibouti where many of the covert actions on the African continent are now based out of. Renditions continued. Assassinations have been normalized. Essentially, the Bush-era policies have been rebranded and recast, not changed.
Scahill also touched on the Obama administration’s use of signature strikes in his drone program, as opposed to personality strikes. A personality strike targets a specific person whereas a signature strike targets a certain geographical region. Any military-age males with an even remote connection to a suspicious person or group who is in a geographic location thought to hold terrorist cells is considered a target. “We don’t even know who we’re killing anymore,” Scahill said. Killing people intentionally whose identities we do not know, “that’s murder.” The U.S. is now creating MORE new enemies than killing actual terrorists, Scahill continued, and that has consequences. “There will be blowback.”
September 30, 2011: “For me, we crossed a serious line.” On this day, in an unprecidented move by U.S. forces, a U.S. drone strike killed two U.S. citizens in Yemen. Anwar al-Awlaki, the target of the strike, was killed without ever being formally charged or prosecuted. “Obama served as prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner,” Scahill reported. Samir Khan, the second U.S. citizen killed in the same strike, was not an official target, but nevertheless suffered the same fate. As Scahill explained, while Awlaki may have been a deplorable person, while his actions and rhetoric may have been reprehensible, this issue is not about who he is but who we are as a society. “I judge our society by how we treat the most reprehensible of our citizens.”
About two weeks after the drone attack that killed Awlaki and Khan, another drone strike was carried out in Yemen. This time, the victim was 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the son of Anwar and also a U.S. citizen. Abdulrahman was killed shortly after he had run away from his home (living with his mother and grandparents) to find his father Anwar who he had not seen in years. While he was searching for his father, his father was killed. Then, just two weeks following Anwar’s assassination, while the boy was sitting at an outdoor cafe with his young cousins and friends, he along with many others, were killed in a drone strike carried out by his own government. In response to questions as to why this boy was killed, Robert Gibbs, former White House press secretary and a senior adviser to Obama during his reelection campaign said that he “should have a far more responsible father.”
“Make no mistake,” Scahill said, “we should be outraged,” no matter if the people we are killing are United States citizens, Yemenis, Pakistanis, Afghans or whatever, “but if we won’t even grant our own citizens these rights than who are we as a society?”
Dirty Wars is a must-read and the film is likely one that will change the conversation around U.S. foreign occupations and wars. At the least, it will serve to put the stories of the families that have been devastated around the globe by U.S. foreign policy and our supposedly “clean” and “surgical” drone strikes in to the public view. The fact is that war is not clean or surgical. War has many victims whose stories must be told and covered extensively. Scahill has done this with his book and film. As Scahill noted, “We ignore the impact of our policy at our own peril.”