The recent targeted killing of American-born radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki by an armed military Drone aircraft represents a very slippery slope for the Obama Administration, America, and, indeed, the world. Awlaki had been hiding in Yemen while apparently plotting new terror attacks in the U.S.A. and elsewhere, after allegedly helping to recruit an unsuccessful bomber of a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day, 2009, and encouraging other outrages. He will surely not be missed by the civilized world, and undoubtedly most people feel that he got what he deserved, as did his colleague Samir Khan, another terrorist killed in the same unmanned Drone attack in Yemen. Good riddance.
But, wait, that is far from the end of the story -- indeed, those who endorse, even welcome, the targeted killing of Awlaki and Khan totally fail to see the broader picture. These were two American citizens, who like all Americans are supposedly protected by the Bill of Rights to our Constitution, a federal law against murder, an executive order banning assassinations, not to mention various requirements in the international rules for war such as the Geneva Convention. These, and other, rules of civilized conduct are in place in order to handle situations such as this, not necessarily to protect "bad guys" like Awlaki and Khan, but rather to protect all of us from the ravages of uncontrolled military and paramilitary actions. Those rules allow us to claim that we are better than our adversaries, that we are civilized people.
So far, only the United States, Britain, and Israel engage in the Drone Wars, and in each case there is apparent justification for using this recent military technology which allows Drone operators, sometimes thousands of miles away, to engage in surveillance of hostile territories without risking our precious aircraft pilots and crews. The United States has been estimated to have some 7,000 drones, most unarmed, and is training more "Drone pilots" than pilots for manned aircraft. Not long ago, a Drone crashed in El Paso, Texas and was found to have been launched by Mexican police across the border as part of the seemingly-endless Drug War there. That Drone probably originated in the U.S.
Meanwhile, many other nations have joined the Drone bandwagon. China has shown a large number of models at recent military shows there, Iran is known to have pilotless aircraft, and the technology is readily available on the Internet. Not long ago, a twenty-six year old man in Boston was charged with plotting a Drone attack on the Capitol or Pentagon in Washington. The U.S. Army is ordering a new Switchblade Drone which is backpack-sized and armed.
Military aviation began during World War I with unarmed observer planes, used for battlefield surveillance, which rapidly turned into the use of armed aircraft with machine guns and then bombs. The world, and the so-called art of war, were never the same. It was not such a big step to the Nazi buzz bombs which wreaked havoc in England during World War II, the fire bombing of Dresden and other cities, and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nor will it be a big step to the acquisition of Drone aircraft by regimes like North Korea, terrorist groups, armed militias, and perhaps even criminal organizations.
This very slippery slope derives from a hitherto-secret memo circulated within the Obama Administration, which endorses the targeted killing of high-level terrorists like Awlaki and Khan if we cannot easily bring them to justice. It will always be easier for the United States, and other nations, to take out targets rather than to try them for their alleged crimes, even crimes against humanity. But -- where does all this end? How can we fail to see that the rule of law is being replaced by the rule of targeted killings? If the Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Washington movement becomes an Occupy America movement, will killer Drones be used against the peaceful protestors? If that sounds far-fetched, consider the tear gassing of peaceful protestors recently at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington. The cops lost it there.
If the Obama Administration is willing, indeed enthusiastic, about taking out our perceived enemies in Yemen and Afghanistan, where Drone Warfare has become the new standard of combat, what will happen next -- and does it ever stop, are there any limits? As a nation and as a people, we had better answer those questions, the sooner the better. Today's Drone Wars are only the tip of the new military iceberg -- and we all know what happened to the Titanic!