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Marjorie Cohn on Drone Warfare: Illegal, Immoral and Ineffective

Marjorie Cohn. (Photo: Olive Branch Press)

In this anthology edited by Marjorie Cohn – law professor, Truthout contributor and human rights authority – the clarity of the case against drones used for assassinations is persuasively made. Get this book now, with an introduction by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Law professor, writer and social critic Marjorie Cohn explores human rights and US foreign policy, and the frequent contradiction between the two in her monthly Truthout column, “Human Rights and Global Wrongs.” She agreed to an interview with Leslie Thatcher recently about her new book, Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues.

Leslie Thatcher: Marjorie, could you describe the genesis of this project?

Marjorie Cohn: George W. Bush prosecuted two illegal wars in which thousands of Americans, Iraqis and Afghans were killed. Although Barack Obama continued those wars, eventually he reduced the numbers of US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Obama vastly expanded the use of targeted killing – with drones, manned bombers and military raids.

Obama has killed more people with drones than died on 9/11. Many of those killed were civilians, and only a tiny percentage of the dead were al-Qaeda or Taliban leaders. Obama’s targeted killings off the battlefield are not only illegal and immoral; they also make us less safe due to the blowback from those who have lost family and friends. There was not much opposition to these killings among the American people.

But when a Department of Justice white paper was leaked and Americans learned that US citizens could also be targeted, people were outraged. That selective outrage motivated Archbishop Desmond Tutu to write a letter to The New York Times pointing out the hypocrisy. I thus invited him to write the foreword to the book, and he graciously agreed. I thought a collection with contributions on different aspects of this policy would be useful. The book explores legal, moral and geopolitical issues raised by the US policy of targeted killing.

In this interdisciplinary collection, human rights and political activists, policy analysts, lawyers and legal scholars, a philosopher, a journalist and a sociologist examine different aspects of the US policy of targeted killing with drones and other methods. Contributors include Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies, Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin, former UN Special Rapporteur on Palestine Richard Falk, political activist Tom Hayden, Pardiss Kebriaei of the Center for Constitutional Rights, Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, Israeli human rights activist Ishai Menuchin, New York human rights lawyer Jeanne Mirer, sociology professor Tom Reifer, Alice Ross of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the ACLU’s Jay Stanley, philosophy professor Harry van der Linden, and myself.

Many of your contributors compare drone strikes to torture and one to nuclear weapons? Can you explain why?

Like torture, the use of targeted killing off the battlefield is illegal. Both practices are immoral as well. We have seen the atrocious program of torture conducted during the Bush administration. Drones flying overhead terrorize entire communities. They kill thousands of people. The US government engages in “double taps,” in which those rescuing the wounded from the first strike are targeted. This practice should be called the “triple tap,” as mourners at funerals for those fallen by the drone bombs are also targeted.

Neither torture nor targeted killings make us safer; in fact, they increase hatred against the United States. Professor Richard Falk discusses in his chapter why drones are more dangerous than nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons have not been used since 1945 except for deterrence and coercive diplomacy. But drones are unconstrained by any system of regulation.

When even the CIA reports that drone strikes are counterproductive and legal experts seem to agree their use for assassination is illegal, how is it that a distinguished contributor to your book like Richard Falk remains so pessimistic about banning or even limiting their use?

The United Nations special rapporteurs on extrajudicial killing have written extensively about the dangers and illegality of targeted killing off the battlefield, especially the new technology of lethal automated robots, where there is no operator directing the drones; the computer itself decides who, when and where to target. Although most countries use surveillance drones (the United States and Israel use armed drones), the proliferation of armed drones will inevitably spread to other countries.

The Federal Aviation Administration is tasked with developing regulations for commercial drones within the United States. That is a tall order and it will be difficult to enforce. Unless the international community agrees on regulations for killer drones – which is highly unlikely – their use will continue unregulated. Even with regulation, enforcement would be very difficult.

What are your hopes for the future of drones and targeted killing? What will it take to realize them?

The US government learned from the Vietnam War that Americans were disturbed by the graphic images of the carnage the US government wrought against the Vietnamese, and that outrage fueled the antiwar movement. The images and stories of drone victims are not part of our national discourse. Medea Benjamin personalizes the victims in her chapter.

Americans are justifiably outraged about the beheading of US journalists (although gays in Saudi Arabia, a close US ally, are also beheaded). But if Americans were to see photographs of the body parts of children blown to bits by US drone bombs, it would not sit well. It is incumbent on us to pressure our elected officials to rein in this deadly policy – by letters, emails, phone calls, sit-ins, op-eds and letters to the editor.

Now that we have seen how the CIA lied about the necessity for and results of the Bush torture program, we should demand that the CIA get out of the killer drone business. And just as those responsible for the torture must be prosecuted, Obama must be brought to justice for his illegal targeted killing program. Accountability requires information, so we should educate ourselves about what our government is doing in our name. It is my hope this book will assist in that endeavor.

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