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Should Some Missile Strikes Be Criminalized?

Should missile strikes that later cause tens of thousands of civilian casualties and enormous environmental degradation be considered unlawful and against international laws?

“Smoke pours out of the civilian shelter for days while rescue workers collapse in grief excavating the remains, pitching their dead cargo to the ground. Some vomit from the stench of the sizzling corpses, nearly all women children, and babies, burned beyond identification.”(1) -1991 Persian Gulf War One, where a U.S. missile strike against Baghdad, Iraq hit a neighborhood residential shelter mistakenly thought to be a military command post.

As a result of the Nuremburg and Tokyo War Crimes Tribunals, wars against peace and humanity were finally criminalized, at least for the defeated and vanquished. Is it now time to also criminalize missile strikes that murder and maim innocent civilians? Should missile strikes that later cause tens of thousands of civilian casualties and enormous environmental degradation be considered unlawful and against international laws? And should the actions of such perpetrators be criminalized too?

While President Barack Obama mulls over punishing Syria with missile attacks, he and others might want to recall when a U.S. warship destroyed an Iranian passenger jet killing 295 innocent civilians. They may want to consider the 1999 NATO bombing attacks on a Belgrade television that killed 20 journalists, the 1998 U.S. bombing of a baby milk plant in Sudan that killed thousands of children, or the ongoing U.S. drone strikes in Yemen and Afghanistan which have killed and maimed thousands of innocent civilians.

Just as weapons technologies are shaped by the societies in which they develop, and reflect their values and thinking, such weaponries can shape and modify those same societies in return, including their values and thoughts. Superior weapons, like cruise missiles, can cause their perpetrators and supporters to become extremely disconnected with on-ground realities. As the distribution of power and conduct of war changes, biased war technologies can even be used to try and justify criminal actions and war crimes.

Sadly, the international community has not been able to keep pace with the acceleration and speed of advance weaponry. Through powerful lobbying efforts and the manipulation of the media, the languages, narratives and histories, even their murders, of innocent victims are easily repressed and dismissed. Today, those who boast of responsibly enforcing international laws and norms are most responsible for committing acts of technological terror. They are most irresponsible in upholding international norms.

So-called precision guided and surgical missile strikes are always “relative.” Absolute grid locations never change, but the relative positions of those exact sites do. Despite a Global Positioning Satellite and Geographical Information System, numerous relative positions and spatial perceptions are always involved in launching an attack. Washington DC, the Pentagon, command and control centers, military personnel and their perceptions, and the targeted locations of the human environment is constant, always changing.

The most important aspect of using advanced weapons systems is human perception, and how it has changed. Through technological biases and disproportionate uses of power, those in charge of the primacy of international laws can seem primitive. Through a superpower, hegemonic lens, those boasting of upholding human rights can be inhumane. The cannibalism of cruise missile strikes are the real weapons of mass destruction. Missile strikes have killed far more civilians than chemical and biological weapons.

A disparity in power and thinking over advanced weapons systems and the use of missile strikes needs to be radically addressed and challenged, specifically since they legitimize crimes against peace and humanity. And while lethal cruise missile attacks have killed thousands of innocent civilians, their extensive military control over other peoples sovereignty and security has caused enormous psychological and emotional damage to both victims and perpetrators. It is time to criminalize some missile strikes.

(1) Smith, Michael K. Portraits Of Empire: Unmasking Imperial Illusions from the “American Century” to the “War on Terror”. Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 2003., p. 281.