Monday, August 12, 2013

Who Decides? (When Drones are Judge, Jury, and Executioner)

Abdulrahman Awlaki, killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen.

This past week I was in Madison, WI, where I saw a number of excellent presentations on peacemaking. One, in particular, changed my thinking.

Joan Haan and Elliott Adams gave a presentation at the Veterans for Peace (VFP) convention, "Creating a Culture of Peace: Exploring Nonviolent Social Change Movements Past, Present, and Future," which provided excellent tools for organizers. Part of their presentation dealt with three distinct aspects of public opinion:
  • public awareness of the problem
  • public opposition to powerholder policies
  • public support for movement alternatives

(These three aspects are part of the Movement Action Plan model developed by Bill Moyer, as shown on the chart above.)

Our discussion turned to the question: where are we on each of these aspects when it comes to drones?

Public opposition

There seemed to be general agreement that we are making good progress in encouraging public awareness of the problem of drones.

Clearly, we are not yet at the point where there is broad public support for the alternatives being offered by the antiwar movement.

This then led us to ponder: might we, in fact, be on the cusp of a breakthrough moment when the public decides that they aren't buying the policies of U.S. powerholders with respect to drones?

As I thought about this in the days that followed, I became more and more convinced . . .
  • It's time for our movement to move beyond stimulating public awareness of the problem -- beyond just saying "drones, drones, drones"
  • The moment is not yet ripe for us to convince the public of commit to the alternatives we are proposing
  • The moment is right to invite the public to shine a bright light on powerholder policies -- to decide for themselves, "Are you buying the government's story?"
In other words, it's time for us to do less telling and more asking, inviting, and listening.

In my opinion, all we need to invite many more people into the conversation is two words: "Who decides?"

Who decides?

If the public will join us in asking the question "Who decides?" about drone executions, I believe they will rapidly come to realize that they are utterly dissatisfied with what the government is saying.

(1) All the President's men?

Ever since last May, when the New York Times profiled the weekly Tuesday "kill list" decisions by Barack Obama and his inner circle, we've been aware that the President and a few close advisers think they have the right to huddle in the White House and decide who lies and who dies.

Is the American public really happy with the idea that we're back to rule by "All the President's Men" -- this time with drones?

(2) The CIA?

The largest portion of the U.S. drone killing program to date has been in the hands of the CIA. (Though this is not publicly acknowledged, because, well, it's the CIA.)

Who among the public -- really -- vests trust in the CIA?

(3) The generals?

Strange to say, the public would probably place more confidence in the leaders of the military -- at least when it comes to the use of drones -- than in the other possible alternatives.

Unfortunately, the leaders of the military are probably the least involved in decisions about the use of drones. (Perhaps we should hear more from them about that.)

(4) Contractors?

The Snowden affair has gone a long way toward exposing the involvement of government contractors in propping up the U.S. security state. However, we have not yet begun to see real public awareness of the number of civilian contractors involved in the drone "kill chain."

Is the American public going to be satisfied with the idea that these life-and-death decisions are in the hands of a bunch of IT contractors?

(5) Or does The Machine decide?

There is a very real sense in which the decisions to use drones to kill are being made by the machines themselves. That is, the relative weight of the system design and network communications in the outcome, relative to the weight of human agency, is becoming more and more overwhelming.

I predict that, at the end of the day, Americans will vote down the idea of computers, robots, and information systems being judge, jury, and executioner.

What do you think we can to spur public engagement with the question, "Who decides?"

Related posts

Now comes the messy part. We need many more people to engage with with the emotions aroused by drones. This is going to involve many different groups of people, engaging with this topic in many different ways: churches and faith groups . . . young people . . . . The point is: the discourse on drones is going to get out of our hands. It isn't always going to go the way we want. But the important thing is that many, many people are going to be talking about it in the ways that feel appropriate to them.

 (See Democracy vs. Drones)

By now, everyone knows about the New York Times article describing Barack Obama's personal administration of drone killing around the world. What few people are willing to face up to is that Obama 2012 partisans actually see this as a way to get a lot of Americans to like Obama: "This is the candidate; you MUST support him!"

(See Being a Team Player for "Mr. Forceful": Obama and the Dems )

First Reps. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ) and Keith Ellison (D-MN) called the U.S. on the carpet for dodging the call from the international community to come clean about its drone killings. Then Reps. Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Walter Jones (R-NC) submitted a bill calling for drone transparency. So ... are we finally going to get the truth?

(See REAL Progressives Demand that the U.S. Come Clean on Drone Killings)

The impossibly upside-down world described by George Orwell actually turns out to be -- point by point -- the world we now live in.

(See Dirty Wars and Extrajudicial Execution (So 1984!) )