one mans hero

This week, U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta announced the creation of a new medal for cyber-warriors, most notably for the long-distance pilots of Predator and Reaper drones.

This week, U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta announced the creation of a new medal for cyber-warriors, most notably for the long-distance pilots of Predator and Reaper drones. It’s a historic decision. Now an American soldier can become a decorated hero simply by slaughtering suspected enemies, along with a sizeable civilian by-catch, with no risk to his own personal safety.

According to a study conducted by the Stanford University School of Law International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic and the NYU School of Law Global Justice Clinic, from June 2004 to September 2012 drone strikes killed 2,562 to 3,325 people in Pakistan. Between 18 and 24 percent of those, as many as 881, were civilians, including children. (Since any combat-aged male who dies in these attacks is a presumed terrorist, it’s likely that this figure is unrealistically low.) Of course, in each case the hero who pulled the trigger wouldn’t have known there were children in his bombsights, since the targets were thousands of miles away.

To quote from the International Committee of the Red Cross’s summary of the Geneva Conventions, “every feasible precaution must be taken, in attacking or locating military objectives, to avoid, and in any event minimize, incidental civilian losses and damage.”

It would take a great leap of imagination to believe that remotely-piloted missile strikes on dwelling places where suspected terrorists and their – often extended – families live meet this standard. But even if they did, even if those 20 per cent or so dead civilians could be seen as the inevitable consequences of a necessary act of war, the drone program goes much farther, actually targeting rescue workers who arrive on the scene after the initial attack.

The American government has quite rightly condemned the terrorist practice of the “double tap,” as described in the following FBI official alert from 2004. “A favorite tactic of Hamas: a device is set off, and when police and other first responders arrive, a second, larger device is set off to inflict more casualties and spread panic.”

When Hamas does it, it’s an act of terror. When done by the Central Intelligence Agency, it’s simply routine. Between 2009 and 2011, at least 15 U.S. drone strikes against rescuers were reported in mainstream media outlets. According to a 2012 report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, “the CIA’s drone campaign in Pakistan has killed dozens of civilians who had gone to help rescue victims or were attending funerals.” In one incident reported by the New York Times in 2009, “An airstrike believed to have been carried out by a United States drone killed at least 60 people at a funeral for a Taliban fighter in South Waziristan.” Ten of those people were children.

The drone program is one enormous war crime. It violates the territorial integrity of targeted countries. It gives the president the power to try, convict, and execute suspected terrorists based on hearsay evidence. It fails to protect civilians from attack. Worst of all, it deliberately targets rescuers and funerals. In justification for this, the American authorities claim that the threat to national security posed by Al Qaida demands whatever actions the president deems necessary to protect American lives.

Leaving aside the chilling prospect presented by one politician at the head of the world’s greatest military machine having carte blanche to override all legal and moral considerations with the waiver of “whatever means are necessary,” can this program really work?

Despite protests from the government of Pakistan, the U.S. has thousands of drones in operation over the northern part of that country, where Al Quaida has its strongest foothold. Most of the towns in North Waziristan know what it means to be targeted by drones: destruction of property, loss of life, death of rescuers and mourners, widespread injury, economic hardship, and a life under constant threat. Imagine for a moment that unmanned Predator drones controlled from afar by a foreign power was destroying apartment buildings in your town, then coming back to slaughter fire fighters and ambulance crews who arrived at the scene. Now imagine that in your town a group was recruiting resistance fighters to attack that foreign country. Do you think the attacks would encourage, or discourage angry young men from taking up arms?

In war it is always the case that one side’s hero is the other side’s terrorist. Today, an American soldier who launches an attack to destroy a home full of people, and then launches follow-up attacks on rescuers and mourners, is worthy of a medal. Tomorrow, when a witness to that attack dons a bomb belt and targets American lives, he’ll do so with the promise of a reward in heaven. A question: who are the heroes in this story?

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C./Yukon in 2010 and 2002.