[News] America as a Shining Drone Upon a Hill

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Sun May 13 22:34:59 EDT 2012


America as a Shining Drone Upon a Hill
On Staring Death in the Face and Not Noticing

By <http://www.tomdispatch.com/authors/tom>Tom Engelhardt
http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175541/tomgram%3A_engelhardt%2C_predator_nation/?utm_source=TomDispatch&utm_campaign=60cd1fc1b5-TD_Engelhardt5_13_2012&utm_medium=email#more

Here’s the essence of it: you can trust America’s 
crème de la crème, the most elevated, responsible 
people, no matter what weapons, what powers, you 
put in their hands.  No need to constantly look over their shoulders.

Placed in the hands of evildoers, those weapons 
and powers could create a living nightmare; 
controlled by the best of people, they lead to 
measured, thoughtful, precise decisions in which 
bad things are (with rare and understandable 
exceptions) done only to truly terrible 
types.  In the process, you simply couldn’t be better protected.

And in case you were wondering, there is no 
question who among us are the best, most lawful, 
moral, ethical, considerate, and judicious 
people: the officials of our national security 
state.  Trust them implicitly.  They will never give you a bum steer.

You may be paying a fortune to maintain their 
world -- the 
<http://globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com/2012/05/06/national-security-state/>30,000 
people hired to listen in on conversations and 
other communications in this country, the 230,000 
employees of the Department of Homeland Security, 
the 
<http://projects.washingtonpost.com/top-secret-america/articles/a-hidden-world-growing-beyond-control/>854,000 
people with top-secret clearances, the 
<http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/05/us/politics/awlaki-killing-is-awash-in-open-secrets.html>4.2 
million with security clearances of one sort or 
another, the 
<http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2012/03/ff_nsadatacenter/all/1>$2 
billion, one-million-square-foot data center that 
the National Security Agency is constructing in 
Utah, the gigantic 
<http://blogs.reuters.com/gregg-easterbrook/2011/01/20/undisciplined-spending-in-the-name-of-defense/>$1.8 
billion headquarters the National Geospatial 
Intelligence Agency recently built for its 16,000 
employees in the Washington area -- but there’s a 
good reason.  That’s what’s needed to make truly 
elevated, surgically precise decisions about life 
and death in the service of protecting American 
interests on this dangerous globe of ours.

And in case you wondered just how we know all 
this, we have it on the best authority: the 
people who are doing it -- the only ones, given 
the obvious need for secrecy, capable of judging 
just how moral, elevated, and remarkable their 
own work is.  They deserve our congratulations, 
but if we’re too distracted to give it to them, 
they are quite capable of high-fiving themselves.

We’re talking, in particular, about the use by 
the Obama administration (and the Bush 
administration before it) of a 
<http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175489/>growing 
armada of remotely piloted planes, a.k.a. drones, 
grimly labeled Predators and Reapers, to fight a 
nameless, almost planet-wide war (formerly known 
as the Global War on Terror).  Its purpose: to 
destroy al-Qaeda-in-wherever and all its wannabes 
and look-alikes, the Taliban, and anyone 
affiliated or associated with any of the above, 
or just about anyone else we believe might 
<http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175447/tomgram%3A_engelhardt,_washington%27s_field_of_screams/>imminently 
endanger our “interests.”

In the service of this war, in the midst of a 
<http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/174965>perpetual 
state of war and of wartime, every act committed 
by these leaders is, it turns out, absolutely, 
totally, and completely legal.  We have their 
say-so for that, and they have the documents to 
prove it, largely because the best and most 
elevated legal minds among them have 
<http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/09/world/middleeast/secret-us-memo-made-legal-case-to-kill-a-citizen.html>produced 
that documentation in secret. (Of course, they 
dare not show it to the rest of us, lest lives be endangered.)

By their own account, they have, in fact, been 
covertly exceptional, moral, and legal for more 
than a decade 
(<http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2012/may/07/john-yoo-jose-padilla-torture-lawsuit/>minus, 
of course, the odd 
<http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/08/13/070813fa_fact_mayer>black 
site and 
<http://news.antiwar.com/2012/05/09/destroyed-videos-showed-us-torture-victim-vomiting-and-screaming/>torture 
chamber) -- so covertly exceptional, in fact, 
that they haven’t quite gotten the credit they 
deserve.  Now, they would like to make the latest 
version of their exceptional mission to the world 
known to the rest of us.  It is finally in our 
interest, it seems, to be a good deal better 
informed about America’s covert wars in a year in 
which the widely announced “covert” killing of 
Osama bin Laden in Pakistan is a major selling 
point in the president’s reelection campaign.

No one should be surprised.  There was always an 
“overt” lurking in the “covert” of what now 
passes for “covert war.”  The CIA’s global drone 
assassination campaign has long been a 
<http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2009/05/cia-chief-drones-only-game-in-town-for-stopping-al-qaeda/>bragging 
point in Washington, even if it 
<http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/05/us/politics/awlaki-killing-is-awash-in-open-secrets.html>couldn’t 
officially be discussed directly before, say, 
Congress.  The covertness of our drone wars in 
the Pakistani tribal borderlands, Somalia, Yemen, 
and elsewhere really turns out to have less to do 
with secrecy -- 
<http://www.thenational.ae/news/world/middle-east/us-drone-strikes-kills-17-al-qaeda-militants-in-abyan>just 
about every covert drone strike is reported, 
sooner or later, in the media -- than assuring 
two administrations that they could pursue their 
drone wars without accountability to anyone.

A Classic of Self-Congratulation

Recently, top administration officials seem to be 
<http://articles.latimes.com/2012/may/06/opinion/la-oe-mcmanus-column-transparency-on-drones-20120506>fanning 
out to offer rare peeks into what’s truly 
on-target and exceptional about America’s drone 
wars. In many ways, these days, American 
exceptionalism is 
<http://articles.latimes.com/2011/dec/02/opinion/la-oe-engelhardt-american-exceptionalism-20111202>about 
as unexceptional as apple pie.  It has, for one 
thing, become the everyday language of the 
presidential 
<http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2012/04/02/obama-rebuffs-romney-on-exceptional-america/>campaign 
trail.  And that shouldn’t surprise us 
either.  After all, great powers and their 
leaders tend to think well of themselves.  The 
French had their “mission civilisatrice,” the 
Chinese had the “mandate of heaven,” and like all 
imperial powers they inevitably thought they were 
doing the best for themselves and others, sadly 
benighted, in this best of all possible worlds.

<http://www.amazon.com/dp/1608461548/ref=nosim/?tag=tomdispatch-20>
[]
Sometimes, though, the American version of this 
does seem... I hate to use the word, but 
exceptional.  If you want to get a taste of just 
what this means, consider as Exhibit One a 
<http://www.wilsoncenter.org/event/the-efficacy-and-ethics-us-counterterrorism-strategy>recent 
speech by the president’s counterterrorism 
<http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2048317,00.html>“tsar,” 
John Brennan, at the Woodrow Wilson International 
Center for Scholars.  According to his own 
account, he was dispatched to the center by 
President Obama to provide greater openness when 
it comes to the administration’s secret drone 
wars, to respond to critics of the drones and 
their legality, and undoubtedly to put a smiley 
face on drone operations generally.

Ever since the Puritan minister John Winthrop 
first used the phrase in a sermon on shipboard on 
the way to North America, 
“<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/City_upon_a_Hill>a 
city upon a hill” has caught something of at 
least one American-style dream -- a sense that 
this country’s fate was to be a blessed paragon 
for the rest of the world, an exception to every 
norm.  In the last century, it became “a shining 
city upon a hill” and was regularly cited in presidential addresses.

Whatever that “city,” that dream, was once 
imagined to be, it has undergone a largely 
unnoticed metamorphosis in the twenty-first 
century.  It has become -- even in our dreams -- 
an up-armored garrison encampment, just as 
Washington itself has become the heavily 
fortified bureaucratic heartland of a war 
state.  So when Brennan spoke, what he offered 
was a new version of American exceptionalism: the 
first “shining drone upon a hill” speech, which 
also qualifies as an instant classic of self-congratulation.

Never, according to him, has a country with such 
an advanced weapon system as the drone used it 
quite so judiciously, quite so -- if not 
peacefully -- at least with the sagacity and 
skill usually reserved for the gods.  American 
drone strikes, he assured his listeners, are 
“ethical and just," "wise," and "surgically 
precise” -- exactly what you’d expect from a 
country he refers to, quoting the president, as 
the preeminent “standard bearer in the conduct of war.”

Those drone strikes, he assured his listeners, 
are based on staggeringly “rigorous standards” 
involving the individual identification of human 
targets. Even when visited 
<http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/anwar-al-awlakis-family-speaks-out-against-his-sons-deaths/2011/10/17/gIQA8kFssL_story.html>on 
American citizens outside declared war zones, 
they are invariably “within the bounds of the 
law,” as you would expect of the preeminent “nation of laws.”

The strikes are never motivated by vengeance, 
always target someone known to us as the worst of 
the worst, and almost invariably avoid anyone who 
is even the most mediocre of the 
mediocre.  (Forget the fact that, as Greg Miller 
of the Washington Post 
<http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/cia-seeks-new-authority-to-expand-yemen-drone-campaign/2012/04/18/gIQAsaumRT_story.html>reported, 
the CIA has recently received permission from the 
president to launch drone strikes in Yemen based 
only on the observed “patterns of suspicious 
behavior” of groups of unidentified individuals, 
as was already true in the Pakistani tribal borderlands.)

Yes, in such circumstances innocents do 
unfortunately die, even if unbelievably rarely -- 
and for that we couldn’t be more regretful.  Such 
deaths, however, are in some sense salutary, 
since they lead to the most rigorous reviews and 
reassessments of, and so improvements in, our 
actions. “This too,” Brennan assured his 
audience, “is a reflection of our values as Americans.”

“I would note,” he added, “that these standards, 
for identifying a target and avoiding... the loss 
of lives of innocent civilians, exceed what is 
required as a matter of international law on a 
typical battlefield.  That’s another example of 
the high standards to which we hold ourselves.”

And that’s just a taste of the tone and substance 
of the speech given by the president’s leading 
counterterrorism expert, and in it he’s no 
outlier.  It catches something about an American 
sense of self at this moment.  Yes, Americans may 
be 
<http://ap-gfkpoll.com/uncategorized/may-2012-poll-findings>ever 
more down on the Afghan war, but like their 
leaders, they are high on drones.  In a February 
Washington Post/ABC News poll, 
<http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/poll-finds-broad-support-for-obamas-counterterrorism-policies/2012/02/07/gIQAFrSEyQ_story.html>83% 
of respondents supported the administration’s use 
of drones.  Perhaps that’s not surprising either, 
since the drones are generally presented here as 
the 
<http://www.tomdispatch.com/archive/175507/tom_engelhardt_remotely_piloted_war>coolest 
of machines, as well as cheap alternatives (in 
money and lives) to sending more armies onto the Eurasian mainland.

Predator Nation

In these last years, this country has pioneered 
the development of the most advanced killing 
machines on the planet for which the national 
security state has 
<http://www.tomdispatch.com/archive/175195/nick_turse_the_drone_surge>plans 
decades into the future.  Conceptually speaking, 
our leaders have also established their “right” 
to send these robot assassins into any airspace, 
no matter the 
<http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/b4a8cc3c-96c0-11e1-847c-00144feabdc0.html#axzz1ubYwZkbC>local 
claims of national sovereignty, to take out those 
we define as evil or simply to protect American 
interests.  On this, Brennan couldn’t be 
clearer.  In the process, we have turned much of 
the rest of the planet into what can only be 
considered an American 
<http://www.tomdispatch.com/archive/175535/tom_engelhardt_the_Obama_conundrum>free-fire 
zone.

We have, in short, established a remarkably 
expansive set of drone-war rules for the global 
future.  Naturally, we trust ourselves with such 
rules, but there is a fly in the ointment, even 
as the droniacs see it.  Others far less 
sagacious, kindly, lawful, and good than we are 
do exist on this planet and they may soon have 
their own fleets of drones.  About 
<http://www.cnn.com/2011/10/19/opinion/cortright-drones/index.html>50 
countries are 
<http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/09/sunday-review/coming-soon-the-drone-arms-race.html>today 
buying or 
<http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2011/11/drone-world/?pid=859&viewall=true>developing 
such robotic aircraft, including Russia, China, 
and Iran, not to speak of Hezbollah in 
Lebanon.  And who knows what terror groups are looking into suicide drones?

As the Washington Post’s David Ignatius 
<http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/politicizing-the-drone-debate/2012/05/02/gIQArTMTxT_story.html>put 
it in a column about Brennan’s speech: “What if 
the Chinese deployed drones to protect their 
workers in southern Sudan against rebels who have 
killed them in past attacks? What if Iran used 
them against Kurdish separatists they regard as 
terrorists? What if Russia used them over 
Chechnya? What position would the United States 
take, and wouldn’t it be hypocritical if it 
opposed drone attacks by other nations that face 
‘imminent’ or ‘significant’ threats?”

This is Washington’s global drone conundrum as 
seen from inside the Beltway.  These are the 
nightmarish scenarios even our leaders can 
imagine others producing with their own drones 
and our rules.  A deeply embedded sense of 
American exceptionalism, a powerful belief in 
their own special, self-evident goodness, 
however, conveniently blinds them to what they 
are doing right now.  Looking in the mirror, they 
are incapable of seeing a mask of death.  And yet 
our proudest export at present, other than 
Hollywood 
<http://www.cinemablend.com/new/Official-Avengers-Box-Office-Numbers-Even-Bigger-Than-You-Thought-30796.html>superhero 
films, may be a stone-cold robotic killer with a 
name straight out of a <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093773/>horror movie.

Consider this as well: those “shining drones” 
launched on campaigns of assassination and 
slaughter are increasingly the “face” that we 
choose to present to the world.  And yet it’s 
beyond us why it might not shine for others.

In reality, it’s not so hard to imagine what we 
increasingly look like to those others: a 
Predator nation.  And not just to the parents and 
relatives of the more than 
<http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/2011/08/11/more-than-160-children-killed-in-us-strikes/>160 
children the Bureau of Investigative Journalism 
has documented as having died in U.S. drone 
strikes in Pakistan.  After all, war is now the 
only game in town.  Peace?  For the managers of 
our national security state, it’s neither a word 
worth mentioning, nor an imaginable condition.

In truth, our leaders should be in mourning for 
whatever peaceful dreams we ever had.  But 
mention drones and they light up.  They’re having 
a love affair with those machines.  They just 
can’t get enough of them or imagine their world or ours without them.

What they can’t see in the haze of exceptional 
self-congratulation is this: they are 
transforming the promise of America into a 
promise of death. And death, visited from the 
skies, isn’t precise. It isn’t glorious. It isn’t 
judicious. It certainly isn’t a shining 
vision.  It’s hell.  And it’s a global future for 
which, someday, no one will thank us.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the 
<http://americanempireproject.com/>American 
Empire Project and the author of 
<http://www.amazon.com/dp/1608460711/ref=nosim/?tag=tomdispatch-20>The 
American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became 
Obama’s as well as 
<http://www.amazon.com/dp/155849586X/ref=nosim/?tag=tomdispatch-20>The 
End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation 
Institute's 
<http://www.tomdispatch.com/>TomDispatch.com. His 
latest book is 
<http://www.amazon.com/dp/1608461548/ref=nosim/?tag=tomdispatch-20>The 
United States of Fear (Haymarket Books).

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and 
join us on <http://www.facebook.com/tomdispatch>Facebook.

Copyright 2012 Tom Engelhardt




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