The U.S. used drones and manned aircraft yesterday to drop bombs and missiles on Somalia, ending the lives of at least 150 people. As it virtually always does, the Obama administration instantly claimed that the people killed were “terrorists” and militants — members of the Somali group al Shabaab — but provided no evidence to support that assertion.
Nonetheless, most U.S. media reports contained nothing more than quotes from U.S. officials about what happened, conveyed uncritically and with no skepticism of their accuracy: The dead “fighters … were assembled for what American officials believe was a graduation ceremony and prelude to an imminent attack against American troops,” pronounced the New York Times. So, the official story goes, The Terrorists were that very moment “graduating” — receiving their Terrorist degrees — and about to attack U.S. troops when the U.S. killed them.
With that boilerplate set of claims in place, huge numbers of people today who have absolutely no idea who was killed are certain that they all deserved it. As my colleague Murtaza Hussain said of the 150 dead people: “We don’t know who they are, but luckily they were all bad.” For mindless authoritarians, the words “terrorist” and “militant” have no meaning other than: anyone who dies when my government drops bombs, or, at best, a “terrorist” is anyone my government tells me is a terrorist. Watch how many people today are defending this strike by claiming “terrorists” and “militants” were killed using those definitions even though they have literally no idea who was killed.
Other than the higher-than-normal death toll, this mass killing is an incredibly common event under the presidency of the 2009 Nobel Peace laureate, who has so far bombed seven predominantly Muslim countries. As Nick Turse has reported in The Intercept, Obama has aggressively expanded the stealth drone program and secret war in Africa.
This particular mass killing is unlikely to get much attention in the U.S. due to (1) the election-season obsession with horse-race analysis and pressing matters such as the size of Donald Trump’s hands; (2) widespread Democratic indifference to the killing of foreigners where there’s no partisan advantage to be had against the GOP from pretending to care; (3) the invisibility of places like Somalia and the implicit devaluing of lives there; and (4) the complete normalization of the model whereby the U.S. president kills whomever he wants, wherever he wants, without regard for any semblance of law, process, accountability, or evidence.
The lack of attention notwithstanding, there are several important points highlighted by yesterday’s bombing and the reaction to it:
1) The U.S. is not at war in Somalia. Congress has never declared war on Somalia, nor has it authorized the use of military force there. Morality and ethics to the side for the moment: What legal authority does Obama even possess to bomb this country? I assume we can all agree that presidents shouldn’t be permitted to just go around killing people they suspect are “bad”: they need some type of legal authority to do the killing.
Since 2001, the U.S. government has legally justified its we-bomb-wherever-we-want approach by pointing to the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), enacted by Congress in the wake of 9/11 to authorize the targeting of al Qaeda and “affiliated” forces. But al Shabaab did not exist in 2001 and had nothing to do with 9/11. Indeed, the group has not tried to attack the U.S. but instead, as the New York Times’ Charlie Savage noted in 2011, “is focused on a parochial insurgency in Somalia.” As a result, reported Savage, even “the [Obama] administration does not consider the United States to be at war with every member of the Shabaab.”
Instead, in the Obama administration’s view, specific senior members of al Shabaab can be treated as enemy combatants under the AUMF only if they adhere to al Qaeda’s ideology, are “integrated” into its command structure, and could conduct operations outside of Somalia. That’s why the U.S. government yesterday claimed that all the people it killed were about to launch attacks on U.S. soldiers: because, even under its own incredibly expansive view of the AUMF, it would be illegal to kill them merely on the ground that they were all members of al Shabaab, and the government thus needs a claim of “self-defense” to legally justify this.
But even under the “self-defense” theory that the U.S. government invoked, it is allowed — under its own policies promulgated in 2013 — to use lethal force away from an active war zone (e.g., Afghanistan) “only against a target that poses a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons.” Perhaps these Terrorists were about to imminently attack U.S. troops stationed in the region — immediately after the tassel on their graduation cap was turned at the “graduation ceremony,” they were going on the attack — but again, there is literally no evidence that any of that is true.
Given what’s at stake — namely, the conclusion that Obama’s killing of 150 people yesterday was illegal — shouldn’t we be demanding to see evidence that the assertions of his government are actually true? Were these really all al Shabaab fighters and terrorists who were killed? Were they really about to carry out some sort of imminent, dangerous attack on U.S. personnel? Why would anyone be content to blindly believe the self-serving assertions of the U.S. government on these questions without seeing evidence? If you are willing to make excuses for why you don’t want to see any evidence, why would you possibly think you know what happened here — who was killed and under what circumstances — if all you have are conclusory, evidence-free assertions from those who carried out the killings?
2) There are numerous compelling reasons demanding skepticism of U.S. government claims about who it kills in airstrikes. To begin with, the Obama administration has formally re-defined the term “militant” to mean: “all military-age males in a strike zone” unless “there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” In other words, the U.S. government presumptively regards all adult males it kills as “militants” unless evidence emerges that they were not. It’s an empty, manipulative term of propaganda and nothing else.
Beyond that, the U.S. government’s own documents prove that in the vast majority of cases — 9 out of 10 in fact — it is killing people other than its intended targets. Last April, the New York Times published an article under the headline “Drone Strikes Reveal Uncomfortable Truth: U.S. Is Often Unsure About Who Will Die.” It quoted the scholar Micah Zenko saying, “Most individuals killed are not on a kill list, and the government does not know their names.”
Moreover, the U.S. government has repeatedly been caught lying about the identity of its bombings victims. As that April NYT article put it, “Every independent investigation of the strikes has found far more civilian casualties than administration officials admit.”
Given that clear record of deliberate deceit, why would any rational person blindly swallow evidence-free assertions from the U.S. government about who it is killing? To put it mildly, extreme skepticism is warranted (after being criticized for its stenography, the final New York Times story yesterday at least included this phrase about the Pentagon’s claims about who it killed: “There was no independent way to verify the claim”).
3) Why does the U.S. have troops stationed in this part of Africa? Remember, even the Obama administration says it is not at war with al Shabaab.
Consider how circular this entire rationale is: The U.S., like all countries, obviously has a legitimate interest in protecting its troops from attack. But why does it have troops there at all in need of protection? The answer: The troops are there to operate drone bases and attack people they regard as a threat to them. But if they weren’t there in the first place, these groups could not pose a threat to them.
In sum: We need U.S. troops in Africa to launch drone strikes at groups that are trying to attack U.S. troops in Africa. It’s the ultimate self-perpetuating circle of imperialism: We need to deploy troops to other countries in order to attack those who are trying to kill U.S. troops who are deployed there.
4) If you’re an American who has lived under the war on terror, it’s easy to forget how extreme this behavior is. Most countries on the planet don’t routinely run around dropping bombs and killing dozens of people in multiple other countries at once, let alone do so in countries where they’re not at war.
But for Americans, this is now all perfectly normalized. We just view our president as vested with the intrinsic, divine right, grounded in American exceptionalism, to deem whomever he wants “Bad Guys” and then — with no trial, no process, no accountability — order them killed. He’s the roving, Global Judge, Jury, and Executioner. And we see nothing disturbing or dangerous or even odd about that. We’ve been inculcated to view the world the way a 6-year-old watches cartoons: Bad Guys should be killed, and that’s the end of the story.
So yesterday the president killed roughly 150 people in a country where the U.S. is not at war. The Pentagon issued a five-sentence boilerplate statement declaring them all “terrorists.” And that’s pretty much the end of that. Within literally hours, virtually everyone was ready to forget about the whole thing and move on, content in the knowledge — even without a shred of evidence or information about the people killed — that their government and president did the right thing. Now that is a pacified public and malleable media.