While I think we can all agree that Nietzsche was a syphilis-addled misogynist, he did make a few valid points.
“He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster.”
It’s a maxim I believe we’ve been underutilizing in the “War on Terror”. While some might dispute the idea of referring to terrorists as monsters, I think few would contest the assertion that terrorism is a monstrous act.
There’s a certain irony in the fact that one of the most effective tools that recruiters for terrorist organizations have is the actions of those attempting to fight terrorism. And in a way, I expect that our most recent weapon in that fight is a particularly grievous example of that.
I appreciate the advantages that it offers. It keeps the human out of harm’s way, safe, and while a destroyed drone is likely approximately as expensive as a manned aircraft of the same specifications, assembly lines don’t have emotions, can’t feel loss, or heartbreak, or write angry letters to their congressman.
The problem, of course, is that even the most accurate airstrike is still a fairly indiscriminate weapon. By some counts, CIA drone strikes in Pakistan have killed nearly 3,500 people; by other counts, it could be significantly more. Were all of those people terrorists?
To make things worse, this is a war without uniforms, rank, or chains of command. No strategic targets to hit, no major infrastructure, factories to bomb and destroy. No single polity, no cohesive political entity with which to treat or negotiate. It’s a war against an ideology more than anything.
The people we wage this war against are drawn from all walks of life, from all nations, all ages, all genders. They may be united in that ideology, but that is the sole thread that binds them together.
To be frank, calling it a “war” at this point is perhaps disingenuous. Call it rather what it is: a campaign of systematic assassination.
It sets a dangerous precedent, not so much in the idea that the leaders of a particular cause should themselves be exempt from danger, but rather that such individuals are worth the slaughter of innocents when they present themselves as a target of opportunity. That it is the privilege of the government to declare such targets as they see fit, using processes cloaked from public scrutiny. To decide that these targets represent an imminent threat, and to assassinate them at will.
What constitutes an “imminent threat”? By the standard we apply to domestic law enforcement, functionally no drone assassination has ever been justified in that regard. No crazed terrorist holding a gun to the head of an innocent, but rather a vague assertion that the words or actions of such an individual might someday move another towards violence.
Threat? Perhaps. Imminent? Not so much.
And in a final twist, the government has decided that not only are they allowed to assassinate foreigners, but also citizens of the United States. So long as they’re safely out of the country, of course. It’s a dangerous legal precedent, particularly when applied to individuals who have simply advocated for terrorism, rather than actually built the bombs or pulled the trigger themselves.
It also reveals the fundamental hypocrisy at the heart of our drone policy. Because it’s one we’ll only ever apply in foreign countries, places far away, perceived as dangerous or somehow barbarous by the American public.
We’d never conduct drone strikes in the United States, or the territory of our close allies. The public wouldn’t stand for it, no matter how ineffective local law enforcement might be. A drug dealer might peddle his wares in hiding for a decade, but if you lobbed a Hellfire missile through his window and killed him and his immediate family, you can rest assured that no official in that chain of command would escape unscathed.
The terrible truth at the heart of the war on terror is that in the long run it’s a futile effort. Assassination may complicate terrorist operations, but it’s not a case of striking the head from the serpent. It’s striking a head from the hydra, and two more will arise.
The only way to defeat the hydra was to burn the stumps, cauterize them so that nothing living could grow in their place. And I pray that none of us could ever truly contemplate extending that particular metaphor into reality, lest we be forced to redraw the maps entirely.
Here there be monsters.