The most inhumane and tragic aspect of any war, noble or nefarious, is the reality of civilian casualties. As long as there’s been warfare, noncombatants have been caught in the crossfire, or even intentionally killed en masse to spur popular intolerance for the continuation of the war. During World War II, for example, the United States and the Allied Forces routinely decimated civilian populations, notably in Dresden, and especially in Japan where scores were intentionally annihilated, first with fire-bombings and, finally, with two atomic bombs.
No such deplorable motives can be attributed to the deaths arising from recent US military strikes, including the dreaded drone attacks abroad approved by President Obama. Recently, noncombatant deaths in war have been either accidental, or contritely admitted as unavoidable collateral damage. This doesn’t excuse it, but it lends perspective — with war, there are unintended deaths.
Such is the case with Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the 16-year-old son of Al-Qaida recruiter Anwar Al-Awlaki who was accidentally killed in a CIA drone strike on October 14, 2011. Based on all reliable accounts, Abdulrahman’s death was unintentional, and American officials have said the real target was Al-Qaida operative Ibrahim al-Banna. It’s unclear whether al-Banna was actually at the location and whether he was subsequently killed. But that’s a sidebar to the story of the death of Abdulrahman.
The often-repeated idea that perhaps this teenager was intentionally targeted for assassination, or perhaps that someone misled the officials who greenlit the attack, remains in the arena of speculation and conspiracy theories. For example, here’s Salon.com’s David Sirota last week:
Barack Obama extra-judicially executed Anwar al-Awlaki and then his 16-year-old son, without charging either of the two U.S. citizens with a single crime. The two were simply presumed guilty, without any evidence being officially marshaled against them.
This assumes without evidence that the president deliberately targeted Abdulrahman for assassination.
On top of this, Sirota, in a follow-up post, has drawn a direct comparison between the death of young Abdulrahman and the tragic shooting death of Trayvon Martin at the hands of a neighborhood-watch vigilante named George Zimmerman.
Why, you ask, is the institutionalized vigilantism that killed 16-year-old American Abdulrahman al-Awlaki at least as problematic for society as the individual vigilantism that killed 17-year-old American Trayvon Martin?
The conflation of these two deaths is simply ignorant of the circumstances of each incident.
The entire argument hinges on the distinction between intentional, targeting killing versus accidental, collateral killing.
Sirota andothers are leading with the assumption that Abdulrahman was intentionally targeted, pursued and killed by President Obama — that the CIA and the Obama administration decided somehow that a 16-year-old American-born kid was a significant terrorist threat. Not only that, but the administration decided that Abdulrahman was in the process of carrying out plans for a terrorist attack, far beyond the point of no return in that endeavor and therefore incapable of being apprehended before it was too late.
If that’s the case, where’s the evidence? Where’s the evidence that Abdulrahman was targeted with the same kneejerk zeal as Trayvon was pursued by George Zimmerman? Or targeted at all, zealously or not? Why does every horrible social injustice in this country that African Americans or women or impoverished people experience at the hands of someone who feels they have a constitutional “right” to do it, somehow have to work its way back to a certain subset of liberal writers and their pet civil libertarian gripes?
Trayvon Martin, armed with nothing but a bag of Skittles and iced tea, was intentionally targeted by a lone, untrained vigilante who racially profiled him. Zimmerman, who wasn’t a deputized member of law enforcement, unilaterally decided that Trayvon looked like a criminal and therefore ought to be pursued as one. Without evidence of a similar circumstances in the death Abdulrahman, there’s no intellectually honest comparison.
Sirota, in particular, observed that there’s a racial component in the killing of Abdulrahman, a “person of color” according to Sirota, and therefore there is a similarity to Trayvon’s racially-motivated death. Sirota wrote that Abdulrahman’s death was a feature of “institutional vigilantism — the kind aimed at people based on their racial, ethnic, religious and geographic profile.”
This argument requires that we accept that Barack Obama, the first African American president, has some sort of roiling, barely unspoken hatred of Muslims — a hatred so powerful that he’s resorted to intentionally killing noncombatant teenagers. It’s a remarkable assertion, carrying with it major ramifications. It not only suggests that the war on terrorism, for all its ugliness, is actually a form of anti-Arab, anti-Muslim ethnic cleansing or genocide, it also requires that we accept that an African American man named Barack, who was hounded about his paternal family’s Muslim background, who has established record breaking progress with regard to legislative tolerance for people of different faiths, ethnicities and sexual orientations, is implementing an administrative institutional policy of racism. From there, there’s no other conclusion to draw other than that the president and his administration are, collectively, war criminals who now exist in a rogue’s gallery of other genocidal regimes. Of course, even if the president was a war criminal, he’d be innocent until proven guilty, even though Sirota, Greenwald and others operate under the presumption of the president’s guilt — the very presumption they claim to hate.
This would be hilarious if it wasn’t so completely insane.
On one hand, we’re told the president is a demonic Islamophobe with an almost genocidal blood-lust against them, while, on the other hand, we’re told he’s secretly an Islamic jihadist sleeper-cell who’s weak on terrorism in order to enable it.
The truth, obviously, is neither. And both halves of that dichotomy are equally ridiculous.
Meanwhile, George Zimmerman was on the look-out for, according to Zimmerman, “real suspicious guy[s]” and “these assholes,” due to a spate of recent burglaries in his neighborhood. He spotted Trayvon’s hoodie and jumped to the horribly inaccurate and racially-motivated presumption of Trayvon’s guilt. We’re expected to follow this analogy and believe that the president exercised the same brand of racial profiling and jumped to the presumption of guilt in the death of Abdulrahman, but there’s nothing to indicate that was the case. Again, the hinge is the racially-motivated, intentional targeting of a victim.
All that remains is that both Trayvon and Abdulrahman were innocent of any wrongdoing when they were killed, and both were teenagers at the time. The rather general similarities end there and specifics are nonexistent.
Without any other serious, non-conspiratorial commonalities, the comparison utterly disintegrates. From there, we have no choice but to wonder why, then, was the comparison made in the first place. I’ll assume that Sirota was being honest in his belief that there are similarities striking enough to serve as the basis for a think-piece, and that he wasn’t being deliberately and cynically incendiary for the sake of traffic. And so if this is what he truly believes — that this is a valid conflation, he’s being horribly stupid about all of it.
In the end, this conflation fails to add any logical insight or resolution to the mutually exclusive factors behind these deaths. Trayvon was yet another casualty of insidious, ages-old American racism. Abdulrahman, and other noncombatant casualties in the war on terrorism (including American noncombatants), are the victims of a conflict that wasn’t started by America, but which should probably be ended or confined to more traditional counterterrorism efforts by America sooner rather than later. By these realistic terms, these deaths are vastly different — not relatively the same. In the meantime, though, is it possible to ever have a discussion about a domestic social injustice without being scolded into talking about the civil libertarian nightmare that a certain subset of liberals consider our president? There are millions of Americans who deserve that we have that discussion.
I honestly can’t believe we have to spell it out, but there it is.