Piercing Pearcey

Writing in Urban Tulsa Weekly, Ray Pearcey has taken the time to attack my column following the Newtown Connecticut school massacre, in which I argued that Americans who tacitly consent to the CIA and US military’s illegal drone program, which kills many children, have no write to mourn dead Americans even as they ignore the misery of dead Pakistanis and their survivors.

First and foremost, I want to say that I appreciate it when a critic takes the time to carefully deconstruct my writing as was done here. I don’t have anything against Mr. Pearcey. In fact, I have never heard of him before. So none of this is to be taken personally. However, he brings up a number of points that need to be countered for the record.

I think the best way to go about this is to “Fisk” the column point by point, so here goes.

Empirically even the most detached studies suggest that the bulk of killings over the entire eight year history of the US drone counterterrorism campaign have been documented “combatants”: estimates of noncombatant deaths range from about 15 to 23 percent of all strikes — a number well short of the 3,100 “murders” that Rall posits in his piece.

Always beware of the word “empirically.” The fact is, no one really knows who or even exactly how many people have been killed by US drone strikes. Partly this is because the program is shrouded in secrecy. Partly it’s because the attacks take place in remote regions where reporting is notoriously unreliable or unavailable. Certainly neither the Bush nor the Obama administrations seem to have any interest in discussing civilian deaths, and have a high interest in downplaying them. What seems obvious is that it’s pretty difficult to lob bombs and missiles into private homes and cars without killing a lot of innocent people inside them or nearby. That said, I think it’s pretty telling that the author fails to note a recent English study that found that 98% of drone strike victims were not their intended targets.

…sometimes, sadly, protecting life or an entire society means dropping an epic diplomatic initiative (assuming that the other side will take negotiations) and resolving to roll evil back.

I am fascinated by this line. The US is currently engaged in a unilateral drone war against Islam’s militants in the tribal areas of western Pakistan, eastern Afghanistan, Somalia, and rural parts of Yemen. If there have ever been any diplomatic initiatives launched by the United States to discuss anything at all with the leadership of the radical Muslim groups being targeted, I have not heard of it. Also, I don’t really see how you can unilaterally categorize the victims as “evil.”

I’m glad Rall wasn’t Abe Lincoln’s military advisor — I might still be a slave.

This assumes that the North fought a civil war against the Confederacy in order to free the slaves. Although emancipation was a happy result of the war between the states, I think it is pretty clear that nationalistic and economic concerns reigned paramount for most Northerners and certainly for president Lincoln. Furthermore, I am pretty sure that if the North had respected the Confederacy’s legal constitutional right to secede from the union, blacks in the South, who constituted a majority of the population, would sooner rather than later risen up in a righteous revolution and overthrown their white masters. Then the North could have established diplomatic relations with either an egalitarian or a black-led South. I don’t really think I see a problem with that. And I’m not even going to get into the comparison between emancipating slaves and dropping drone missiles into private houses in countries that the United States has absolutely no interest or plans to invade and liberate.

And I wonder if he would have supported the drone-centric Libyan action last year: a U.S. humanitarian intervention that forestalled as many as 750,000 deaths in Benghazi.

This, of course, is pure fiction. Not that I would have supported deposing Col. Qaddafi, which I would not have because the United States should not be involved in such things, but the idea that 750,000 people were about to be massacred in Benghazi. It is a classic neoconservative style what if. Sure, anything is possible, but then the burden of proof or evidence ought to be on the person proposing military action. Furthermore, I wouldn’t call the Obama administration’s support of the Libyan rebels based in Benghazi a humanitarian intervention. Had an military intervention actually occurred, you would’ve seen massive shipments of food and other vital supplies pour into Libya. That didn’t happen. The Libyan people are in big trouble, much worse than they would have been under Col. Qaddafi. And, of course, it’s up to the Libyan people to liberate themselves and establish their own destiny. Every country has the right to its own self-determination.

As readers may know, Rall is an award-winning cartoonist/graphic novelist in addition to being a nationally syndicated columnist. He’s also widely traveled. And while the world of the graphic novel certainly has brilliant works with enormous intellectual/artistic power — Art Spiegelman’s Maus comes to mind — seeing the world from this flat one-dimensional vantage can be limiting.

Get it? Cartoonists work in two dimensions. Therefore they must use two-dimensional thinking. I guess architects probably can’t be trusted either. Or people who use computer screens. Those are two dimensions too. Always beware of the ad hominem attack. It betrays a cheap attempt to sidestep the substance of the victim’s argument.

Rall’s portrayal of Barack Obama and his national security team as cold-eyed participants who are willingly engaged in a murderous campaign via our drone counterterrorism effort, is not only an outrage, it may also be an artifact of his role as a cartoonist — someone with a flat conception of morality and the world.

Wow, still at it? Let’s see, who else works in two dimensions? Oh, I know, people who write columns! Columns like the one that my critic’s writing. Look, it is a simple fact that Obama and his national security team are perfectly willing to lob explosive devices into private homes and cars and trucks all over the world without having much idea of who was inside these targets. To me, that requires a coldness and hardness that I hope I personally never experience. Morality? I’m not perfect, but I think I have an edge on these guys.

…Barack Obama’s ascension to power sparked a fevered search for less brutal, more nuanced ways of rolling back al-Qaida’s many-sided terror campaign. The search for a strategy with fewer civilian casualties and a lighter impact on the Afghan — and later the Pakistani — countryside, was the signal rationale for the elevated use of drones and special forces in the president’s counterterrorism campaign.

First of all, Al Qaeda no longer represents a significant threat to the United States of America. That’s not me: that’s CIA analysts and a lot of mainstream right-wing pundits. Second, the people being attacked in the tribal areas of Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan represent absolutely no threat to the United States at all. These are Islamist militants who were trying to overthrow the puppet regime of Afghan Pres. Hamid Karzai and the Pakistani government, which they view as being too secular. Third, for a guy who is trying to be less brutal and more nuanced, you would think that he would couple that with greater transparency to prove it, and that he would be launching fewer rather than more drone strikes. In fact, and I was going to link to something to prove this but I feel that everybody already knows it, Obama uses drones a lot more than Bush did.

Al-Qaida and its sister organizations and the people who run its killing logistics have decided that Americans are to be targeted and killed at the pace and with a timing of their choosing — a function of their lurid work program. One of the singular obligations of an American president is to protect our shores, American embassies, consulates, and our extended overseas diplomatic community and to have the capacity to support military folks when they are under attack or in battle.

And here is of course the crux of the matter. By the way: “lurid”? Without a doubt, Pres. Obama is tasked with protecting our shores. But nobody seriously believes that members of, say, the Haqqani network in Pakistan plan to attack American soil. Even if they wanted to, how could they? Hint: geography is a problem. Yes, we have to be careful about our foreign embassies and consulates. But, as many Americans may not know, that duty actually falls to the host countries. If they cannot provide a safe security environment, then we should close those offices. Finally, the idea of supporting military personnel when they are under attack or in battle doesn’t make much sense when you consider the fact that they wouldn’t be in battle or under attack if they weren’t attacking Afghans, Iraqis, and countless others in more aggressive wars than anyone can count.

We also have the “little” example of 9/11 and myriad other instances where al-Qaida and its sister organizations have attacked Americans whenever the opportunity arose and when they thought they could prevail.

Like the previous assertion about the 750,000 people who might have gotten killed in Benghazi, this is a what if situation. Yes, there were the 9/11 attacks. I wouldn’t call the other instances. In any way. There were the attacks against the embassies in East Africa in 1998, and the bombing against the USS Cole, and that’s about it. At least as far as Al Qaeda is concerned. What we should be responding to is facts, not fiction. This kind of reasoning is the reasoning that led us into Iraq: what if Saddam Hussein still had weapons of mass destruction? What if he gave them to Al Qaeda? What if Al Qaeda use them against the United States? Too many what if’s to go to war over.

Here is what one of the most serious scholars of drone policy says about the outsized ethical logic of using drones, quoting from Scott Shane’s “The Moral Case for Drones” in The New York Times:

“‘I had ethical doubts and concerns when I started looking into this,’ said Bradley J. Strawser, a former Air Force officer and an assistant professor of philosophy at the Naval Postgraduate School. But after a concentrated study of remotely piloted vehicles, he said, he concluded that using them to go after terrorists not only was ethically permissible but also might be ethically obligatory, because of their advantages in identifying targets and striking with precision.”

Speaking of words to be aware of, always be very wary of phrases like Very Serious People. I’m not even going to go crazy countering this part, because when you have defined a former Air Force officer and a professor at the Naval postgraduate school to speak out in favor of the ethics of using drones, well, what can I say? I would be a lot more impressed if members of human rights groups thought drones were awesome.

So, the people who executed the 9/11 plane takedowns and who blew up U.S. embassies in Kenya, elsewhere in Africa (pre-9/11), and did a myriad of big civilians kills in Western Europe: are they simply, as Mr. Rall would have us believe, aggrieved? That is, are they merely political opponents, as he says of “oppressive regimes allied with United States”?

Well, they certainly were aggrieved. They were angry at the United States, primarily for supporting Israel and repressive dictatorships in the Arab and Muslim worlds. More to the point, these are events that date back at least 12 to 15 years. The world is changed a lot since then. By all accounts, Al Qaeda is no longer the threat to the United States than it once was. The people we are killing in these drone strikes are not plotting attacks against the United States or against its embassies abroad, but trying to overthrow the governments of Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Afghanistan, and so on. Which, frankly, is not really our business.

If, as Rall’s forcefully suggests, the president and his national security team have no concerns — that is, “do not care” — about innocent victims of drone attacks, why do they take elaborate precautions before attacks are ordered to minimize noncombatant casualties? Why does the president personally review, according to writer Michael Lewis and a blizzard of other diplomatic, national security, and foreign policy writers, these strikes and try to ascertain that due diligence — that is, high level, earnest efforts have been made to avoid strikes that will be problematic given the closeness of schools, religious buildings, residential areas, ambiguity about individual targets, and so forth?

I have no doubt that it is true that Pres. Obama and his advisers carefully review the targets of drone strikes. But this is missing the forest for the trees. Drone warfare, and indeed aerial bombardment, is inherently flawed and should be prohibited by international law. It is simply impossible to know the identities of those who are going to be killed or to anticipate the possible ramifications of an explosive device striking a target. For example, if a bomb strikes the building, how can Pres. Obama anticipate the possibility that it will spark a devastating fire that will travel through gas lines down the block, killing hundreds of innocent people? Even with the amazing technology provided by facial recognition software and high resolution spy cameras mounted on drone planes, misidentification happens all the time. How many seconds in command have we killed over the years? How may times have we killed the same guy over and over? Someone died each of those times. But not the person that we wanted to kill.

And this is all skirting the big issue. Which is that we have no legal right or constitutional basis for these strikes. First and foremost, these are acts of war, aerial invasions, acts that would provoke most countries, including the United States, to declare war against its perpetrator. We are not allowed to fly planes over Pakistan or Iran or Somalia or anywhere else. Second, we have no legal basis for killing people without an active state of war between our country and the country that they are in. If we have an interest in bringing someone to the United States for trial, then we have to ask the relevant police forces to arrest the individuals, present proof of their culpability, and put them on trial here in the United States. Third, there has been absolutely no judicial or other public review by any authority whatsoever inside the United States of the people we are killing. This is a secret program of assassinations, nothing less. And it is absolutely disgusting and counterproductive. It makes the citizens of other countries, many of whom might otherwise be sympathetic to us, hate us. And I don’t blame them.

Does Rall know about the strategic review under way to reconsider our decade-plus “War on Terror” — a high-tempo effort being pushed by top Obama national aides who are crafting new policies that what would substantially end our counterterrorism campaign or at least ratchet it down in dramatic ways? The Daily Beast reported in December:

“[B]ehind the scenes Obama has led a persistent internal conversation about whether America should remain engaged in a permanent, ever-expanding state of war, one that has pushed the limits of the law, stretched dwindling budgets, and at times strained relations with our allies. ‘This has always been a concern of the president’s,’ says a former military adviser to Obama. ‘He’s uncomfortable with the idea of war without end.'”

Well, isn’t that swell: Obama is uncomfortable with the idea of war without end. Guess what: so am I. But I’m not in the same position Obama is in. When Obama took office, he could and should have ordered immediate withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq. But he did not. He could’ve ended the drone program but he did not. I really don’t give a rats ass that he feels bad about what’s going on considering the fact that he is perhaps more responsible than any other human being on the planet for all of it. It’s been four years. He has killed thousands and thousands of people. What does he have to show for it besides a suppose it persistent internal conversation? Nothing.

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About Ted Rall

Ted Rall is the political cartoonist at ANewDomain.net, editor-in-chief of SkewedNews.net, a graphic novelist and author of many books of art and prose, and an occasional war correspondent. He is the author of the biography "Trump," to be published in July 2016.

14 thoughts on “Piercing Pearcey

  1. Um… “have no RIGHT to mourn dead Americans,” not “have no write to mourn dead Americans.”

  2. Ted,

    “First and foremost, I want to say that I appreciate it when a critic takes the time to carefully deconstruct my writing as was done here.”

    Ted, this was not careful deconstruction, this was a hatchet job. Here’s just three examples:

    First Example
    From Critic: “Empirically even the most detached studies suggest that the bulk of killings over the entire eight year history of the US drone counterterrorism campaign have been documented ‘combatants’: estimates of noncombatant deaths range from about 15 to 23 percent of all strikes — a number well short of the 3,100 ‘murders’ that Rall posits in his piece.”

    1. What, historically, has the rate of “acceptable” civilian loses been?
    2. How, exactly, does “15 to 23 percent” invalidate Ted’s point?
    3. The critic begs the question: “US drone counterterrorism campaign”? Says who? Is it actually “counterterrorism” when you blow up innocent civilians? Where’s the empirical evidence showing that the survivors of those innocent victims do not end up embracing terrorism themselves?

    Second Example
    From Critic: “I’m glad Rall wasn’t Abe Lincoln’s military advisor — I might still be a slave.”

    1. Plain and simple, a dirty trick. It works like this: The person you’re debating isn’t from your particular group, whether that group is black/Asian/Hispanic/gay/religious/whatever. The person you’re debating brings up an issue completely unrelated to race/sexual orientation/belief/whatever. You bring up — I mean rub the other person’s face in — your race/sexual orientation/belief/whatever. Now, no matter what the person you’re debating says, you are able to deflect it by saying, “Well, I didn’t expect you to understand, after all, you aren’t black/gay/Jewish/transgendered/Asian/left-handed.”

    2. “Lincoln freed the slaves.” Sigh. This again. Let’s cover it once and for all. The Industrial Revolution freed the slaves. Nothing else. Slavery, economically, is a losing proposition when confronted with the force-multiplier of industrialization. Machines are cheaper and more predictable, that’s why businesses use machines. Morality had nothing to do with it.

    Third Example
    From critic: “As readers may know, Rall is an award-winning cartoonist/graphic novelist in addition to being a nationally syndicated columnist. He’s also widely traveled. And while the world of the graphic novel certainly has brilliant works with enormous intellectual/artistic power — Art Spiegelman’s Maus comes to mind — seeing the world from this flat one-dimensional vantage can be limiting.”

    1. Again, typing as a journalist, this is one of those things that an editor should have red-pencilled. Why? In simplest terms, it’s cowardly. “this flat one-dimensional vantage can be limiting.” What a gutless nothing of a thing to say. Can be? Shit, man, pretty much everything “can be” limiting. Being a woman CAN BE limiting. So can being a man. Growing up white in a white-dominated society CAN BE limiting. Almost any CAN BE statement means that the writer either lacks the guts to say something he’s thinking, or that the writer doesn’t actually have anything to say but needs to fill the column inches.

    Ted, I could have gone into more detail, but Christalmighty, all this is stuff a journalist is supposed to learn to not do. Does this guy have a degree in journalism? Because these are ALL low-level errors that should have had his editor calling him into a back room for a dressing down.

  3. I’m glad Rall wasn’t Abe Lincoln’s military advisor — I might still be a slave.
    1. Abraham Lincoln was a politician who, when given an extremely unpopular political opinion, stood by it, even though he, himself, was not in any form or manner a person who thought that the races were equal (see: multiple statements he made in life). I assume that Ted Rall would have been pro-Lincoln’s anti-slavery political stand, not against it.
    2. The Confederate States of America attacked the United States of America. April 21st, 1861, Fort Sumter, South Carolina. I assume that Ted Rall is okay with military responses to military attacks.

    Note: both of my Ted Rall assumptions assume that he is not an idiot. This is apparently something that Ray Pearcey was unwilling to do.

    • @Artofab,
      1. I certainly would like to think that I would have opposed slavery. It’s hard to go back in time and put yourself in the politics of any given era, but given the fact that I am out of touch with most of the errors that I have lived in now, I would like to think that the same would be true of the early 19th century. Generally speaking, I am in favor of anything that promulgates the quality and fairness, and I don’t possibly see how slavery could come close to being justifiable under those ethics.
      2. It is true that speaking strictly legalistic late the Confederacy attacked the United States. However, it is now pretty clear that Pres. Lincoln intentionally provoked that attack. It is very analogous to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The Confederacy was feeling squeezed and didn’t feel like it had a lot of other options than to lash out at Fort Sumner. Looking back, of course, it probably wasn’t their finest moment. Nevertheless, I think the north wanted the war a lot more than the South did.

  4. 1. International Law: unconditional losers may be subjected to anything the unconditional winners wish to subject them, including but not limited to gladiatorial contests in a Coliseum. So the US is acting strictly in accord with International Law when the President of the US orders anyone, anywhere, killed for any reason or for no reason.

    Once, there was an attempt to create an international legal code, but that attempt failed miserably. So now, any nation not unconditionally defeated may put in its own history books that it was on the side of Right, Trvth, Justice, G_d, and anything else it cares to say it was on the side of. Of course, nations unconditionally defeated must put in their history books whatever the victors demand. Note the difference in Germany after WWI and after WWII.

    Most Americans (and even an Irishman I spoke with) agree that almost all of those killed by US drone strikes must have been heinous criminals, and the US is acting prudently when it kills them as cheaply as possible with minimum risk of the loss of US lives. The study that 98% were innocent is disregarded, since, under International Law, the US (as an undefeated nation) is free to say that all its actions were only to promote truth and justice.

  5. . . . someone with a flat conception of morality and the world.

    An awesome example of authoritarian projectionism.

    One of the supremely nasty things about nasty leaders is that they are generally dickless. Thin-skinned, insecure bitches. There may be a practical reason for this. If your job is to commit atrocities, you need to create a world were everyone else is the immoral one. Suddenly, murder — which is the easy way to solve problems — is the “hard” choice, while choosing civilized responses to adversity is the “easy” choice, even that flies in the face of not only basic morality, but basic common fucking sense. By that logic, the Mafia is full of “hard” men who make the “hard” choice to murder people for profit, as opposed to the “easy” choice of getting legitimate jobs. Yep, that’s why people pick organized crime: because it’s such a difficult slog towards personal profit.

    Thus, this critic’s ballsy insult isn’t surprising, but it is shockingly ineffective. He would have been better off criticizing Rall’s clarity claiming that the unambiguous was ambious vis-a-vis morals. Alas, he got his dander up and spat out the newsroom equivalent of “I know you are but what am I?!” and gave the game away.

  6. I don’t have time to locate the transcript right now. But a key point in the above is that there is an interview where an insider basically says that Bush regime thought pushing for the murderous drone campaign that now exists under Obama was a little too, far so they never picked up on. Meanwhile Obama jumped right on it. Any claims that Obama wants to step down the war on terror and is conducting it more ethically then Bush and his rabid band of Neoconservatives is bullshit in light of the fact that Obama quickly and enthusiastically ratcheted up the whole scheme into a range that even the later crew thought was “too far” and “too unethical”.

    • @someone,

      Needless to say, I agree. One thing that I find fascinating about the president’s defenders, is their willingness to see into his soul and passed his actions. Don’t believe your lying eyes! Whether in the short term or the long term, we are all judged by our actions. History doesn’t care what we wanted to do. History cares what we did do. Moreover, when you have the kind of unbridled power of the President of the United States has as the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the richest and most powerful nation that has ever existed in the history of the world, it takes a lot of balls to say that the stuff you did was stuff that you didn’t really want to do. I mean, if you’re not free to make decisions freely and clearly, who is?

  7. “Furthermore, I am pretty sure that if the North had respected the Confederacy’s legal constitutional right to secede from the union, blacks in the South, who constituted a majority of the population, would sooner rather than later risen up in a righteous revolution and overthrown their white masters. Then the North could have established diplomatic relations with either an egalitarian or a black-led South. I don’t really think I see a problem with that.”

    It’s opinions like that plus the Newtown reaction that are the reasons why I have completely given up on Ted. I don’t care about Ted’s justification, it’s just stupid now.

  8. Why the hell are you bothered, Cirrus? The North didn’t enter the war to free the slaves — it was only after a tremendous number of bodies had dropped that Lincoln had his come-to-Jesus moment and recognized the bloodshed as a fitting price for the sin of slavery (a moment only made possible by massive strategic incompetence on both sides — not a given by any means). The South had a massively corrupt police state that couldn’t hold itself together without reliance on the North’s political infrastructure. Not just the North’s industry, but actual political infrastructure. It was filled with rabidly unpopular governments, most of which couldn’t even get its populations to vote for secession, “forcing” them to resort to intimidation, fraud, and outright violence to get a “diplomatic” result. It didn’t even have the power to curb the most casual refusal of the rich to support the war effort, leading to the cannibalization of poor white farmers’ homesteads by the Confederate Army in order to make up for the shortfalls caused by plantation owners refusing to switch from cash crops to food crops as the law (which they fucking wrote) demanded.

    The South was fucked, and it deserved to drown in its own filth. After Lincoln’s death, wealthy conspiracies ate up all the pro-black goodwill that the horrors of war had engendered and now the South ultimately had northern help in oppressing “former” slaves (as all the clever people here remember, de facto slavery continued into the early 1900).

    If we pretend that the Civil War was intended to end the Southern police state, we are still forced to conclude that it failed. Indeed, there are still aspects of the war that we’re still fighting to this day.

  9. @Ted Rall
    “Nevertheless, I think the north wanted the war a lot more than the South did.”
    I think that the answer to this depends a lot on whether or not a state has a legal ability to leave the United States of America, and what property a state can assume when it leaves the Union. Were military bases on (then-suddenly) Confederate territory the property of the Confederate state, or the Union?
    Fort Sumter became a provocation for war because it was a Union military installation that was attacked by the Confederates, but they had already seized tens of other Union military installations. Were those acts of war?
    At least in modern eyes I don’t think the US would take it very kindly if Washington decided to no longer be part of the Union, and promptly assumed control of the Strategic Weapons Facility Pacific in Bangor WA and its estimated 2000+ nuclear weapons. But I might be assuming modern thoughts about the rights of states.

    • If Washington state were to secede, I think all federal facilities including atomic weapons in the new Republic of Washington would belong to it. When the USSR collapsed, Soviet property and facilities went to each republic where it was. Otherwise neither secession nor revolution could ever be complete.

  10. While we are still on the topic (not that we really are because this topic is now way old and no one else is posting here) we should probably mention Obama policy in relation to the “American Service-Members’ Protection Act” also known by the nickname “The Hague Invasion Act.”

    For those not in the know, back in 2002, when the international criminal court was being set up, the US’s response was to write and pass the “American Service-Members’ Protection Act” which allows the US to spontaneously invade the Netherlands to rescue any American put on trial for international war crimes in the Hauge. Needless to say the Dutch were a bit upset about one of their supposed friends and long-time allies hastily passing a bill about invading them the instant they make a declaration their supposed ally don’t like.

    Very soon after Obama came to power the Dutch politely asked him if he would get rid of this law, if only for the purposes of symbolism and good faith between their two nations. Obama’s response was silence, and he sure as hell hasn’t even attempted to do anything about this law in his first term.

    Obama, great practitioner of terrorist threats on peaceful nations, and willing invader of peaceful sovereign nations to rescue US war criminals from being brought to justice. Truly a great liberal reformer and lover of peace and law.