Tuesday's Senate Judiciary Committee's subcommittee hearing on drones was not your usual droning and yammering. Well, mostly it was, but not entirely. Of course, the White House refused to send any witnesses. Of course, most of the witnesses were your usual professorial fare.
But there was also a witness with something to say. Farea Al-Muslimi came from Yemen. His village had just been hit by a drone strike last week. He described the effects — all bad for the people of the village, for the people of Yemen, and for the United States and its mission to eliminate all the bad people in the world without turning any of the good people against it.
The usual droning and yammering that preceded and followed this testimony seemed more offensive than usual. One witness summarized the general position of pointless witnesses who accept all common wisdom and have no information or insights to contribute:
If the drone strikes are part of war, that's fine, she said. But if they're not part of war, then they're murder. But since the memos that "legalize" the drone strikes are secret, we don't know whether they're perfectly fine or murder.
That's the common view of things. But to say it in front of someone who knows something about the killing from the perspective of the victims seems particularly tasteless.
The basic facts are barely in dispute. A single individual, President Barack Obama, is choosing to send missiles from drones into particular houses and buildings. Most of the people being killed are innocent and not targeted. Some of those targeted are not even identified. Most of the others are identified as run-of-the-mill resisters to hostile foreign occupations of their or neighboring countries. A handful are alleged to be imminent (meaning eventual theoretical) threats to the United States. Many could easily have been arrested and put on trial, but were instead killed along with whoever was too close to them.
If this is not part of a war, apparently, then it's murder.
But if it's part of a war, supposedly, it's fine.
It's funny that murder is the only crime war erases. Believers in civilized warfare maintain that, even in war, you cannot kidnap or rape or torture or steal or lie under oath or cheat on your taxes. But if you want to murder, that'll be just fine.
Believers in uncivilized war find this hard to grasp. If you can murder, which is the worst thing possible, then why in the world — they ask — can you not torture a little bit too?
What is the substantive difference between being at war and not being at war, such that in one case an action is honorable and in the other it's murder? By definition, there is nothing substantive about it. If a secret memo can legalize drone kills by explaining that they are part of a war, then the difference is not substantive or observable. We cannot see it here in the heart of the empire, and Al-Muslimi cannot see it in his drone-struck village in Yemen. The difference is something that can be contained in a secret memo.
This is apparently the case no matter whom a drone strike kills and no matter where it kills them. The world is the battlefield, and the enemies are Muslims. Young men in predominantly Muslim countries are posthumously declared enemies once a drone has killed them. They must be enemies. After all, they're dead.
I wonder how this sounds to a young Muslim man who's taken to heart the lesson that violence is righteous and that war is everywhere at all times.
Do people who blow up bombs at public sporting events think all together differently from people who blow up peaceful villages in Yemen?
Don't tell me we can't know because their memos are secret too. Those who engage in murder believe that murder is justified. The reasons they have (secret or known) are unacceptable. Murder is not made into something else by declaring it to be part of a war.
War is, rather, made criminal by our recognition of it as mass murder.