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Dehumanizing with Drones and Torture

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It's a strange day in the Beltway when Kentucky Senator Rand Paul is left to speak virtually alone in a filibuster on the use of drones. When the concern is about the president's authority to hunt and kill American citizens on American soil without even the pretense of judicial oversight, and with the knowledge that Once Upon A Time a certain senator from Illinois bucked the crowds to vote against the Iraq War, you'd hope that it might become a bipartisan issue with broad support. There at least might be an end to so much secrecy and apathy around these concerns. After all, if both parties can't be united in having extrajudicial remote-control killings, is there any hope to solve the sequester quandary? Is there any hope for human rights?

Since the unfortunate beginnings of war, indeed of fighting, military campaigns have involved at least presence in combat and consequences when that human presence is decreased or held at a distance. Bombing missions that involved the ability to unleash firepower on people invisible to pilots so high above can involve delayed PTSD symptoms that have been difficult to resolve after pilots realize over time the true human costs of those missions. To enter a world where "pilots" sitting in comfortable trailers in the Nevada desert unleash missiles via video screen increases the separation and dehumanizes "targets" even more. The range and number of remote-control murders that has been sanctioned and expanded by the Obama administration should give every American pause to think of how far we have wandered from the heady days believing that we'd soon see the closure of Guantanamo and a return to respect for law-based detention.

Much of the human rights tradition that existed before the UNDHR and other international legal frameworks (Geneva Conventions, etc) have been grounded in the idea that torture is, a priori, always wrong. There are standards to uphold and boundaries that shouldn't be crossed in exceeding certain boundaries in inflicting pain and suffering on another. Surely, this is one of the values that the freedom-based tradition of the United States should hold dear. Thanks to a precedent set by the Bush administration, and with a culture of no-accountability endorsed by the current one (recall that there have been no indictments, much less prosecutions for torture committed by Americans under the guise of "enhanced interrogation"), we are in the terrifying process of normalizing the worst possible things.

What's next, robot warfare and the rise of Skynet? You might think of that as paranoid, until you read about the autonomous killing robots that are already in development. Drones have quickly moved from science fiction to being quickly accepted by both politicians and much of society as just a fact of modern warfare, and that is disturbing. We tend to show more national interest in sports rivalries than in the fact that the United States seems to not condemn the use of torture (because we shouldn't fool ourselves with the repulsively sanitary-sounding term of "enhanced interrogation").

The use of drones for assassinations (again, let's use the real term instead of "targeted killings") is defended by claims that it limits risks to American soldiers. But let's be clear that it causes dehumanization of victims to keep them at the distance of a video screen. Those who protest that it's not that much further than missiles launched from a ship at sea to prosecute a campaign on land should recall that there is a considerable difference between being stationed on a military carrier versus doing "battle" from outside of Las Vegas on civilians in Pakistan. The distance real and implied causes a cognitive disconnect over what is happening: extrajudicial assassination by remote control.

To torture, one must first make people less than human. There is a notion that information gained during torture is somehow reliable. These are bad assumptions. It should bear repeating that all people under all conditions should be free from torture, and that there is ample evidence to suggest that people will say whatever they possibly can and will lie if they think it will stop the pain of torture. When we embrace drone killings and official torture as approved (or ignored) policies of our democratic state, which puts so much stock in the idea that we stand at a pinnacle of human rights and freedom, we do a disservice to humankind.

In a state of apathy at the state of alienation from these humans we're killing (not "targets" but humans) and torturing (not "interrogating" but torturing) we dehumanize yet more and increase the likelihood that the use of drones, torture, and extrajudicial killings will be legitimized in the eyes of states around the world as just a necessary corollary of warfare. These things do not merely dehumanize the victims and the world at-large. They are acts that dehumanize our very selves. Stop drone attacks. Stop the use of torture. Close Guantanamo. Human rights matter in times of conflict and in times of peace; they matter for everyone.