In the 1980s, the word "disappeared" entered the human rights lexicon. It was a term that came up through circles of human rights defenders in Latin America, where it was associated with the thousands of activists who were taken in the night. Kidnapped people would languish in prisons, be tortured or even killed, but their families would be given no notice. For their loved ones, these people seemed to have just disappeared.
The term resonated with families of politically active people around the globe; South Africa, Burma and the former USSR are a few places where human rights defenders began to use "disappeared" to describe the state of their loved ones. Today it's rare that you hear about a disappearance, but only because human right abuses are taking new forms.
For innocents caught in Obama's drone wars, disappearances come from thousands of miles in the air. The practice also brings to mind another human rights term -- "extrajudicial killings." We don't have a new word for talking about the drones, but maybe we should.
A recent Washington Post op-ed suggests that there have been 3,000 deaths at the hands of these weapons and of those "scores -- maybe hundreds" were civilians. Other sources are far less generous. Quoted in the UK's Independent, a report by legal experts at NYU and Stanford argues that fewer than two percent of those caught in the drone strikes that hit Waziristan, Pakistan are known militants.
There is no question that the death count is controversial. Early in the summer of 2012 the New York Times ran a front page story that revealed that the Obama administration is quite liberal in labeling people killed by the drones as al Qaeda. Any young man near a suspected al Qaeda member, who happens to become the victim of drone fire, is counted as al Qaeda by the administration.
More questions arise when you consider the validity of the sources on the ground who identify suspected al Qaeda members; are they doing the work of the U.S. government or settling a local grudge? Rahiel Tesfamariam points to a New York Times article which documented a drone strike used against a group of militants about to attack the Yemeni military, raising the question of whose battles the U.S. is fighting. Is the drone war just digging America deeper into domestic disputes?
Particularly atrocious is the practice of "double tap" drone strikes, where a suspected militant is fired on, then those who arrive at the scene to give help are blasted, as well. This practice makes the United States seem barbaric in the eyes of those who witness it and creates a useful image for those trying to fan anti-American sentiment.
As the administration looks to expand its drone usage to more countries, such as Mali, the time is ripe to ask questions about these policies.
Human Rights groups such as Amnesty International and influential journalists such as the Washington Post editorial board have called for reform, asking that the U.S. government to better define its rules of engagement and bring the drone wars out into the open by getting Congress more involved and switching the operations from the secretive CIA to the more publicly accountable Department of Defense.
These are all good ideas, but I would like to suggest something starker. The U.S. should stop its short sighted and counterproductive drone war because it creates many future "enemies" for every one that it kills.
Jack Healey is the former executive director of Amnesty International U.S.A., this is his second Huffington Post blog dealing with the topic of drones. The first can be found here.