A Real-life ‘Red Wedding’ , Drones and Ethics Pt.1

My my, it really has been three months since my last blog.

Over a year ago in June I came across this video that just blew my mind

How cool is that? Imagine. The sun being blocked out because the sky is littered by flying pizzas.  And most importantly, no tipping.

A few months later I quickly abandoned my love for drone-dropped pizza because of this story:


On December 20, 2013  the Associated Press reported that dozens of people on their way to a wedding in Yemen were killed and others injured, including the bride, in a US military air strike after their party was mistaken for an al-Qaeda convoy. (President Obama sends his regards).

Human Rights Watch released a report on the drone strike citing interviews with family members and survivors of the convoy stating all those hit were civilians, whereas Yemeni and US officials told Human Rights Watch that they were militants. When both authorities were asked which of the dead and wounded were members of militant groups and which were civilians, they did not reply to the question.

The purpose of this strike was to target al-Qaeda leader Shawqi Ali Ahmad al-Badan. U.S. and Yemeni officials said that although wounded, he had escaped. But hey, at least they got the other guys, and the bride.

So in this incident, there is a lot of ambiguity around who was killed and injured in these attacks. It can’t be ruled out the possibility that al-Qaeda members were killed, but neither can the possibility that those killed and wounded were innocent civilians.

In early March of 2013, President Obama laid out his drone policy to direct strikes like this one in Yemen. It is meant to be “a high threshold…for taking violence” because :

  • “we only target al-Qaeda and its associated forces”
  • “our preference is always to detain, interrogate, and prosecute”
  • “we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people”
  • “before any strike is taken, there must be ‘near-certainty‘ that no civilians will be killed or injured”

We can see how well that has worked in practice. A review of CIA documents reveal that over a 14 month period, they did not always know who it was of the 613 people they were targeting and killing in drone strikes. US officials only labelled 1 of the 613 killed as a civilian. 1 in 4  killed by these drone strikes were labelled as “other militants”. “Other militants” is a term used when the CIA cannot determine the affiliation of those killed.

It begs to ask, if you don’t know who these people are, how could you possibly know they’re an imminent threat to national security? In what way is a wedding procession an imminent threat to the American people?

These are stupid questions to ask because apparently it doesn’t really matter anyways. Nothing ever really matters in American foreign policy. Independent sources have reported these depressing drone strike statistics between 2002-2013 in Yemen and Pakistan alone:

Yemen Pakistan
US Drone strike: 44-54Total Reported Killed: 233-333

Civilians Reported Killed: 12-45

Children Reported Killed: 2

US Drone strike: 368Total Reported Killed: 2541-3533

Civilians Reported Killed: 411-884

Children Reported Killed: 168-197

And yet, US officials are adamant that only 1 civilian has been killed. In his very own words, Obama assured that the “[The US has a] high threshold…for taking lethal action”. Straight up bull in my opinion.

Secret memos released reveal the true nature of how the Pakistani and US governments go about their drone strikes. They often participate in what is known as ‘signature strikes’. These are when drone operators fire on people whose identities they do not know based on evidence of suspicious patterns of behavior or other “signatures”. They make connections between unidentified suspects and other known terrorists and militants. So they look at the places the unknown person goes to, who they meet with, who they call and send emails to, and then match those against other people linked to the same calls, emails and meetings. Tough luck for that Pakistani who just happens to know the wrong guy, chances are he will be as good as dead.

Between 2009 and 2010, as many as half of drone strikes were classified as “signature strikes”.  In other words, half the time the executor is just  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then, that as many as 197 children in Pakistan have been reportedly killed.

In my next blog I’ll be looking at where the use of drones fall in the tricky web of international law, warfare and ethics.

In the meantime, here’s a fun game:
You’re a president or prime minister and a security official comes up to you and tells you they need to execute someone. They say to you that they don’t know exactly who this person, but he might have sent an email to an al-Qaeda member and he goes to Northern Pakistan a lot. Could you in good conscience kill this person who may or may not be a terrorist?



2 thoughts on “A Real-life ‘Red Wedding’ , Drones and Ethics Pt.1

  1. Corey Pembleton (@pembletonc)

    There is the little thing called “The Geneva Convention” that US lawyers have been bending for years to defend droned warfare. Scares the shit out of me personally, and I’m not in any means a supporter of the strikes they carry out in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia that often kill civilians, and yes, this includes children.

    Helicopter strikes, airstrikes, and IEDs are no less forgiving of who drives over them than drones are, and perhaps are even worse. Whenever certain American attack helicopters would fly over our reconnaissance positions (which from the air, look very much like Taliban dug-outs) we were sure to run for cover, and make it as clear as possible that we’re not the bad guys. I guess the point of my story is that all kinds of weaponry are unforgiving, that we kill each other from the air by accident just like we accidentally kill civilians, and that whatever the weapon of choice is, it comes down to the one pulling the trigger.

    I will counter your last question with another: could you in good conscience kill someone who has a rifle pointed at you and “is a terrorist”? I think not killing is sometimes the best option, but this option doesn’t always exist.


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