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The problem with drones

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By Nat Hentoff
Friday, Nov. 16, 2012, 8:56 p.m.

During the tumultuous months of the presidential campaign, most Americans heard nothing of this report in the (Minneapolis-St. Paul) Star Tribune: "To live under drones is to live in terror." Based on a study by Stanford University and New York University, it was written by Jennifer Gibson, who was one of the on-site researchers of this startling account of the CIA pilotless drones' killings in Pakistan under the enthusiastic authority of President Barack Obama.

Gibson is on the staff of the London-based international human rights organization Reprieve.

"Drones," she wrote, after spending weeks in North Waziristan, "are a constant presence ... with as many as six hovering over villages at any one time. People hear them day and night. They are an inescapable presence, the looming specter of death from above. And that presence is steadily destroying a community twice the size of Rhode Island."

"What makes this situation even worse is that no one can tell people in these communities what they can do to make themselves safe. No one knows who is on the American kill list, no one knows how they got there and no one knows what they can do to get themselves off."

So how does the United States define "militants" to get them on our kill lists? They are, Gibson wrote, nothing more than "military-age males, typically those between 18 and 65. In addition, because the U.S. generally does not release the names of people who have been killed, we cannot know whether the victims were actually militants or were deemed militants because Washington says they were."

For further explanation, here comes Ben Emmerson, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights. As a recent story explained, "Emmerson's role at the U.N. is that of an independent researcher and adviser, but he does not necessarily represent the views or speak on behalf of the world body."

During his Oct. 25 appearance at Harvard University, Emmerson made this vital point: that "even though a state's primary human rights obligation is protecting the lives of its citizens ... this does not ‘mean infringing the rights of those suspected of terrorism.'"

Emmerson told the students at Harvard Law School that he would "be launching an investigation unit within the special procedures of the (U.N.) Human Rights Council to inquire into individual drone attacks, and other forms of targeted killings conducted in counterterrorism operations, in which it has been alleged that civilian casualties have been inflicted."

He added, as others have, that Obama's government doesn't answer some of the most basic explanations on how it validates these programs, nor has it shown that it has inserted safeguards to prevent false charges against those who it claims are terrorists.

Regarding Obama's and Romney's opinions on drones, Emmerson said, "It is perhaps surprising that the position of the two candidates on this issue was not even featured during their presidential elections campaigns. ... We now know that the two candidates are in agreement on the use of drones."

Worse yet, the candidates weren't questioned about drones by the media or by the vast majority of us.

We, too, are responsible for these targeted killings.

Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Cato Institute.

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