President Obama's inaugural speech – in its lofty tone reminiscent of John F. Kennedy's 1960 inaugural address – has reminded us of why we liked him so much in 2008 and why we still have a soft spot in our hearts for him. He musters enormous eloquence in defense of the best American progressive tradition.
But his speech is marred by serious omissions. There is no mention of the drone war or of any covert assassination programs.
Now you might say, the man can't talk about everything in 20 minutes. Give him a break.
The inaugural is beguiling because it repeats Abraham Lincoln's formula of democracy as government of, by and for the people and cites the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence that all human beings have the right to life, liberty, and happiness. In the US the right to life means, at least, that you cannot be killed without a trial, without a chance to defend yourself, to examine the evidence the government has against you and to try to refute that evidence.
The drone war is so serious because it has killed American citizens without benefit of trial or a chance to defend themselves.
The list of people to be killed by drones and their missiles is made up by some officials high in the hierarchy in the White House, including President Obama. The list is secret, the deliberations are secret, the criteria for getting on that list are secret. The whole drone war is hidden away. Should major policies be hidden in a democracy?
One American citizen victim to the drones was a Muslim Iman Anwar Al-Awlaki. Another person killed by drones was Al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son. Al-Awlaki was a bad actor but he never got the trial he was entitled to as an American citizen. Since the whole project is shrouded in secrecy we don't know what his son had done to deserve being murdered at age 16.
This whole project of killing people selected secretly by people we don't know who they are, of depriving American citizens of their constitutional rights is not consistent with President. Obama's praise and endorsement of American democracy. The government that murders people from the air – frequently innocent people – in Afghanistan, in Yemen, in Sudan and we don't know where next, is contemptuous of democracy, and contemptuous of the Constitution.
But terrorism is a serious threat. 9/11 taught us that. So perhaps we should ignore the lofty questions raised by the rhetoric of the Inaugural Address. Perhaps we should not think about the right to life, or constitutional protections. We should just be pragmatic and ask: is this really making us safe?
Suppose you are a Taliban in Afghanistan and you believe that it is okay for you to murder people for the sake of your tribe and for the sake of Islam. And now the Americans with their fabulous modern technology come and do the same thing with airplanes flown by someone in Nebraska. Would you not think that the Americans are doing just what you are doing? The weapons used are different. Yours are guns; their's are drones with missiles. But you are doing the same thing namely trying to undermine the other by killing their leaders.
By using the drones, we are telling the Taliban, we are telling al Quaida and connected groups: "we're just like you – we're terrorists too."
That is not going to win the hearts and minds of people in the Mideast, and now more and more in Africa also. Instead, the drone war has made us more hated and has recruited many new persons to the ranks of various groups the government would describe as "terrorists."
Senior military leaders at home have insisted for years that “we can't kill our way out of these conflicts.” Negotiations are essential. But they become more difficult and less likely with every new drone strike.
The drone war is counterproductive. It gives the lie to all the high-minded rhetoric we've heard in the inaugural address. It is profoundly immoral.
It should stop today.