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- Written by Eman Jueid
- Category: World News
The attacks on 9/11 brought the sense of injustice very close to home. The attacks were on the basic human right to life. Political violence on September 1, 2001 deprived innocent American civilians of their lives in NYC, Shanksville, and Washington, D.C.
I was moved to pursue my longstanding academic interest in international affairs. I then joined many others who chose to become regional analysts of South Asia and the Middle East or analysts in security and counterterrorism. I, as well as many others, joined these fields because of vehement opposition to political violence and injustice against civilians taking place around the world. Injustice, insecurity, human rights abuses, and political grievances are root causes of radicalization to political violence.
I worked with practitioners, analysts, and policy makers who, I thought, opposed ‘terrorism’ for the same reasons I did, because of its devastating effects on innocent people – that is, terrorism, or as I would rather call it, ‘political violence’, injures, maims, and kills civilians. It was the effect on human life that bothered me the most. I discovered a disconnect though. When it came to civilian deaths caused by U.S. operations, many considered this to be understandable and continue to do so. This casual attitude can be found at many levels – from law enforcement and government to think tanks and policy institutes. For some, somehow the sense of injustice of the death of innocents on 9/11 does not transfer to civilians of other nationalities or ethnicities, particularly in places like Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, or Pakistan, where many civilians, mainly Muslims, have died because of ground war, aerial bombardment, or drone strikes.
Many have countered this issue with the fact that terrorist groups have also attacked Muslim civilians in these countries and their activities should be of greater concern than American operations. The “terrorists kill Muslims too” response does not explain why some of my American peers have become morally comfortable with the death of civilians abroad due to U.S. actions.
Others who have warned against killing civilians abroad have argued that we should be concerned about ‘blowback’, or the ‘regenerative capacity’ of terrorist organizations who can find new recruits in populations angry about civilian deaths due to U.S. actions. Although this is a valid and informed concern, it is a strategic argument that also ignores the moral issue of killing civilians abroad.
What is troubling about these arguments is they do not address the fact that killing civilians is morally wrong and that is why we were so disturbed by the attacks on 9/11 in the first place. Somehow the ‘othering’ of large populations in the Muslim-majority world has gone so far that the death of civilians is now discussed quite causally.
Every day, many American security analysts, counterterrorism practitioners, policy analysts, think tankers, and regional analysts come to work and have casual discussions about drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, without a sense of urgency or crisis about the number of unnamed, faceless, civilians who die in these strikes. Nowadays, a common line one hears is: “I think we ‘got’ al-Libi in Pakistan in a drone strike”, and the conversation then turns to other topics. Analysts return to other work, send out tweets and emails about the drone strike, and go home without thinking about how easily they discussed death and how they ignored the killing of civilians. The death of civilians in drone strikes has become mainstreamed.
In addition to causally brushing off the death of civilians in far away Muslim lands, the killing of people in drone strikes is discussed with a large amount of toughness and harsh language. While toughness is a part of military culture not just in the United States, but all over the world, it is strange to hear it from policy and government analysts who have never trained for war or known battle. Such language is used to demonstrate how patriotic or ‘good’ one is and how ‘evil’ the drone targets are. Somehow the ‘evil’ attributes are also passed onto the civilians killed; making the drone strikes more acceptable. In most cases, when someone is labeled a “target,” their death is not questioned at all.
Another disturbing development in the last decade is that the ‘othering’ of Muslim populations is not limited to Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, and other far off places, but also applies to the American-Muslim population. Apart from the counterproductive practices by NYPD, FBI, and DOD that have marginalized Muslim communities in the United States, the day to day casual attitude of practitioners towards illogical domestic security practices that target a broad population of Muslims is highly problematic.
On the domestic front, although there are many conscientious federal agents, local law enforcement officers, and policy analysts out there, it is troubling that others do participate in casual conversations about the Muslim population in America in ‘othering’ terms. One can hear comments such as “let’s get them”, “let’s shake them out”, or “let’s make sure they know we’re watching”, all attributing “them” and “they” with inherent inclinations for terrorist plotting. While most of us cannot travel to the tribal regions of Pakistan and Yemen to learn more about the civilians who die in drone strikes, we can question the mainstreaming of civilians deaths that has taken place in the U.S. security apparatus and policy analysis scene. How can civilian deaths abroad be discussed so causally by people who were so deeply moved by civilian deaths on 9/11? How can educated, hard working, respectable individuals discuss killing so easily? What can be done about the ‘othering’ of Muslim populations abroad and domestically?
A good place to start is to look at the individual level. Why have so many individuals in public and private policy scene adopted a nonchalant attitude to civilian deaths? A critical look at ourselves is dangerously past due – civilian casualties have become too casual.By Bibi Atefa Shah, Aslan Media Contributor
Bibi is a researcher at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School and a former security analyst for law enforcement.
*Photo Credit: WBUR Boston's NPR News Station
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