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Drones and [the U.S.] National Religion
David Swanson   Feb 10, 2013   Ethical Technology  

The national religion of the United States of America is nationalism.  Its god is the flag.  Its prayer is the pledge of allegiance.

The flag's powers include those of life and death, powers formerly possessed by traditional religions.  Its myths are built around the sacrifice of lives to protect against the evils outside the nation.  Its heroes are soldiers who make such sacrifices based on unquestioning faith.  A "Dream Act" that would give citizenship to those immigrants who kill or die for the flag embodies the deepest dreams of flag worship.  Its high priest is the Commander in Chief.  Its slaughter of infidels is not protection of a nation otherwise engaged, but an act that in itself completely constitutes the nation as it is understood by its devotees.  If the nation stopped killing it would cease to be.

What happens to myths like these when we discover that flying killer robots make better soldiers than soldiers do?  Or when we learn that the president is using those flying robots to kill U.S. citizens?  Which beliefs do we jettison to reduce the dissonance in our troubled brains?

Some 85% of U.S.ians, and shrinking rapidly, are theists.  Flag worship may be on the decline as well, but its numbers are still high.  A majority supports a ban on flag burning.  A majority supports the power of the president to kill non-U.S.ians with drones, while a significantly smaller percentage supports the president's power to kill U.S. citizens with drones abroad.  That is to say, if the high priest declares someone an enemy of god, many people believe he should have the power to kill that enemy . . . unless that enemy is a U.S. citizen.  In secular terms, which make this reality seem all the crazier, many of us support acts of murder based on the citizenship of the victim.

Of course, the Commander in Chief kills U.S. citizens all the time by sending them into wars.  Drones don't change that.  Drone pilots have committed suicide.  Drone pilots have been targeted and killed by retaliatory suicide bombings.  Drones have killed U.S. citizens through accidental "friendly" fire.  The hostility that drones are generating abroad has motivated terrorist attacks and attempted attacks abroad and within the national borders of the United States. 

But feeding corpses to our holy flag looks different when we're feeding them directly to the president's flying robots without a foreign intermediary.  And yet to approximately a quarter of the U.S. public it doesn't look different after all.  The president, in their own view, should have the power to kill them, or at least the power to kill anyone (including U.S. citizens) so contaminated as to be standing outside the United States of America -- a frightening and primitive realm that many U.S.ians have never visited and feel no need to ever visit.

Popular support for murder-by-president drops off significantly if "innocent civilians may also be killed."  But a religious belief system perpetuates itself not through the positions it takes on existing facts so much as through its ability to select which facts one becomes aware of and which facts remain unknown.  

Many U.S.ians have avoided knowing that U.S. citizens, including minors, have been targeted and killed, that women and children are on the list of those to be killed, that hundreds of civilian deaths have been documented by serious journalists including victims' names and identities, that U.S. peace activists went to Pakistan and met with victims' families, that the U.S. ambassador in Pakistan said there was a U.S. government count of how many civilians had been killed but he wouldn't say what it was, that the vast majority of those killed are not important leaders in any organization, that people are targeted and killed without knowing their name, that people are targeted and killed merely for the act of trying to rescue victims of previous strikes, that the wounded outnumber the dead, that the traumatized outnumber the wounded, that the refugees who have fled the drone strikes are over a million, that the drone wars did not replace ground wars but began war making in new nations so destabilized now by the drone strikes that ground wars may develop, that some top U.S. military officials have said the drones are creating more new enemies than they kill, or that what drones are doing to our reputation abroad makes Abu Ghraib look like the fun and games our media pundits said it was.

If our courts killed without trials there would be by definition a risk of killing the innocent.  The same should be understood when a president and his flying robots, or missiles, or night raids, kill without trial. 

If we were being bombed we would not deem it any more acceptable to kill those who resisted than those who did not.  Therefore, the category of "innocent civilian" (as distinct from guilty non-civilian) is suspect at best.

The vast majority of the "worst of the worst" locked away in Guantanamo have been exonerated and freed, something that cannot be done with drone victims.  Yet John Brennan, once deemed unacceptable for his role in detention and torture, is now deemed acceptable.  The goodness of his murdering evil beings outweighs the badness of his detaining and torturing people who were sometimes misidentified.  The dead cannot be misidentified.  The president has declared that any unidentified dead male of fighting age was, by definition, a militant.  After all, he was killed.

Yet, this we know for certain: He was someone's child. He was someone's loved one.  He was someone's friend. 

We have a responsibility right now to grow up very, very quickly.  Our government is breaking down the rule of law and stripping away our rights in the name of protecting us from an enemy it generates through the same process.  Drones are not inevitable. Drones are not in charge of us.  We don't have to fill our local skies with "surveillance" drones and "crowd control" drones.  That's a choice that is up to us to make.  We don't have to transfer to mindless hunks of metal the heroism heretofore bestowed just as nonsensically on soldiers.  There is no excuse for supporting the murder of foreigners in cases in which we would not support the murder of U.S. citizens.  There is no excuse for supporting a policy of murdering anyone at all.

There is no excuse for allowing your government to take your son or daughter and give you back a flag.  There is no excuse for allowing your government to take someone else's son or daughter.  Ever.  Anywhere.  No matter how scared you are.  No matter what oath of loyalty you've robotically pledged to a colored piece of fabric since Kindergarten.  Actual robots can perform the pledge of allegiance as well as any human.  They do not, however, have any heart to place their hand over.  We should reserve our hearts for actions robots cannot do.

David Swanson contributed a chapter to "Why Peace" edited by Marc Guttman, January 2012. He hosts Talk Nation Radio.


You are right, Dave. But I’m so pleased Bush is gone, and that McCain and Romney (who proved a person can be a corporation) were kept from being POTUS, Obama appears as a breath of fresh air—though he is trapped.
If Obama doesn’t toe the line in being a nationalist, he is an enemy of the jingoists. Being a black community organiser from Chicago only makes it more difficult for him; IMO Obama is doing the best he can do and the best anyone could do.. such is my judgment call after what happened the last dozen or so years.
If Obama compromises with nationalists (the SeanHannity site demonstrates exactly what the Nationalist position is for newbies who aren’t familiar), progressives become leery of Obama. If Obama resigns as president it wont do him or us any good.

I would not want to do anything to help whelp another Bush-type administration.. but do what your conscience tells you.

I think another Bush like admin would be a total disaster all fronts. I agree that Obama has his hands tied but means well. I do not however agree with all his policies of course, and when it comes to drones the army is making a huge mistake: as it turns out “collateral damage” is still high with drones and because the drone pilot is behind a computer screen on the ground, it still triggers something inside some of them to commit suicide. No war is fun and games, its serious stuff and a computer screen will not reduce that.

You are both correct on all counts, it is a deplorable situation: America makes a big deal about four dead in Benghazi, while who knows how many are being killed and maimed by our forces, dozens per month at least.
I had such a different expectation about what the 21st century would be like when first learning of h+ in ‘89; this war might continue all century as another Hundred Year War.

On what do you guys base your belief that Obama “means well”? I think it’s fairly obvious that the man has no moral core. Unlike the alcoholic, incompetent Dubya, this man was a civil rights lawyer and constitutional scholar who is fully aware of just how fetid is the mockery he has made of the rule of law itself. I have trouble coming up with a better example of such a razor sharp contrast between one’s flowery campaign prose and one’s dedicated fight against those principles once elected.

The fact that we’ve gotten to the point where such a person is a saint compared to the unthinkable alternative is terrifying.

ShaGGGz, he has a good background, was a community organizer, etc. I think, but obviously I cannot be sure, that there are pressures on him to keep “the machine going”... The state-capitalist-war-machine that is. : (

@ShaGGGz, I think you may be right though. Anyone who would want to be the King of the U.S. Empire must have an ego the size of Jupiter.

But are we sure that he does not mean well? are we sure he is the King? Perhaps Wall ST., banks, major corporations, high paid lobbyists, and the military industrial complex are the actual kings and queens?

If any of you were to take a tour of the interior of America, you would see that America is too old-fashioned, too stuck in the past to change right now—and IMO for decades. Obama is not a magician; plus he black, which means his options are more limited.

Before any of you protest, go look to see what the situation is.. esp. if you do not live in the US.

This author spews out the sort of imperialist thinking Obama has to deal with all the time—it would thoroughly enervate any of us at IEET:

One more diatribe (from America’s #1 Rightist magazine) of the kind Obama has to deal with from the imperialists he talks to face to face, on the phone or through his aides:

Do you think he enjoys it? What do you think Obama ought to tell them?:

“Let’s close down our bases”?
“you’re hegemonistic sc*mbags”?
“kiss my black posterior”?

What do you here suggest we do about it all?

@Kris: It is more or less useless to speculate as to whether he “means well” when most anything we know about him is mediated through so many layers of abstraction and filtering. He may have been a very different person back in his days of community organizing and illicit drug use, and maybe he would prefer to not to be doing what he is in fact doing, all things being equal. But such speculations are useless. The only meaningful reflection of his character that we have access to is what he has in fact done, most of which is grossly out of step with his promises, often taking an active and enthusiastic role in pushing in the opposite direction. Promises of unprecedented transparency turn out to be unprecedented secrecy and brutal cracking down on whistleblowers; promises of sensible drug policy, or at least letting states dictate their own policies, turn out to be an even greater pursuit of federal cracking down on state laws; promises of bringing justice to the vampire squids wrapped around the face of humanity that brought us the financial meltdown turned out to be an active impediment to any such thing, with him, in his words, being “the only thing that stands between [them] and the pitchforks.”

I could go on, but you get the idea. There is a profound and worrying trend for purported “liberals” to turn a blind eye to the fact that Obama is anything but the progressive he purports to be, and is in fact far more right wing than even Dubya was in many ways. The two-party tribalism paradigm has blinded and imprisoned all involved, with allegiance to party clearly superceding allegiance to principles.

Don’t know what nation you live in, but Americans will not allow Obama to change the situation, they are stuck so far in the past, sports statistics are more important to them than progress; perhaps 2 percent of humanity is 21st century—the remaining 98 percent of the world is retro.

@Intomorrow: Was that directed at me? If so, I’m not sure how it relates to what I’m saying. There’s nothing retro about the direction America is taking under Obama, unless you’re referring to monarchism, and they’ve already allowed him to change the situation plenty.

Obama has demonstrated he wants to change so many things- but he isn’t allowed to; what can Obama do with such an old-fashioned America, and world? Obama’s opponents wont let him change healthcare, they might even possibly sabotage his immigration reform initiatives.
So what can Obama do about imperialism at this time? Hold swords to jingoists groins and threaten to cut their nuts off?

@Intomorrow: He has? Like what? Where has he genuinely shown a principled stand on something, fought for tooth and nail? Sure, he can “evolve” on certain issues after it becomes no longer politically expedient to resist, and he can say lots of pretty words about how the other party is so much worse and yet he has some “hard choices” he needs to make, and it has been working brilliantly (here’s one example He has shown nothing but enthusiasm for imperialism, as he pushes it well beyond where Bush had it, whose restraint seems quaint by comparison. His policies are every bit as jingoistic and even more flagrantly illegal, the difference being that he knows how to provide the sugar to make the medicine go down. Domestically, he has been no better, staffing most all of his departments with what appear to be attempts to exemplify regulatory capture. This is unsurprising given the Wall Street pocket he lives in, though given the unparalleled, near-messianic level of public support he had behind him initially, he had the momentum to pursue his rhetoric. That there was an abrupt shift post-election shows how genuine his enthusiasm was.

“Where has he genuinely shown a principled stand on something, fought for tooth and nail?”

As Kris wrote, Obama’s hands are tied, he has to be an Uncle Tom and lick Massa’s boots. Frankly, Obama is the person who has made this decade bearable for me—would be totally revolted if the military pighead McCain had won, and then Romney the corporation. There is one alternative for Obama: he can resign, giving a speech along the lines of,

“As of noon tomorrow, I hereby resign the office of president. I’m tired of having to pay lip service to imperialism;
tired of giving speeches at military installations;
tired of nationalistic platitudes.
I originally ran for president in ‘08 because
someone such as McCain was a clear invitation to try and do something, anything, in changing things and providing hope.
But today I see America is too stuck in the last great jingoistic period of its past, the ‘80s, and I’m merely going through the motions of hope and change; I see only change today—no hope.
My message to Republicans is, ‘go ahead, elect another lapdog in 2016, waste another four or eight years, it wont hurt you because you can dump your emotional toxic waste downstream’. Also, ‘defense’ industries provide jobs and careers to citizens, and pump funds into local economies, and tax revenues into dat bad ol’ Guvmint dat kills people faraway fo’ you, and gives mo’ money to your families—den you can protest dat Big Guvmint ‘n say ‘give less money to dem ghetto trash’.
I’m sorry I have been so uppity and will slink back to Chicago to write my memoirs, then afterwards to a law school t’ edjewcate attorneys so dey can work with corporations to help keep the predatory system going—so dat when the attorneys have chiluns, the chiluns can grow up to be attorneys. It is all part of de Massta plan; it is ecological: big shark eat de little shark.
Besides, the interior of America is sentimental for the good ol’ days of WWII and ‘Nam, when you could firebomb and napalm inconvenient people faraway who reproduce like rabbits and thus must have their populations pruned. Such is the Law of Almighty Providence; by rebelling against this sacred Law, one brings ruin upon oneself.
I am sorry I have sinned, I have been in rebellion against de nationalistic Darwinist Plan [tears beginning to flow], and shall make amends by teaching law students to Toe De Lahn! (sniff). No more o’ dat uppityness—it is from de Debil, dat ol’ Debil Moon.” [Breaking down altogether]:
“I now (sob) love Big Brudder!”

One more comment for today: multiply the following articles—just from today—by the number of Right-of-center who read them and who listen to Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity, etc., and who vote GOP:
An excerpt from what the doctor said:

“I’ve had people telling me that for years. If I had a nickel for everyone who’s told me that, I could finance my campaign. I’ve always said that if God grabs me by the collar and sticks me in the arena, that’s the only way I’ll do it. I’m actually going to retire in June from surgery. I will still teach; I will still be involved but I am going to retire from surgery so it does open up a lot of possibilities for me.”

Obama can’t hardly win for losing. The doctor makes Obama appear as H. Rap Brown; I appreciate Obama more and more because he opposes such ambitious cornballs who think we need to clone the Gipper or something.
Another piece is subtited,
Obama doesn’t understand war
Poor thing: Obama can’t be a real man until he kills a whole lot more o’ them thar furriners riotin’ as if it was the day after MLK was wasted—ya gotta nip ‘em the bud afore they run to the 30 yard line.

Shag, please tell us: what can we do with a country living far in the past because its best year was 1776?

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