In The Price of Assassination, Robert Wright reflects on the pitfalls of President Obama’s policy of so-called targeted killing.
Wright comes closest to hitting the right target when he says:
Terrorists are nourished ultimately by a grass-roots sense of injustice.
And one good way to stoke a sense of injustice is to fire missiles into cars, homes and offices in hopes of killing terrorists, while in fact killing no few innocent civilians. Estimates of the ratio of civilians to militants killed are all over the map — 50 to 1 or 10 to 1 or 1 to 2 or 1 to 10 — but the estimate of the Pakistani people, which is all that matters, tends toward the higher end.
The higher end is actually off the scale that Wright cites since he only looks at American sources. And since it seems reasonable to assume that the Pakistanis count their own dead more carefully than Americans do, the high end, as reported by Dawn newspaper, may also be a more accurate count and measure of the accuracy of Obama’s targeted killing program: 140 innocents civilians killed each time an al Qaeda or Taliban “target” was hit in 2009.
Any policy of targeted killing — whether conducted by the US or Israel — faces an obvious problem that must surely have given rise to the name, targeted killing. These actions result in a significant amount of indiscriminate killing, yet indiscriminate killing is, we are constantly reminded, the province of terrorism.
So how does a state counter the charge that its methods mirror those of terrorists? By claiming — without much foundation — that the carnage it causes is precise. We are highly discriminating killers who hit our targets with pinpoint accuracy — pinpoints that often turn out to be occupied by an unfortunate number of untargeted people.
But to turn to another of Wright’s points — that terrorists are nourished by a grass-roots sense of injustice — here he glides over the issue that the very term terrorism is designed to conceal: that just causes very often spawn acts of violence and that those engaged in this violence are genuinely dedicated to those causes, not merely being nourished by them.
In other words, by invoking the word terrorism we refuse to look at its political roots. And even in those cases where a just political cause is widely acknowledged — such as with the Palestinian national movement — we imagine that its violent manifestations can be legitimately marginalized rather than seen as a compelling gauge of the depth of the grievance.