Is it "Horrific" To Analogize U.S. Drone Attacks with Sandy Hook? Why Might Someone Do It?


Economist Daniel Kuehn at his blog expresses his horror at unnamed and unlinked people who "think a crazy person targeting kindergartners is comparable to the military targeting al Qaeda affiliates."

I too have seen in the past couple of days casual comments in social networking feeds from antiwar folk making what could be seen as such analogies; not sure I've seen anyone do so in an extended way, and Kuehn, who took the trouble to blog about it, doesn't point you to anyone doing so. 

Here's the entire post:

You are welcome to be angry about a policy you don't agree with and you are welcome even to call its ethics into question. You are welcome to mourn the (dramatically fewer) innocent victims of drone attacks.

But to talk about these two things as if they're equivalent is something I find horrific.

Everyone is welcome to say anything they want, and to be horrified by whatever they want to be horrified by. But there are larger implications about foreign policy, and libertarianism in general, buried in Kuehn's comment worth teasing out, especially as I'm sure it's true that he speaks for many and almost certainly most Americans in expressing such horror.

First, it's worth noting that the most detailed attempts to answer the (surely unanswerable with unquestioned precision) question of how many innocent victims U.S.drone attacks have claimed come to the conclusion that Kuehn is wrong to call that number "dramatically fewer."[**See update below–Kuehn says I misread him]

As Ed Krayewski wrote about here the other day, the Bureau of Independent Journalism's count of child victims of drones in Pakistan is 176, substantially higher than Sandy Hook, though it is possible Kuehn wouldn't consider those dead children "innocent" even if he credited their existence. 

Indeed, just one reported drone incident from Yemen in 2010 alone exceeds the innocent victim number at Sandy Hook.

More details on these numbers from Wikipedia; a detailed Stanford Law/NYU School of Law Study on drones that takes the Bureau of Independent Journalism numbers seriously; a Guardian article on UN interest in drones which notes allegations from Ben Emmerson, a UN special rapporteur, that "since President Obama took office at least 50 civilians were killed in follow-up strikes when they had gone to help victims and more than 20 civilians have also been attacked in deliberate strikes on funerals and mourners"; and this Atlantic article makes a good case that the sense of terror and unease the drones create might match or even exceed what the Sandy Hook killings have done to the U.S.; and Foreign Policy questions at length whether the Bureau of Independent Journalism's numbers should be considered fully verified, in a manner that still wouldn't necessarily support Kuehn's belief that the number of innocent dead from U.S. drones is "dramatically fewer" than the Sandy Hook victim number.

One might also consider whether the death penalty imposed with no safeguards or independent adjudication is indeed a just penalty for whatever it is even the "non-innocent" and/or adult victims are supposed to have done, especially when you consider, as Gene Healy wrote:

Another former Obama counterterror official toldEsquire: "It's not at all clear that we'd be sending our people into Yemen to capture the people we're targeting. But it's not at all clear that we'd be targeting them if the technology wasn't so advanced. What's happening is that we're using the technology to target people we never would have bothered to capture."

Yes, the U.S. government denies all this, but I see no particular reason to credit these denials, though as with everything about events happening beyond the reach of our own eyes or trustworthy video or photography, you are free to pick your own epistemological standards about such things, and certainly "the government is telling the truth about things that might upset their constiuents if they admitted to it and no one else their citizens are likely to credit will gainsay them" is one you are free to pick.

So, why one might make the analogy that horrifies Kuehn seems obvious enough: both our drone program and Sandy Hook involve mechanized killing, including of children. That similarity is obvious.

The difference that I imagine makes Kuehn horrified (beyond his likely mistaken belief in the "dramatically fewer" innocent victims part) is that the motive of the drone killings is one he approves of and thinks others ought to as well: attempts to kill people the U.S. government thinks or claims are part of Al Queda, an organization that has planned and executed mass murders.

As far as motive for Sandy Hook, we all seem to agree there was none other than a desire, for whatever reasons, to murder a bunch of helpless strangers, including children. That is a big difference. But is it enough to inspire horror that someone who objects to murder of innocents in general might find them similar in that respect?

Granted, saying such a thing is a clear example of "politicizing the tragedy"–using our emotions about Sandy Hook to try to make a political point: that we as Americans should be horrified at the murder of innocents going on in our name via drone strikes. That strikes many as distasteful. But everyone is (naturally, and I'm not criticizing anyone for it) using Sandy Hook to make political points right now, mostly in the direction of "we need more gun control" (even absent any rational connection between any such consitutional or doable proposed law and something that would have prevented Sandy Hook as it occurred).

Indeed, the very reason why those opposed to U.S. drone strikes might feel it necessary to make that analogy that horrified Kuehn (and as I noted would undoubtedly horrify most Americans, if they'd heard it) is the very reason that it horrifies him: that people opposed to drone strikes find it very difficult to get their fellow Americans to understand that there might be something horrific and evil about a policy that murders children with bombs from the air, and that a moment where they are mourning and hating a crime involving someone murdering well over a dozen children with guns might be a moment they are open to understanding this; perhaps more so when they consider that unlike the one-time horror of Sandy Hook, with a dead perpetrator, this policy and practice is ongoing and may well result in more dead children.

The motives are surely different; but the anti-drone people seem to hope that they can get people to understand that murdering children is such a bad thing to do that the motive might not quite justify it. Kuehn and others like him might strike such a person, or a libertarian who often tries to get people to judge actions of state by the moral standards of the actions of individuals, as giving a justificatory pass to the state in the field of child murder that might be worth looking twice at; for the very reason that such an analogy between two actions that kill children brings to many people's mind not debate, or disagreement, but horror.

**UPDATE: Kuehn tells me that in the post of his I'm commenting on (which I quoted every word of) does not mean what I took it to mean in one key respect. When he writes "dramatically fewer" victims of drones in a post whose headline and text is about analogizing drone strikes to Sandy Hook, the "dramatically fewer" is a comparison not to Sandy Hook, but to conventional warfare, a point not mentioned in his headline or text. In Kuehn's judgment, my reading of his words is unfair to the point of malpractice. In my defense, the U.S. government's official line supports the point I argued against at length, and I've certainly met many people who believe it. Kuehn, however, is not one of them. Here is his response at his blog.