Micah Zenko

If Trayvon Were Pakistani…

Why isn't Obama outraged about a drone war based on profiling?

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

President Barack Obama surprised the White House press corps on Friday when he preempted the normal daily briefing to offer his unscripted ideas on the Trayvon Martin case.

Obama departed from his usual reluctance to talk publicly about his personal experience with racial bias, reminding viewers that African-American men — including him, before he became a senator — experience prejudice based only on their appearance, not their personality or behavior. He added that the African-American community was interpreting the outcome of the case through a "set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away." And he noted that, while the African-American community is not naïve about violence involving its young men — they are "disproportionately both victims and perpetrators" — that fact is no excuse for different treatment under the law.

It is striking to compare Obama’s deliberate and thoughtful commentary about the tragic killing of Trayvon Martin with the military tactic that will forever characterize his presidency: killing people with drones. The president posits that it is wrong to profile individuals based upon their appearance, associations, or statistical propensity to violence. By extension, he believes that, just because those characteristics may seem threatening to some, the use of lethal force cannot be justified as self-defense unless there are reasonable grounds to fear imminent bodily harm. But that very kind of profiling and a broad interpretation of what constitutes a threat are the foundational principles of U.S. "signature strikes" — the targeted killings of unidentified military-age males.

The use of signature strikes began in early 2008, when "instead of having to confirm the identity of a suspected militant leader before attacking," the New York Times reported, drones were permitted to "strike convoys of vehicles that bear the characteristics of Qaeda or Taliban leaders on the run." By the summer of 2008, as a Bush administration official recollected, "We got down to a sort of ‘reasonable man’ standard. If it seemed reasonable, you could hit it." Early in his first-term, Obama actually authorized signature strikes before he knew what they were, as author Daniel Klaidman reported. When Steve Kappes, then the CIA’s deputy director, explained to the president, "We can see that there are a lot of military-age males down there, men associated with terrorist activity, but we don’t necessarily know who they are," Obama declared, "That’s not good enough for me."

Apparently, it was good enough for him, though, since Obama vastly increased the scope and intensity of targeted killings in Pakistan and, in April 2012, expanded the practice into Yemen against unknown men, allowing the CIA to henceforth "hit targets based solely on intelligence indicating patterns of suspicious behavior." As Jo Becker and Scott Shane reported last year, "Counterterrorism officials insist this approach [of signature strikes] is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good." Indeed, transnational terrorist plots directed against the United States have disproportionately originated from Pakistan and Yemen. But, if you apply Obama’s logic concerning the Trayvon Martin tragedy, hanging around in the wrong neighborhood or with bad people should not make a person guilty.

Since November 2002, the United States has killed over 3,600 people in non-battlefield settings with drones, cruise missiles, AC-130 gunships, and special operations forces. It is unknown how many of them were unidentified men killed only because of their profile and a U.S. claim that they posed a "continuing and imminent threat." President Obama acknowledged in May that "it is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties," though he said that "there’s a wide gap between U.S. assessments of such casualties and nongovernmental reports." As first reported by Jonathan Landay, the still-classified CIA assessments of drone strikes conducted in Pakistan over 14 months in 2010 and 2011 found that roughly one-quarter of the 600 people killed were what the CIA termed "other militants," meaning that they were collateral damage or that they were targeted only because of their behavioral profile. Amazingly, no U.S. government official has ever acknowledged that the United States conducts signature strikes.

The day before Obama spoke about Trayvon Martin, Nasser al-Awlaki — a former Fulbright scholar and Yemeni minister of agriculture and fisheries — published a powerful op-ed in the New York Times titled "The Drone That Killed My Grandson." His 16-year-old grandson, an American citizen named Abdulrahman, was killed, along with six other individuals, by a U.S. drone strike in October 2011. A State Department spokesperson initially absolved the United States of any responsibility, claiming: "We have not received confirmation of his death from the government of Yemen. We have no additional information at this time." In May, Attorney General Eric Holder sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee that finally acknowledged that, since 2009, al-Awlaki and two other American citizens had died in U.S. counterterrorism operations, in which they "were not specifically targeted by the United States."

Over time, other officials acknowledged — always anonymously — that Abdulrahman al-Awlaki had been either inadvertently targeted or was collateral damage. Princeton University doctoral candidate and Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen wrote that the missile that killed al-Awlaki was actually intended for Ibrahim al-Banna, an Egyptian member of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Whatever the reason, the available evidence suggests that a 16-year-old U.S. citizen was the unintended casualty of a signature strike.

Nasser al-Awlaki closed his Times op-ed by asking: "The government has killed a 16-year-old American boy. Shouldn’t it at least have to explain why?" For a president invested in showing leadership by setting the tone for discussions of race at home, he should answer that question directly. He should then announce an end to signature strikes, since nobody should ever be killed based on how they look or for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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