A few days ago, it was revealed that a drone strike by the United States military killed an American citizen, Warren Weinstein, and an Italian in Pakistan this past January. The two were being held hostage by al Qaeda and it had been the goal of the US government to liberate them from the terrorist group. The intelligence that they had received about the target of their strike apparently did not include anything about the hostages.
And so President Obama mourned the deaths and offered his most heartfelt apologies. He and the federal government reiterated their claim that this was a rare case and that they use a policy of only engaging in these strikes when there is a reasonable certainty that no civilians will be killed. But considering that the policy of the US government is that it “counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants,” their concern for the wellbeing of civilians is only a matter of semantics.
The reality of the “War on Terror” is that as many as 354,000 people have died in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan since it began in 2001. This includes as many as 220,000 civilians. PakistanBodyCount.org estimates that the ratio of civilian to combined al Qaeda and Taliban casualties could be as high as 3 to 1 for drone strikes.
While it is good that people express regret over the death of American civilians in these wars, where is the mourning and regret for the deaths of the other civilians? Why do people not bat an eye when there are literally hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women, and children being killed in these wars in the Middle East? Why is that just “part of war” or “collateral damage?”
The answer is this: citizenism. Citizenism is the idea that people living outside of some state boundaries are not owed the same obligations as those living within them. This is generally the position held by those who wish to enforce border and immigration control—those who are not legal citizens of a state are literally told that they are not allowed to exist in certain geographical locations. Even worse, when applied to wars and their resultant violence, the numerous deaths of foreign civilians are treated as simply undesirable or even trivial instead of ethically inexcusable. The required justification for allowing foreign civilian casualties is much less stringent than it is for homeland civilian casualties.
By taking all of these ideas into account, it is my position that President Obama and much of the rest of the United States government does not care very much about the death of even American citizens (and obviously do not care at all about foreign civilian casualties). While they do not want American citizens to be killed, it is not from an ethical reasoning that killing innocent people is wrong. Instead, it damages popular support of the wars. Their apparent remorse for American lives lost but not foreign lives is a reflection on the poor social awareness generally held by the American public.
I’m not suggesting that the average American supports killing innocent foreign civilians, but that the creative definition of the word “combatant” and the avoidance of talking about those casualties is enough to make the average American not think about it or even justify it. Policy changes in war are not likely to happen until more people see all lives as equally as valuable no matter where they may live on a map.