As gruesome as the Islamic Front’s videotaped beheadings are, there is ambiguity over whether the U.S. government’s death-by-drone is any less horrific, with some victims crawling about with severed limbs and others just collateral damage, a moral dilemma addressed by ex-FBI official Coleen Rowley.
By Coleen Rowley
Why do Americans hate beheadings but love drone killings? What accounts for our irrational response to these two very different forms of illegal execution, one very profitable and high-tech, usually resulting in many collateral deaths and injuries, and the other very low-tech, but provoking fear and righteous condemnation from the citizens whose country prefers the high-tech?
The answer lies in human psychology. And probably like the old observation about history, people who refuse to understand human psychology are doomed to be victims of psychological manipulation. How is it that even members of peace groups have now come to support U.S. bombing?
One woman framed the issue like this: “I request that we discuss and examine why the videotaped beheading of a human being is understood to be more egregious than the explosion (almost totally invisible to the public) of a human being by a missile or bomb fired from a drone.”
There are at least four main reasons that could explain why Americans care far more about the beheadings (thus far) of two Americans and one U.K. citizen than they care about the thousands of foreign victims of U.S. drone bombing. Here’s how people are likely being manipulated into believing that more U.S. bombing is the answer to such terroristic killings even when almost all military experts have admitted that it won’t work and “there’s no military solution”:
1) “Us versus them” mentality, the group bonding also known as tribalism, nationalism, group elitism, etc. seems partially learned behavior but also hard-wired into humans (like other animals) to enable group survival. The worst, most excessive forms of group bonding are also known as racism. Yet it’s an innate part of human psychological makeup to identify most closely with those with whom we share group affinity, so Americans are always going to care more about Americans/Westerners as opposed to more distant foreigners. A 2013 Gallup Poll seems to bear out this role of group affinity on multiple levels:
“In U.S., 65% Support Drone Attacks on Terrorists Abroad — Less than half of Americans are closely following news on drones. Nearly two-thirds of Americans (65%) think the U.S. government should use drones to launch airstrikes in other countries against suspected terrorists. Americans are, however, much less likely to say the U.S. should use drones to launch airstrikes in other countries against U.S. citizens living abroad who are suspected terrorists (41%); to launch airstrikes in the U.S. against suspected terrorists living here (25%); and to launch airstrikes in the U.S. against U.S. citizens living here who are suspected terrorists (13%).”
(A researcher, however, who later published her findings in the Washington Post believes these polls ostensibly showing that “Americans love drone strikes” were skewed by not asking the right questions.)
2) The gruesome beheadings were deliberately and dramatically videotaped to ensure that U.S. media brought the scenes into all U.S. living rooms whereas the drone bombings of citizens of foreign countries are almost never filmed nor covered at all by U.S. media. Thus to the majority of Americans, drone killings seem sterile, sanitized and surgical even though some of the pilots and analysts whose cameras hover over the scene afterward thus allowing close-up views after launching their missiles, know differently and end up suffering from PTSD. Some are even committing suicide.
3) It’s apparent that even a large segment of the “peace” community does not understand that U.S. wars and U.S.-orchestrated regime changes indirectly created Islamic State (and other Al Qaeda type terrorist groups) and that U.S. drone (and other aerial) bombing is giving rise to MORE terrorism, rather than working to reduce it. These two articles “How the West Created the Islamic State” and “How ISIS Is Using Us to Get What It Wants” describe the dynamic.
As in all wars, the leaders of both sides are opportunistically using each other to empower each other. Robert Greenwald’s video puts it most succinctly: “How Perpetual War Fuels Terrorism.” (The opposite is also true: terrorism fuels war.) This is well-known by Western intelligence analysts and foreign policy experts. It’s garden variety war manipulation for everyone except the duped U.S. public. (Andy Borowitz isn’t really joking when he reports: “Americans Who Have Not Read a Single Article about Syria Strongly Support Bombing It.”)
It’s just too depressing to realize how many uninformed people there are who still think “bombing the village to save it” somehow can work. Such “war on terror” propaganda is actually effective on the liberal-minded who are more vulnerable to having their emotional buttons — fear, hate, greed, false pride and blind loyalty — pressed than it is on more pragmatic, cool-headed realists. It’s being reported that a number of U.S. journalists who should know better have even fallen for hyped terror threats used to justify the recent launching of bombing upon Syria.
4) A fourth reason why most Americans now go happily along with perpetual war in a kind of blissful stupor, cheering on their favorite war hawk politician comes from the lessons learned so well from the Vietnam War. Getting rid of the military draft and putting the trillions of dollars of mounting war costs on the ever-expanding and perfectly elastic national debt card was a stroke of genius on the part of the military-industrial complex to wipe away any remaining “Vietnam Syndrome.”
The new “poverty draft” that we’re left with constitutes another layer of “us versus them” type manipulation geared to getting the liberal, intellectual middle class on board as they perceive little or no costs and only benefits to endless war. Even when not directly profiting by working for military or national security contractors, many Americans have thus come to believe that war creates jobs and ensures they are supplied with cheap gas and other resources.
When I solicited others’ opinions on the Huffington Post where an earlier version of this thought piece was published, one man responded, “The answer is obvious. Given the choice, I guarantee that a vast majority of people would rather be killed in a missile attack (quick and painless often) than the horror of some guy chopping your head off with a knife.”
Of course, I know of no one who can tell us which death is more painful, but there’s reason to question that being killed by drone bombs is any less horrible then death by beheading. Some drone pilots have talked about watching those they’ve hit try crawling away with severed limbs or lie bleeding to death for hours.
The comment would seem to be a window, however, into what’s probably a very common perception or rationalization in the U.S. Ironically, if you check out the history of official beheading via the guillotine, it was invented during the French Revolution as a quicker and more humane, seemingly less painful way to execute people than prior methods like hanging. It was then used for almost 200 years in France up to 1981 when the French made capital punishment illegal. Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies still frequently conduct beheadings.
Anyway, enough said about morbid deaths. I may be flat wrong but there has to be some explanation for this American incongruity. Without the witty humor of a Borowitz or Jon Stewart, some people may even resent the question and/or this discussion of how they are constantly duped into supporting a perpetual war that makes them less and less safe. But hopefully, more people will learn to wise up to this psychological manipulation.
Coleen Rowley is a retired FBI agent and former Minneapolis Division legal counsel who writes on ethical and legal issues. [An earlier version of this article appeared at Coleen Rowley’s blog at HuffingtonPost.]