What are you afraid of?  A fairly simple question with any number of possible answers.  If I asked every person who read this post to make a list of their greatest fears, there are a few items that would appear fairly consistently over and over again.  Most people can confess to a fear of falling, of knives, of blood, et cetera; there are many who may admit to a fear of certain animals such as spiders, big dogs, or birds as well.

But what about the crippling fear of a clear, sunny day?

This would not be an unusual response for a child living in Yemen or Somalia.  For years the children there have been taught to fear the open air and cloudless days, because it is on those days that fire rains from an otherwise empty sky.  The United States and its allies have advanced to a new level of warfare that began with the Bush administration and was kicked into high gear by former president Barack Obama: the extensive use of drone strikes to remove “dangerous individuals” from the face of this planet.

However, the waters of morality are far from clear.  Jeremy Scahill and the staff of the Intercept publication, in conjunction with a confidential whistleblower known only as “the source,” expose the truths that lay behind the mask of restricted information that the government has attempted to erect.  In Scahill’s book The Assassination Complex, he explores the nature of drone warfare and questions the accuracy of the information that leads to human lives being snuffed out daily.  The combination of in-depth journalism, high-level interviews, and leaked secret documents form a very convincing argument for greater transparency and oversight when it comes to our own government’s system of routine anonymous killing.  Edward Snowden himself forwards the work, which quickly dives deep into the nature of our government’s killing programs and the methodology behind their execution.

As Scahill points out, the criteria for who is targeted by drone strikes is far from concrete and defined; a person can be placed on a “kill list” (at which point they are referred to as an “objective”) simply for being associated with another individual on the list, who can in turn have been placed there for being associated with another individual, and so on ad nauseam.  Not only that, but if an individual finds themself on a watchlist, they have no way of knowing whether or not they will ever be taken off.  The reality is a grim one; there are very loose criteria in place for determining the targets of a drone strike, and once the decision to kill is made, there is very little hope left for the person on the other end of the missile.  Every day people are killed in other nations by American drones, some of them American citizens, each one without standing trial and with no attempts made to capture them nonviolently.  The allure of the “quick fix,” as the drones came to be known, has proven too powerful for our leaders to resist and so we are now locked in a series of proxy killings which have deep consequences for the global population.

However, none of this information has to be taken on good faith from Scahill or “the source,” as numerous official documents are reprinted and copied into the pages themselves, along with translations of some of the harder-to-decipher pieces of military lingo.  These documents are stamped with “TOP SECRET//NOFORN” across the top, and reveal information about the chain of command that is authorized to give the final verdict on human lives across the planet.

The government has defended their actions by citing the number of “EKIA” designations they have achieved, or “Enemies Killed In Action.”  One drone strike may result in four or five EKIA, and the military considers this to be an incredible model of efficiency.  The issue is that EKIA is the default designation for anyone killed by a drone strike, since all people standing near the “objective” are considered guilty by association (or, in this case, guilty by proximity).  A missile cannot discriminate between a dangerous militant and an innocent child, nor can it judge the value of the lives residing within its blast radius.  The number of non-objective kills far outpace the number of successful “jackpot” strikes, and of this number there is no way of knowing how many noncombatant, peaceful people paid the ultimate price for making the mistake of having dinner with a family member or standing too close to a friend in the marketplace.  As the title of Scahill’s book indicates, these killings are not equivalent to the actions of a nation at war – they are assassinations, plain and simple.  Even if we could guarantee that only target objectives were killed by drone strikes (which we cannot), the determination of guilt is one that is made hurriedly and without proper trial.  Human beings, some of them American citizens, are having their right to due process in front of the law revoked in order to expedite their deaths.  So even when a “jackpot” is achieved, there is no way of knowing whether or not the person on the other end of the warhead even deserved their fate or not, and even if they are guilty of crimes against this country they were determined to be so without proper trials or criminal procedures.

There are those who will most likely be dismissive of these assassinations without trial, simply because they may as well be happening a full world away from our own sheltered lifestyles.  However, the technology of the military always finds its way back home.  Scahill explores the prevalence of military-grade surveillance equipment that has been purchased by the NYPD in recent years, and the pattern of increased suspicion surrounding Muslim-Americans living within the USA.  When the roles of judge, jury, and executioner are all held by one secret organization that refuses to divulge its methods, every citizen of the world suddenly becomes involved.  There is a definite sense of urgency in Scahill’s tone, but at no point does his writing (or the writing of the rest of the Intercept staff) dip into alarmism or extremism; they simply record the facts as they were revealed, and offer explanations to the reader so that the nigh-impenetrable military lingo can be understood and analyzed objectively.

Jeremy Scahill’s The Assassination Complex is a powerful exploration into the nature of guilt in a modern society, and the role that advanced technology plays in condemning innocent lives to execution.  Scahill asks us to jump down the rabbit hole with him, with the caveat that it will be impossible to see things the same way once we are through.  So the next time you step outside and breathe in the air of a clear summer day, take a look up and ask yourself if someone thousands of miles away is staring at the same sky with an entirely different feeling.  Not everyone is so fortunate as to feel a sense of peace underneath the sun, and many around the planet feel something far more sinister lurking above their heads.


By Oliver Ash, Peacework Intern