Yesterday Barack Obama joined the groundswell of social media support for Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year-old high school student detained by the police for being seen with an electronic device and being a Muslim named Ahmed Mohamed. Good for Obama. And good for Ahmed that he wasn’t building a clock in Yemen.
Cool clock, Ahmed. Want to bring it to the White House? We should inspire more kids like you to like science. It's what makes America great.— President Obama (@POTUS) September 16, 2015
Since his inauguration, Barack Obama has drastically expanded the use of so-called “signature” drone strikes—killings that aren’t targeted against any person in particular, but against someone who looks or acts a certain way. Precisely which behavioral patterns or appearances are sufficient to sign an aerial death sentence remain an absolute state secret—all we know about the so-called “pattern of life activity” sufficient to justify the killing of an unidentified stranger is based on media reports quoting anonymous U.S. officials. In 2008, the New York Times reported that a “signature” can be as vague as “the characteristics of Qaeda or Taliban leaders on the run.” A later Times report said targets could include anyone near “training camps and suspicious compounds”—dicey given the Pentagon’s lackluster record when it comes to assessing compounds. The body of anonymously provided evidence suggests that loose suspicion is about all it takes to condemn someone on the ground, and based on the resultant craters, it’s easy to see that standards are lax.
In 2011, a 16-year-old American citizen named Abdulrahman Anwar al-Awlaki was killed by a drone-fired missile while eating outside in Yemen just two weeks after his father, an Islamist cleric on the CIA kill list, was drone-assassinated. Abdulrahman’s signature appears to have consisted of little more than traveling with his father and looking like the people around his father. When Attorney General Eric Holder was questioned about Abdulrahman’s assassination, he said only that he was “not specifically targeted by the United States.” Although he’s been the most visible (and controversial) drone victim due to his citizenship, al-Awlaki is far from the only child killed on Obama’s orders—the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that upwards of 204 kids have been killed by drones in Pakistan alone since 2004. Some of them might’ve simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time, but only the CIA knows how many were killed because they matched some classified “signature.”
We also know that computerized crimes are enough for a death sentence: 21-year-old Brit Junaid Hussain was reportedly killed by a U.S. drone in Syria last month for the high crimes of Twitter propagandizing and hacking into American computer systems with the sophistication of someone half his age. Another propagandist, American Al-Qaeda magazine editor Samir Khan, was blown up alongside Anwar al-Awlaki—Holder also described him as “not specifically targeted” by the CIA.
But some State Department officials have complained to the White House that the criteria used by the C.I.A. for identifying a terrorist “signature” were too lax. The joke was that when the C.I.A. sees “three guys doing jumping jacks,” the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp, said one senior official. Men loading a truck with fertilizer could be bombmakers — but they might also be farmers, skeptics argued.
Imagine then, that a CIA analyst in Virginia or drone pilot in Nevada sees 14-year-old Ahmed from 10,000 in the air, working with a bundle of wires and metallic pieces.
The same Times report said that the Obama administration’s drone killing program is so loose that it “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants.” What if Ahmed Mohamed, of Sudanese descent, had been located in war zone Syria—where 14-year-olds are most certainly military age—carrying this device?
There’s every reason to believe he’d have been vaporized, with far less procedure, oversight, and recourse than Ahmed faced in Irving, Texas. Obama is right and good to speak on behalf of a brown-skinned teenager who fell afoul of the racist, reactionary, destructive profiling techniques employed by law enforcement agencies across the United States. Police of America, his tweet implicitly reproaches, you’ve got to stop treating our racial and ethnic minorities with the presumption of guilt. If something looks fishy to you, you can’t respond with the most extreme measure. It’s an easy bit of public ingratiation, and it’s also right on the money: Letting ethnic paranoia guide our systems of judgment is illegal and wrong.
But Obama’s state-of-the-art, hyper-secret robotic killing machine exercises even less judgment than the most bigoted schoolteacher or Texas cop, and has killed kids like Ahmed across the world. Signature strikes are the ne plus ultra of modern guilt presumption, permitting the assassination of people based on the supposition that they’ve done something bad, or will do something bad, or the mere appearance of suspicious behavior and association. When your job is to stare down from 10,000 feet with a missile trigger, the entire world looks suspicious. Obama is absolutely right when he tweets “We should inspire more kids like you to like science” because “it’s what makes America great.” But for the president to oppose baseless profiling at home while commanding the most brazen extrajudicial, evidence-free assassination squad in history should make your head hurt. We should also aspire to kill fewer kids like Ahmed. It would make America greater.
Image by Jim Cooke, source photos via AP/Shutterstock