On July 5 Baton Rouge police killed Anton Sterling in a Louisiana parking lot. Sterling was a 37-year-old black father of five selling CDs outside of a local store. As captured on two widely seen cell phone videos, two officers tased him, held him with their hands and knees down on the ground and then shot him multiple times at close range. The officers pulled a gun out of Sterling’s pocket after they had killed him but as witnesses say and one of the videos demonstrates, Sterling was not holding the gun and his hands were never near his pockets. In the witness-recorded video one officer promises:
“If you f—ing move, I swear to God!”
On July 6, a police officer in St. Anthony, a Minnesota village outside St. Paul, shot and killed Philando Castille during a traffic stop. According to a passenger, Castille informed the officer he had a gun in the car and a concealed carry license, the officer demanded an ID then shot Castille as he reached for his wallet. The aftermath was captured by the passenger via Facebook live, and later uploaded to Youtube.
Police departments often arrest and all too often kill citizens on U.S. streets based on racial profiling and “patterns of behavior.” In confrontations with young men of color, the officers’ safety often trumps concern for the safety of the people they stop.
On July 7, a black man, Micah Johnson, “intent on killing white officers, fatally shot five police officers in downtown Dallas.” The Dallas police then used a Northrop Grumman Corp (NOC.N) Mark5A-1 robot, typically deployed to inspect potential bombs, to kill Johnson” after an hours-long standoff.
The week’s other chilling news involved the long-promised release of U.S. government data on drone strikes and civilian deaths. The report covered four countries with which the United States is not at war. From 2009 through 2015 in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya the Obama Administration admits that its drone strikes have killed between 64 and 116 civilians, although these numbers are only a small fraction of even the most conservative estimates made by credible independent reporters and researchers over the same period. With U.S. definitions of a “combatant” constantly in flux, many of the 2,372 to 2,581 “combatants” the government reports killed over the same period will have certainly been civilian casualties. Few Americans watch for cell phone video from these countries, and so the executing officers’ versions of events are often all that matters.
In June 2011 CIA Director John Brennan stated there hadn’t been “a single collateral death” caused by drone strikes over the previous eighteen months. Ample reportage showed this statistic was a flat lie. Marjorie Cohn notes that what little we know of President Obama’s 2013 policy guidelines (still classified) for decreasing civilian deaths is inconsistent even on the question of whether a known target was present. Many strikes are targeted at areas of suspicious activity but the military does not know who is present.
As Philip Giraldi notes, a March 2015 Physicians for Social Responsibility report claims that more (perhaps far more) than 1.3 million people were killed during the first ten years of the “Global War on Terror” in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Adding Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen, he finds the current total might easily exceed 2 million with some estimates credibly going to 4 million or beyond. He fears the data released July 1 will end up normalizing the drone program, writing:
“The past 15 years have institutionalized and validated the killing process. President Clinton or Trump will be able to do more of the same, as the procedures involved are ‘completely legal’ and likely soon to be authorized under an executive order.”
The July 1 data minimizes civilian deaths by limiting itself to countries with which the United States is not at war. But the United States’ drone arsenal is precisely designed to project violence into areas miles from any battlefield where arrest, not assassination would before have been considered both feasible and morally indispensable in dealing with suspects accused of a crime. U.S. figures do not count untold numbers of civilians learning to fear the sky, in formerly peaceful areas, because of weapons that might be fired without warning. The drones take away the very idea of trials and evidence, of the rule of law, making the whole world a battlefield.
In the U.S. neighborhoods where people like Alton Sterling and Philando Castile risk summary execution, residents cannot be faulted for concluding that the government and society don’t mind treating their homes as war zones. It is apparent that the lives of innocent people caught up in these brutal, undeclared wars do not matter. All that matters is the safety and property of the people outside, and of the people sent in to quell disorder.
My friends and sometime hosts in Afghanistan, the Afghan Peace Volunteers, run a school for street kids, and a seamstress program to distribute thick blankets in the winter. They seek to apply Mohandas Gandhi’s discipline of letting a determination to keep the peace show them the difficult work needed to replace battlefields with community. Their resources are small and they live in a dangerous city at a perilous time. Their work does little, to say the least, to ensure their safety. They aim to put the safety of their most desperate neighbors first.
It makes no one safer to turn our cities and the world into a battlefield. The frenzied concern for our own safety driving so much of our war on the Middle East has made our lives far more dangerous. Can we ask ourselves: which has ever brought a peaceful future nearer to people in Afghan or U.S. neighborhoods: weaponized military and surveillance systems or the efforts of concerned neighbors seeking justice? Gigantic multinational “defense” systems gobble up resources, while programs intended for social well-being are cut back. The United States withholds resources needed for the task of healing the battle scars our country has inflicted on so much of the Muslim world. If our fear is endless, how will these wars ever end?
We have to face the fact that when the United States acts as self-appointed “global policeman,” we do to poor nations what those two officers did to Alton Sterling. We must temper selfish and unreasonable fears for our own safety with the knowledge that others also want safe and stable lives. We must build community by lessening inequality. We must swear off making the world our battlefield and be appalled to hear the U.S. government making crude threats of violence to the rest of the world:
“If you f—ing move, I swear to God!”
Photo: Médecins Sans Frontières’ Kunduz Trauma Center in Afghanistan, following U.S. airstrikes. STR/AFP/Getty Images.