PZ Myers, atheist biologist and blogger, often is a controversial character. His harsh tone has at times earned him the title "General" Myers, a label I disagree with.
However, sticking with the military analogy but in a more literal sense, I thing it is possible to discern why, if anything, Myers is too soft when it comes to religiously motivated violence.
Specifically, I am talking about a post that he made about US drone strikes, comparing them them to suicide attacks by militant Islamists. More recently, he has been telling us that he is pleased with the impact the earlier post may have had.
But is this a valid comparison? Is it even fair to put the two on the same level?
Let us start by going over a few examples of who has been targeted by the drones, and what this strategy has achieved.
Perhaps the most high-profile and controversial of all drone actions in the recent years has been the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki. The American born Awlaki, who had been living in Yemen for a number of years, was busy giving anti-American talks and encouraging acts of violence. He had been linked to a number of (successful or otherwise) terrorist attacks in the US. These included the attack at Fort Hood, the Christmas day bomb attack near Detroit, and the Parcel Bomb attack of 2010.
I happen to think that in an ideal world, Awlaki could be put on trial for treason and incitement of violence, and put behind bars for life in a super-max facility. Unfortunately, that was quite impossible. He was the resident of a tribal and lawless area, and it would likely never work out to capture him. It is unfortunate that Awlaki had to meet his end this way, but Awlaki's survival would in all likelihood cost more lives.
There has been a lot of anger at the drone strikes in Pakistan, mostly on the grounds of sovereignty. The reality, however, is that the militants who are targeted in the tribal northwestern Pakistan, while unquestionably a danger to the US, are a much bigger danger to Pakistan itself. Exhibit A here would be the militant Baitullah Mehsud. Mehsud was tied to the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007, in mid-election campaign. While Mehsud denied this, again, as a powerful warlord in a tribal area, he was virtually immune to a thorough investigation. The premise that he was more of danger to his own people than to us seems to be indisputable.
But the achievements of the drone campaign cannot be measured solely in the militant suspects that they have killed. More importantly perhaps, they have scared a good number of them into urban zones, where they can be captured, with no need for drone strikes. Let's take a look at a few infamous examples.
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, high ranking Taliban leader, was captured in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, in February 2010. It is highly unusual for such bigwigs of Taliban to show up in major cities. The Taliban are, by nature, cave dwellers. The appearance of these dangerous men in big cities is, in all likelihood, for fear of falling prey to the drones.
But Baradar was likely not the biggest fish seeking refuge in cities due to fear of drone attacks. That title probably should go to none other than Osama Bin Laden. He had been living in houses for about 9 years before he was killed. Again, for a person at ease mostly in caves and tents, there is little explanation for this, other than feeling unsafe in the mountains.
The objection raised by PZ and others, of course, is the civilian casualties caused by the strikes. Yes, civilians, women, and children are often killed in these attacks. It is true, and it is heart-wrenching. But does this make it fair to compare these strikes to suicide bombings?
I think there is a point that doesn't get enough attention here. The reason that there are civilian casualties is that the militants are using the civilians as human shields. I find it rather puzzling that those who preach eternal paradise and 72 virgins to young recruits do not seem to be in such a hurry to reach this paradise themselves. They use any measures at their disposition, including life in lawless areas and hiding behind civilians, to avoid capture and death. Why aren't they getting any of the blame when others die as a result of their actions?
Here is the reality. The goal of a suicide bomber is to cause the maximum number of civilian deaths. The goal of a drone strike is to kill its intended target, with as few civilians as possible. The reason for this is that, ultimately, a democratic institution like the US government has to give attention to public perception of its actions. Even anti-drone activists accuse the US government of trying to hide facts concerning civilian casualties, maintaining that finding out about them would turn the tide of public opinion in the US against them and likely put an end to the attacks. Terrorists are bound by no such considerations. Therefore, comparing the two with regards to issues of morality is totally misguided. PZ Myers is wrong on this point.
My own sense is that the drone campaign, with all its shortcomings, has been instrumental in keeping us all safer. The strikes are likely to continue despite all the political bickering and vociferous objections.