Voice

Keep Calm and Shut the Bleep Up

Dear Americans, stop patting yourselves on the back for 'not letting the terrorists win.'

Could we all stop yapping about the Boston bombing for a while?

As I write, we continue to drown in a sea of tweets, Reddit posts, sanctimonious Facebook updates, and "breaking" news that breaks down completely a few milliseconds later. It was al Qaeda! It was a homegrown Islamic terrorist! It was a white supremacist! It was -- or it wasn't -- connected to the Mississippi ricin guy! It was -- or it wasn't -- connected to Wednesday night's powerful explosions near Waco, Texas! It was the guy in the blue robe! It was the North Koreans! It was God, punishing America for gay marriage!

At Foreign Policy, we get all the scoops, so I'll let you in on some secret inside information. It's hot stuff -- the kind of information CNN and Fox don't want you to have. Here it is:

Someone planted two homemade bombs near the Boston Marathon's finish line. Three people are dead, and many more are injured, some gravely. The police and the FBI are working hard to figure out who did it, but they don't know for sure yet.

And there you have it. That's all I know, that's all the media know, that's all the "security experts" on TV know, and that's all anyone knows, unless they happen to be among a small number of senior law enforcement officials, or unless they happen to be the bomber(s). Currently, we know just as much (or just as little) about the explosions in Texas.

And in light of our collective ignorance and lack of anything solid to report, here's my plea, to the various communities and individuals out there:

Police, FBI: Keep at it. Thanks.

First responders and medical personnel: Ditto.

Reporters and bloggers: Keep digging. When you know something for a fact, by all means, tweet or post a story. Otherwise, please shut up. You're just making us crazy and spreading half-truths and misinformation.

This means you too, Associated Press.

Friends and families of those killed or injured: Take care of yourselves and each other. Millions of thoughts and prayers are going your way from all around the world. Millions of people are sorry for your pain and loss.

Millions more would love to appropriate your pain and loss, out of ideology, political ambition, or simple narcissism. Ignore them. In fact, ignore all of us. You have far more important things to do than listen to any of the rest of us.

People who witnessed the explosions or saw the carnage: Seeing terrible things can leave real psychic scars. Talk to someone, if you need to.

And as for the rest of us?

Stop. Just stop.

You don't need to keep changing your Facebook status to let us all know that you're still extremely shocked and sad about the Boston bombing. Let's just stipulate that everyone is shocked and sad, except the perpetrators and some other scattered sociopaths.

You also don't need to see a trauma counselor unless you have serious preexisting problems. These tragedies aren't yours. Don't devalue the grief and trauma of people who actually have something to be distressed about by developing a case of self-indulgent vicarious trauma.

It's one thing for President Obama to say, as he did Thursday afternoon, "Every one of us has been touched by this attack" and "Boston, you're my home." He's the president, after all -- he's supposed to feel every American's pain. But, when the rest of us wear it, the sentiment is cloying at best, and it's often just plain self-indulgent.   

"Convincing ourselves that we've been vicariously traumatized by the pain of strangers has become a cherished national pastime," I wrote in a 2007 column for the Los Angeles Times. That column was motivated by the response to the Virginia Tech shootings, but it could apply equally to the Newtown shooting or the Boston Marathon bombing or the Waco disaster. Here's what I wrote then:

Five days after the Virginia Tech massacre, the friends and families of the victims are grieving -- and despite the relentless glare of the media spotlight, their pain is still private. It belongs to them, not to the rest of us.

But you sure wouldn't know it from the way we talk about the tragedy. In modern America, there's always plenty of trauma to go around....Did you feel sad when you heard the news? Did you ponder, however fleetingly, the mystery of mortality? If so, don't just go on with your ordinary life as if nothing has happened to disrupt it (even though nothing has happened to disrupt it). Honor your grief! Attend a candlelight vigil, post a poignant message on one of MySpace's Virginia Tech memorial pages and please, seek trauma counseling as soon as possible....

[But] count me out. There's something fraudulent about this eagerness to latch onto the grief of others and embrace the idea that we, too, have been victimized.... Empathy is good, but feeling shocked and saddened by the shootings doesn't make us traumatized or special -- these feelings make us normal. Our self-indulgent conviction that we have all been traumatized also operates, ironically, to shut down empathy for other, less media-genic victims....Our collective insistence that we all share in the Virginia Tech trauma is a form of anti-politics, one that blinds us to the distinctions between different kinds and degrees of suffering.

So please, please, don't tell us that Boston has become just like Afghanistan, or that you now understand what it must be like to live in Iraq. It's not, and you don't. (I don't either, and I'm thankful for that.) Thousands of American servicemembers have been injured or killed in bomb blasts over the last decade, as have thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilians. In Iraq on Monday, more than 50 people died in a bomb blast, and another attack killed at least 15 on Thursday. In Afghanistan, bomb blasts killed at least eight on Monday, and insurgent attacks and more bombs killed several dozen others over the next few days.

We Americans have never had to live with the continual insecurity and carnage that is the daily lot for millions around the world, and thank God for that. That doesn't mean we need to wear sackcloth and ashes every day to commemorate the suffering of strangers around the world, but it wouldn't hurt for us to stop acting like a bombing that killed three people has magically transformed all Americans into martyrs and heroes.

So please don't pat yourself on the back for courageously going on with your regular business this week just to "show the terrorists" that they can't intimidate you. Unless you're President Obama or one of a small number of people against whom there are repeated, credible threats, "the terrorists" aren't that interested in you, personally. Carry on. Odds are, you'll be just fine. (Unless you're hit by lightning, which is somewhat more likely than becoming a victim of a terrorist attack.)

You also don't need to assert proudly that Boston will get through this. Of course it will. The city of Boston's been around for nearly 400 years, and it has survived smallpox epidemics, bread riots, the Revolutionary War, draft riots, labor riots, race riots, and decades of sky-high homicide rates. Three dead in a terrorist attack is devastating for the families and friends of the victims, but it is not going to destroy Boston.

You don't need to freak out about cosmic new threats to U.S. national security, either. The Boston Marathon bombing was tragic and criminal whether it was carried out by a foreign terrorist group or a home-grown nutcase. But keep it in perspective: Ordinary criminal homicide claims more than 5,000 times as many American lives each year than this attack. Ordinary criminal homicide has claimed far more lives than international terrorism every single year in recorded history, and car accidents kill twice as many Americans as homicide. And as I noted above, with the exception of 2011, lightning strikes have claimed more American lives each year in the past decade than terrorist attacks. An attack that kills three people is criminal and sad, but it does not represent an existential danger to the United States.

This means you don't need to urge President Obama to go find a foreign country to attack in response. Maybe the Boston bomber(s) were inspired by Inspire, al Qaeda's online magazine, which contains helpful articles such as "How to Build a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom." Maybe they were inspired by decades-old anarchist literature, also readily available on the web, or by any of a thousand other sites that offer how-to advice to aspiring mass murderers of all nationalities and political stripes. Either way, invading another country -- or stepping up drone strikes on suspected militants in far-off lands --isn't likely to solve the problem that currently faces us, which is that an enterprising sociopath of any race, religion, nationality, or creed can easily obtain weapons, materiel, and just enough expertise to do some serious harm.

You also don't need to beg the government to install more security cameras. Most commercial enterprises already make use of security cameras, and most of your fellow citizens already carry their own portable security cameras these days -- a.k.a. cellphones. Look how easily Reddit's Internet sleuths have zeroed in on particular faces in the Boston crowd, using multiple photos provided mainly by marathon watchers. (That's for better or for worse -- the crowd-sourcing process is also misidentifying as "suspicious" many perfectly innocent people.)

At the end of the day, there just isn't much most ordinary people should do in immediate response to events such as the Boston bombings. We can take common sense security measures, but we can't eliminate all terrorism any more than we can eliminate all crime or prevent all accidental deaths. We live in an imperfect world. The best we can do is cultivate resilience and learn how to intelligently manage risk.

Second best: Let's quit whining and quit yapping. A small number of Americans have something terrible to grieve about as a result of Monday's bombing. The rest of us should show our respect by not trying to horn in on their grief -- and by shutting up until we actually have some information worth sharing.

DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

10 Ways to Fix the Drone War

Obama's targeted-killing policy is a mess. Here's what he can do about it.

How could I have missed this! On March 23, the Drone Report website called me one of the "top ten leading voices in drone media." So, okay: I didn't know there was a "drone media," and I'm not entirely sure being a member of the "drone media" is a compliment. But assuming it is, I am determined to live up to the honor.

To that end, I'm soliciting your help, dear readers. Regular readers of my column know that I do indeed drone on about you-know-whats. I have written about what's not wrong with drones, about the ways in which drones lower the perceived costs of using lethal cross-border force, about the legal indeterminacy surrounding targeting decisions, about the administration's legal justifications for killing Americans overseas, about the reasons Congress should not expand the Authorization for Use of Military Force, and about the costs of moving large swathes of U.S. foreign policy into the covert world. I have even written about my own growing drone armada.

Although I've raised a lot of questions and leveled a lot of criticisms, I'm feeling a little low on solutions. So help me out: Below, I've listed 10 things Congress and/or the president could do to ensure that U.S. targeted killings comport with rule of law norms. I take no credit (or blame!) for these ideas, none of which is original to me. (Some sources of these suggestions include Human Rights First, the Council on Foreign Relations, Lawfare, Human Rights Watch, and numerous conversations I've had with colleagues and friends.) But I am sure the list of ideas below is neither perfect nor complete.

Readers, please comment on these ideas (and others not listed), either in the comment section or by sending me an email. Are these good ideas? Stupid ones? Feasible or unfeasible? Do they need to be tweaked? How? What should be cut, and what's missing?

If you help me out, you will become an honorary member of the Drone Media. Make your mom proud!

10 Ideas for Ensuring Oversight, Transparency, Accountability, and the Rule of Law in U.S. Targeted Killing Policy

1. Congress should encourage administration transparency and public debate by continuing to hold hearings on drone strikes, targeted killing policy, and its relationship to and impact on broader U.S. counterterrorism, national security, and foreign policy goals. Congress should also consider hearings on the longer-term challenge of adapting the law of war and law of self-defense to 21st century threats.

2. Congress should also encourage administration transparency by imposing reporting requirements. Congress could require that the executive branch provide thorough reports on any uses of force not expressly authorized by Congress, and that such reports contain both classified sections and unclassified sections in which the administration provides a legal and policy analysis of any use of force in self-defense or other uses of force outside traditional battlefields.

3. Congress should consider creating a judicial mechanism, perhaps similar to the existing Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, to authorize and review the legality of targeted killings outside of traditional battlefields. While the administration argues that such targeting decisions present a non-justiciable political question because of the president's commander-in-chief authority, the use of military force outside of traditional battlefields and against geographically dispersed non-state actors straddles the lines between war and law enforcement. While the president must clearly be granted substantial discretion in the context of armed conflicts, the applicability of the law of armed conflict to a particular situation requires that the law be interpreted and applied to a particular factual situation, and this is squarely the type of inquiry the judiciary is bested suited to making.

Of note, the Israeli Supreme Court addressed the issue of targeted killing in a 2006 decision and determined that while the conflict between Israel and Palestinian terrorist organizations was an international armed conflict, individual terrorists were civilians who become targetable by virtue (and only by virtue) of their direct participation in hostilities. The court also noted that international law requires independent investigations when civilians are targeted because of their suspected participation in hostilities. The Israeli Supreme Court roundly rejected the view that targeted killing presents a non-justiciable issue, and insisted that the legality of each targeted killing decision must be individually considered in light of domestic and international legal requirements. While specific judicial review mechanisms in the United States might reasonably be expected to vary from Israel's, the Israeli experience strongly suggests that there is no inherent reason judicial review of targeted killings could not occur.

4. Congress should consider repealing the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force. The Obama administration's domestic legal justification for most drone strikes relies on the AUMF, which it interprets to authorize the use of force not only against those individuals and organizations with some real connection to the 9/11 attacks, but also against all "associates" of al Qaeda. This infinitely flexible interpretation of the AUMF has lowered the threshold for using force. Repealing the AUMF would not deprive the president of the ability to use force if necessary to prevent or respond to a serious armed attack: The president would retain his existing discretionary power, as chief executive and commander in chief, to protect the nation in emergencies. Repealing the 2011 AUMF would, however, likely reduce the frequency with which the president resorts to targeted killings.

5. The Constitution gives Congress the power to "define and punish offenses against the law of nations." Without in any way tying the president's hands, Congress can pass a resolution clarifying that the international law of self-defense requires a rigorous imminence, necessity, and proportionality analysis, and that the use of cross-border military force should be reserved for situations in which there is concrete evidence of grave threats that cannot be addressed through other means.

6. Congress and/or the executive branch should create a non-partisan blue-ribbon commission made up of senior experts on international law, national security, human rights, foreign policy, and counterterrorism. Commission members should have or receive the necessary clearances to review intelligence reports and conduct a thorough policy review of past and current targeted killing policy, evaluating the risk of setting international precedents, the impact of U.S. targeted killing policy on allies, and the impact on broader U.S. counterterrorism goals. In the absence of a judicial review mechanism, the commission might also be tasked with reviewing particular strikes to determine whether any errors or abuses have taken place. The commission should produce a public, unclassified report, as well as a classified report made available to executive branch and congressional officials. The report should contain detailed recommendations, including, if applicable, recommendations for changes in law and policy and recommendations for further action of any sort, including, potentially, compensation for civilians harmed by U.S. drone strikes. The unclassified report should contain as few redactions as possible.

7. The president should publicly acknowledge all targeted killings outside traditional battlefields within a reasonable time period, identifying those targeted, laying out the legal factual basis for the decision to target, and identifying, to the best of available knowledge, death, property damage, and injury resulting from the strike(s).

8. The president should release unclassified versions of all legal memoranda relating to targeted killing policy. In particular, U.S. citizens have a right to understand the government's views on the legality of targeting U.S. citizens.

9. The president should also provide the public with information about the process through which targeting decisions outside traditional battlefields are made, the chain of command for such decisions, and internal procedures designed to prevent civilian casualties.

10. The administration should convene, through appropriate formal and Track II diplomatic channels, an international dialogue on norms governing the use of drone technologies and targeted killings. The goal should be to develop consensus on the legal principles applicable to targeted killing outside a state's territory, including those relating to sovereignty, proportionality, and distinction, and on appropriate procedural safeguards to prevent and redress error and abuse.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images