To Egypt's military government, American officials condemning the killings are nothing but hypocrites. After all, is there any significant difference between what Egypt is doing in its own streets and what the United States is doing in the streets of other states?
When the United States uses drone strikes to kill alleged terrorists -- strikes that have killed thousands of people, not hundreds -- it doesn't show the world the evidence that led to those targeting decisions. It doesn't offer specifics about the past bad behavior of those it kills, or details of the future damage they would likely inflict if left unmolested. It doesn't acknowledge mistakes or offer a public account of any civilian deaths unintentionally inflicted. On the contrary, the United States does exactly what the Egyptian authorities are doing: It asserts the existence of a threat to national security, asserts its right to use force to counter it, asks the world to trust in the good faith and good judgment of its officials, and otherwise tells critics to buzz off.
True, Egypt is using lethal force inside its own borders, rather than inside the borders of another state. But does this make it worse, or better? The U.S. government does its killing far from its own territory, away from the prying eyes of journalists, judges, members of Congress, and anyone else who might be dismayed by the bloody aftermath of what we're so fond of viewing as "surgical" strikes. Egypt's government is at least doing its dirty work right out in the open, where its population can judge its actions for itself. (So far, many in Egypt seem content: As the New York Times reported today, many in Cairo apparently view the killings as justified. The Times story quotes one source explaining approvingly that Egypt's security forces need to "fight terrorism" and that the military has been transparent in its actions, moving in on protesters during the daytime, rather than under cover of darkness, so that "everything was obvious.")
And don't be too sure the U.S. government wouldn't resort to lethal force to kill domestic terrorists, if it comes to that. Probably not with drones, but weaponized drones are just a convenient way to kill people in regions where it's impractical for the United States to deploy ground personnel. The United States has not yet faced a domestic threat of the magnitude Egypt's authorities claim to be facing, and although American officials insist that they would always abide by domestic legal requirements when countering any terrorist threats at home, the logic of the Obama administration's argument about drone strikes isn't very reassuring. If the United States is legally entitled to kill suspected terrorists in Yemen because they're considered combatants in our armed conflict against al Qaeda and its associates, there's no obvious reason for the United States to refrain from killing suspected enemy combatants operating inside its borders if circumstances render non-lethal law enforcement methods impracticable. As ever in the war on terror, our only real safeguard against government abuse is the good character and self-restraint of American officials.
To be clear, I'm not expecting black helicopters to swoop down on the next Code Pink protest in Washington; I do, in fact, have a great deal of faith in our government's commitment to using only law enforcement methods inside our borders. I'll go further than that: Although I regard most U.S. drone strikes as strategically short-sighted and marred by an appalling disregard for rule-of-law principles, I accept the administration's assurance that strikes are carried out only after an exacting review process.
But although I believe the U.S. government has a far greater commitment to safeguarding innocent lives and exercising self-restraint than the Egyptian authorities, the utter lack of transparency surrounding U.S. drone strikes ensures that no one can prove it.
And that's not good enough. How can our condemnations of the bloody abuses in Egypt have any credibility when we've given the world no basis for believing we're less savage ourselves?