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GANDER SAUCE

“Double tap” is what mobsters do when they put somebody down. One bullet in the heart, one in the head. That way they stay down. It’s practically standard operating procedure among hitmen.

Then there’s a different, nastier kind of double tap. Suppose you live in some hill village in western Pakistan, and one of the families nearby has a boy fighting with the Taliban who has come home for a visit, bringing several friends with him. It’s worrisome, because you are always hearing American drones overhead — and sure enough, one day there is a terrifying explosion and his house is destroyed.

What do you do now? There was a whole extended family living in that house: children, old folks, a cousin or two. Some of them are probably still alive under the rubble, perhaps badly injured. Do you rush over and help to dig them out? Better not. The Predator or Reaper drone (lovely names) will wait until all the neighbours have gathered round, and then launch a second Hellfire missile onto the site. Double tap.

Stanford University’s International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic and the New York University School of Law’s Global Justice Clinic have just released a report, based on nine months of research and 130 interviews, which concludes that barely two per cent of the victims of US drone strikes were known militants.

The best estimate of the number of people killed in US drone strikes over the past eight years comes from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism: between 2,532 and 3,251 dead in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Of those, between 475 and 879 deaths were civilian non-combatants who happened to be nearby when the Hellfire hit — often because they were trying to rescue survivors from an earlier strike.

Bad guys

Washington doesn’t formally admit that the Central Intelligence Agency is running a remote-control assassination programme at all, because it is legally a very doubtful area. At the same time, it strives to reassure the American public that there is almost no “collateral damage”: that practically all the victims are “bad guys”. Including the 175 children who, according to the Bureau’s numbers, have been killed in the strikes.

Is it legal to make air attacks in a country that you are not at war with? Can you distinguish sufficiently between “militants” and civilians living in the same area? And, above all, why are you making double-tap attacks? Do the controllers really think that the people rushing to rescue the survivors of a first strike are all “militants” too? Or are they just trying to deter people from helping those who were wounded in the first strike? That is certainly the effect of the policy: villagers now often leave the injured survivors of an attack in agony for hours before going to help them, for fear of becoming victims too.

There’s no point in telling the military and their masters that this tactic is counter-productive, generating more new “militants” than it kills. The bureaucratic machine doesn’t respond to such subtle arguments. There’s probably no point in talking about the moral problem of killing innocent people either. But the fact that some 50 countries now have drones should inspire a little reflection about this unwritten change in the rules of engagement.

The latest proud possessor of these weapons is Iran, which has just unveiled a new drone with a range of 2,000 kilometres, capable of flying over most of the Middle East. So what if it starts using those capabilities over, say, Syria, against the rebels that the Syrian government calls “terrorists”?

The US could not really complain (though no doubt it would). What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.