Man in Box

Man in Box

Friday, June 08, 2012

Sexist Practice in White House Approval of Counter-terrorism Strikes

Is President Obama’s practice sexist when he sorts residents of Pakistan into “enemy combatants” or “civilians” before ordering the CIA to fire a Hellfire missile at a truck or compound many thousands of miles away?  A friend doubts my recent claim made on Facebook that it is.  Perhaps he is correct.  After I posted my comment on Facebook I had my own doubts.

I was reacting to this sentence in the New York Times article “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will," 29 May 2012: 
Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

The context for this statement is, as the article says, “Mr. Obama … at the helm of a top secret 'nominations' process to designate terrorists for kill[-ing]." The article further elaborates:
If the agency [CIA] did not have a 'near certainty' that a strike would result in zero civilian deaths, Mr. Obama wanted to decide personally whether to go ahead... This counting method may partly explain the official claims of extraordinary low collateral deaths.  In a speech last year Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama's trusted adviser, said that not a single noncombatant had been killed in a year of strikes.
Facebook encourages snap judgments and opinions in the structure of it “thumbs up” likes and it limited space for comments.  After reading the Times article I had strong feelings about it which included a gut or intuitive sense that the policy was sexist.  I believe intuitive reactions are of real value,  especially when alerting us to problems.  At the same time they may prove mistaken or misleading when subject to careful analysis.  So let me attempt some of the latter.

Is Obama's practice in approving remote attack targets sexist (probably unconsciously)?

Let's start with the Miriam Webster definition of sexism:

1: prejudice or discrimination based on sex; especially: discrimination against women.

2: behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex.

The applicable definition in this case is #1 “discrimination based on sex”, but in this case it is discrimination against males.  How so?

As I said above, my response was triggered by the “counting of all military-age males in the strike zone as combatants.”  This is the radical presumption on the part of the White House -- that made me feel it was sexist.  While a reasonable presumption might be that many, even a majority, of the military-age males in the strike zone might in some relevant sense be combatants allied with the targeted al Qaeda member, some significant portion will certainly not be.  This is especially true when the target is a residential compound in contrast to a truck believed to be carrying armed combatants.

I had immediately thought that:  there, but for the grace of God, am I a seventeen year-old produce delivery boy in the kitchen of an apparently prosperous man (who I have likely never met and nor would I know anything of his political affiliations) when the compound I am standing in is blown to pieces and my life suddenly ended.  By what possible course of moral logic is it permissible that the White House many thousands of miles away takes my life because of a presumption that male equals combatant?

Then by the logic of “shoot first and ask questions later” some White House official pronounces that if it is proven posthumously that I am “innocent” I will be added to a category named “regrettable collateral victims" of a "necessary counter-terrorist operation."  But, I would receive this posthumous dignity only if some powerful voice in the media or elsewhere is discourteous enough to those in power in Washington to make a stink about it.

So let’s review this in regards to sexism.  In the case of the hypothetical boy I am identifying with above, he is subject to discrimination by virtue of his sex and the happenstance of his proximity to targeted combatants.  In other words, his social role (combatant) is assigned according to his sex.  That is precisely the definition of sexism.

In further regards to sexism I note, that while this was not addressed in the article,  any women (and their children) who are killed in the bombing, when their unfortunate presence is acknowledged, will be categorized as regretted, but necessary, collateral victims by virtue of their co-habitation with the male targets.  It should be noted that quite a few women have died in these attacks. This seems all too close to the late U.S. and English law of coverture in which: marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law; that is the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage." [William Blackstone. Commentaries on the Laws of England]
 Thus once the White House passes the threshold of deciding that it is permissible to bomb residences in the targeting of al Qaeda members, women and children are in effect thrown back into coverture status, even if there is posthumous regret for their demise proffered by the attacker.

Yes, it seems this White House policy is sexist.  

And no, it doesn’t matter that White House sexism mirrors that of al Qaeda.  It may be true that those who make war often follow their enemies to hell, but we should resist that temptation with all due fortitude.