The Washington Post launched a three-part series today about the U.S. drone strike program, in which terrorists abroad are targeted and assassinated from the sky. I’m not prepared to attempt an ethical analysis of this deadly tool against international terrorism, although I will acknowledge that my initial, gut level assessment is that the unique nature of terrorism requires adjustments in the ethics of national security and warfare, and drone killings seem to be a fair and reasonable adjustment.
Yet it is still killing. It is also controversial, with many human rights activists, international law specialists and ethicists vehemently condemning the tactic, especially when used against turn-coat Americans abroad without due process of law. Consequently, the Post’s revelation that the Administration’s “kill list” is called something else rings the ethics alarms.
“Over the past two years, the Obama administration has been secretly developing a new blueprint for pursuing terrorists, a next-generation targeting list called the “disposition matrix.” The matrix contains the names of terrorism suspects arrayed against an accounting of the resources being marshaled to track them down, including sealed indictments and clandestine operations. U.S. officials said the database is designed to go beyond existing kill lists, mapping plans for the “disposition” of suspects beyond the reach of American drones.”
“Disposition matrix” is a particularly annoying and deceitful official euphemism, though they all are annoying. They are all annoying because they are dishonest. The objective of such phrases, which in the past I have referred to as “cover phrases,” is to mislead the public, and to deceive it into believing that conduct is less troubling than it really is, or worse, different conduct entirely.
The worst cover phrase in recent years was the Bush Administration’s euphemism for torture, enhanced interrogation. In my view, the willingness to torture the English language to hide the clear intent and effect of conduct shows a government that is willing to lie to its citizens, and that cannot be trusted. The Bush Administration and its most ardent supporters even went a step further, denying that enhanced interrogation was torture, even when it involved such traditional torture methods as water-boarding. Disgraceful. Enhanced interrogation is when Kyra Sedgewick is brought in to sweat a confession out of a murder suspect on “The Closer.” Enhanced interrogation is when Raymond Burr, as Perry Mason, cross-examined a witness until he cracked and screamed out, “All right! All right! I did it! I strangled her! I loved her, but she treated me like dirt, I tell you! Dirt! I just couldn’t take it any more! No man could, don’t you see??” Using words to disguise unethical government conduct shows me a government that regards the public as marks, fools, or hostile forces. That is no way for a democratically elected government to treat the people who employ them.
I know this is a sore point right now, but this administration was supposed to be different. The pledge in 2008 was “transparency.” Cover phrases, by definition, are not transparent, and “disposition matrix” is one of the most opaque yet. If the American public objects to its government assassinating enemies of the U.S. outside of wartime, it can only make its sentiments known if it knows there is a kill list. A disposition matrix sounds like a chart showing that Chow-Chows are more likely to nip than greyhounds, and Norwich Terriers are more happy-go-lucky than Akitas.
A government that uses cover phrases doesn’t trust its own citizens. “Disposition matrix” is designed to mislead and deceive, and we should call it what it is.
Pointer: Chris Plante
Source: Washington Post
Graphic: Dr. Sophia Yin
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