America Often Doesn't Even Apologize When It Kills Innocents in Drone Strikes

The typical response is that of a hit-and-run driver: Flee the scene, pretend nothing happened, and leave victims even worse off as a result.

After reading the human-rights reports issued this week by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, Benjamin Wittes writes that, while he has misgivings about the sweep of their conclusions, "It is impossible for a modestly-moral person to read these reports without something approaching nausea. They are grisly. They involve the deaths of numerous apparently-innocent people. The deaths appear to have taken place at the hands of the United States."

The reports of these incidents "thus raise serious questions about the way at least those drone strikes they cover took place," he concludes. "What went wrong, why, and how we can minimize the chances of such disasters in the future?"

Those are excellent questions, and I'd add one more.

America is engaged in an ongoing debate about the proper role of unmanned aerial vehicles in the War on Terrorism. It won't be resolved in the foreseeable future. But as long as the U.S. is waging drone warfare, it is incumbent upon us to decide what to do after our drone pilots mistakenly injure or kill innocent people.

What happens next?

Earlier this week, I used my Orange County Register column to sketch my preferences. Here's what makes sense to me:

When the U.S. kills or injures an innocent person, our government ought to acknowledge the mistake. It ought to issue an apology. It ought to compensate the person who is injured, or the family of the person who is killed. Investigators ought to identify what went wrong. And changes ought to be made so that the same mistake is better avoided in the future.

The Obama Administration has taken a different approach. It hasn't acknowledged when innocents were killed. It hasn't extended apologies to the victims or next of kin. If there was any investigation at all, it was carried out in secret by insiders with a vested interest in the outcome. It's possible that changes were made to improve future performance. The number of innocents killed in drone strikes seems to have declined over time, and it's possible that operational improvements were partly responsible. But innocents are still being killed, and we're still refusing to acknowledge our role or to atone to the limited extent possible.

Put simply, we are behaving immorally.

Even if you support the use of drones and regard civilian casualties as a tragic necessity, it remains the case that we should apologize to and compensate our victims. Yet we're behaving like the perp in a hit-and-run: The poor families of the innocents we kill are left to pay for a funeral wondering why their loved one was blown up. Little surprise that the little girl I wrote about yesterday, whose grandmother was killed, is left saying, "When they fly overhead I wonder, will I be next?"

The Obama Administration didn't apologize to her family, help rebuild its damaged house, reveal the terrible mistake that led to their matriarch's death, or explain what steps have been taken to prevent its recurrence. Having killed the 68-year-old woman and injured several of her grandchildren, the U.S. government said nothing and did nothing save to continue flying drones over their community.

This is in keeping with the Obama Administration's larger approach to drone strikes. For a long time, it wouldn't even acknowledge ongoing policy to Americans. Operations remain shrouded in secrecy; and the number of civilian casualties have been repeatedly understated by mendacious or ignorant members of the national-security establishment, including legislators like Senator Dianne Feinstein. The climate of secrecy created by the Obama Administration remains the biggest obstacle to good information and accountability. So long as the opacity persists, we're left to draw limited conclusions from what little information we have.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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