Drone-Striking Julian Assange & Normalising Authoritarianism

Earlier today, Michael Grunwald, senior national correspondent for TIME Magazine, published a tweet, which he has since deleted and apologised for. However, there are still very clear records of what it said. That he was pressured to retract and apologise is good, but the fact that the tweet was made at all is what I would like to focus on, especially in that a journalist for a respected publication thought it fit to do so.

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I am far from a fan of Julian Assange for pretty obvious reasons – he is probably a rapist, and that’s pretty damn bad (to say the least), as well as being a bit of a douche. There have been many discussions of him in the past, which cover the man far more than I am able to. There are some questions that the tweet raises solely on its head, though – I doubt Grunwald would be making these comments about the Steubenville rapists, for example (who have been tried and found guilty in U.S. courts of their crime, unlike Assange). So what is the difference between the Steubenville pair and Julian Assange? Why is it acceptable for a journalist in establishment media to call for the death of one and not the other?

The answer is that it isn’t, but he thought it was because Assange is considered to be a political enemy of the United States of America, because Wikileaks (which is separate from Assange in reality, but is thought to be one and the same by many) released documents that the United States wanted kept private, most notably the ones showing their complicity in illegal war crimes (among many other things). But in many ways, the Julian Assange factor is the less important part of the tweet in my mind, especially compared to the drone strike comment and the blatant authoritarianism. The context he brings to it is important in showing how executive over-reach has become totally normalised in mainstream society, and especially in journalism (which is meant to hold authority to account). It also highlights how much journalists pander to the White House’s opinions (by agreeing with them entirely), and there are no doubt many others who will dissect the reasons why Assange was the target of the tweet in far more detail than I care to.

Drones, or unmanned aervial vehicles (UAVs), are broadly sorted into two groups – surveillance and armed, and they can be controlled by a pilot on the ground or by pre-programmed autonomous missions. In recent years, their use has increased significantly as technology has advanced; drones can stay in the sky for much longer than manned aircraft (the British Zephyr drone recently broke the record by remaining airborne for 82 hours), and the military industry has keenly embraced them. They made headlines when President Barack Obama’s kill-list was first revealed, and again when they were found to have killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a man that Obama later claimed was a member of Al-Qaeda. This post only focuses on the armed sky-robots, but the role of surveillance drones is always worth baring in mind

The reason why I believe this context is important to give is that drone strikes have quietly sneaked into the public imagination, always under the guise of a device that guards national security abroad. The collective public imagination does not see drone strikes as the devices that have killed over 800 civilians and children only a year old, but as a tool of public convenience; as a targeted assassination of dangerous men. As a result, it is all-too-rare for men like Grunwald to receive punishment for a passing jibe regarding drone strikes – Senator Dick Durbin joked (as John Knefel references) during the hearing to close Guantanamo Bay along the same lines. There are no doubt other example of powerful men making crude remarks about assassination along the same lines.

These jokes normalise drone strikes in the public consciousness. Drone strikes have ceased to be urgent new revelations, and have faded into the general cultural landscape. The fact that the drone strike assassinations have no oversight, no fair trial, no justice – that is not mentioned, and so it is not questioned by the majority. That drone strikes instil fear in people in Yemen and Pakistan and thus do far more to aid Al-Qaeda than Al-Qaeda itself (as Farea al-Muslimi pointed out in his tear-invoking speech to Congress) is not mentioned; the danger they may pose to national security in the U.S. goes without saying, and people presume that these instruments of death keep them safe in their homes. These jokes are not bombing people who have done no wrong, but they are normalising them in a culture that does not see that reality. There is perhaps no greater example of authoritarianism than unaccountable drone strikes, wherein the state simply erases its political enemies without due process or justice. Had Anwar al-Awlaki been arrested and brought to the United States, he (and his son) would not be dead now. The United States cannot lay its hands directly on Julian Assange, so Grunwald figures that it will inevitably bomb him with a drone (regardless of the fact that the Ecuadorian embassy is in a busy area of London), and a tweet forms from there! At no point does the logical tenuousness occur to him, nor does the complete inappropriateness of a journalist to be making a man’s possible state-sponsored murder a laughing matter.

The joke’s use of Assange’s status as a political enemy of the United States and the societally presumed use of drones as anti-terrorism tools combine to form a troubling mixture; the use of murder as a standard political tool. For the United States, which at least nominally respects human rights (even if their treatment of folks like Manning or Guantanamo Bay detainees says otherwise) to oversee an institution where such a connection is so easily made should be startling, even if it isn’t.

That isn’t even embarking on the very obvious road of discussion that Grunwald is very openly admitting that he would defend the United States if it unilaterally killed a human being for political reasons, which is power worshipping at its absolute worst. That is so apparent it is barely worth discussing, although the concrete example of journalistic bias is made clear; there is no thought into how such a move should be criticised or prevented, only into how the author can defend it after-the-fact. Even without political pressure, it is power that is worshipped at first. You can almost imagine Grunwald writing his defence of remote assassination, ready so that it can hit the presses minutes after the event – and if you can imagine it, your stomach may have turned as much as mine did.

The layers of authoritarianism in the tweet are startling to recognise, and yet are simultaneously nothing new – this pattern of normalisation is to be replayed time and time again, but it always bears talking about. It isn’t national news, but it should be – drone strikes are a menace to us all. But journalists in respected publications care far less about criticising power and holding it to account; instead, they want to cosy up to power, hoping that they can get some themselves. And as people still get their news from publications like TIME Magazine and other mainstream media sites, the danger in having those publications stand complicitly with power should be readily apparent.

And before I sign this off, reading tweets by Farea al-Muslimi and reflecting on these comments and jokes always makes me think of drones as a sort of Sword of Damocles, hovering over all those who dare to think against the United States, or act as if they might be thinking that way. That is a nightmarish thought.

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