Last week it was confirmed that a drone attack killed Mustafa Abu al-Yazid. Also known as Saeed Al-Masri, he was directly involved in planning the 9/11 attacks. More recently the dead man is thought to have coordinated al-Qaeda operations in Afghanistan and served as the AQ chief financial officer.
Also killed in the attack was the al-Qaeda leader’s wife, three daughters, a grandchild and other men, women, and children sharing a residence in North Waziristan (Pakistan). Precise body counts are unlikely.
The Obama administration has significantly increased the use of drone attacks inside Pakistan and in other difficult-to-access areas. Many — including yours truly — perceive the tactic has been fundamental to disrupting the capacity of al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies.
On May 28 the United Nations special rapporteur on extra-judicial killings released a report on US drone attacks (and similar tactics by other member states). The report is especially critical of killer drones being operated by non-military personnel, such as the CIA, and use of targeted killings outside a legally established war zone (Afghanistan is sort-of ok, Pakistan is definately not).
In 2007 a RAND report suggested that terrorist groups enhance their capabilities by “sharing dragon’s teeth.” Earlier this year the Pakistani commentator Irfan Husain compared the resilience of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the face of US drone attacks to the mythological warriors born of dragon’s teeth. Another commentator gave President Obama the role of Cadmus, dragon-killer and teeth-sower, “The drone attacks, rather than exterminating ‘terrorists’ are sowing the proverbial dragon’s teeth from which more and more spring, like whole armies, trained and ready for combat.”
The wanna-be Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, was reportedly motivated to revenge drone attacks in Pakistan. According to the New York Post, Fox News, and others, Shahzad — an American citizen — was in Pakistan when a drone attack killed several innocents (and others not-so-innocent). Did a drone’s dragon tooth sprout in Connecticut?
There are at least two versions of the Dragon’s Teeth myth. One version reflects American mythologizing. The original is more starkly tragic in its telling. In both the American and the original a brave Prince Cadmus slays a dragon and plants its teeth. From the teeth suddenly grows a horrible army, thousands of grim warriors are barely ripe when they begin killing each other.
Uplifting his weapon, he smote his next neighbor a blow that cleft his helmet asunder, and stretched him on the ground. In an instant, those nearest the fallen warrior began to strike at one another with their swords, and stab with their spears. The confusion spread wider and wider. Each man smote down his brother, and was himself smitten down before he had time to exult in his victory. The trumpeters, all the while, blew their blasts shriller and shriller; each soldier shouted a battle cry, and often fell with it on his lips.
Only five warriors survive. In the original, the battle is the climax of the story. But in the Tanglewood Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne the five’s exhausted survival is transformed into thorough redemption. The American commitment to happy endings began long before Hollywood.
Like savage beasts, they would doubtless have done one another a mischief, if Cadmus had not kept watch over them, and quelled the fierce old serpent that lurked in their hearts, when he saw it gleaming out of their wild eyes. But, in course of time, they got accustomed to honest labor, and had sense enough to feel that there was more true enjoyment in living at peace, and doing good to one’s neighbor, than in striking at him with a two-edged sword. It may not be too much to hope that the rest of mankind will by and by grow as wise and peaceable as these five earth-begrimed warriors, who sprang from the dragon’s teeth.
Each one killed by a drone plants at least one dragon’s tooth. Each woman killed plants three or four and a child even more. If we are careful and have chosen well, the drone also kills a dragon.
This is the tragic choice of which Reinhold Niebuhr warns us. We ought not deny our responsibility for killing those who abide with the dragon. We should recognize our role in planting dragon’s teeth. Our only hope of redemption — at least in this kingdom — is precisely in taking responsibility for our tragic choice.
To actively and meaningfully fulfill this responsibility we must exercise our power with particular care. We should also attend to those who survive our victims. Simply in our own self-interest we should, “keep watch over them… who sprang from the dragon’s teeth.” But if this remains the sum of our relationship, we will never overcome mutual suspicion and an easy slide into continuing conflict. More is needed.
Cadmus and his five survivors went on to build a great city. In Hawthorne’s tale it is a place of beauty, happiness and harmony. In the ancient original it is, whatever its virtues, also the city of Oedipus and Antigone. Tragic potential persists. But in both the ancient and American versions a future is practically envisioned, constructed, and shared. Can we leave aside our easy Hollywood hopes long enough to craft a — no doubt uneasy — common cause with our victims?
For further consideration:
The Year of the Drone (2010) by the New America Foundation
The Obama Administration and International Law by Harold Hongju Koh, Legal Adviser, US Department of State