Recent public opinion surveys reveal somewhat disjointed attitudes toward the legitimacy of violence, with Americans on one hand embracing violent policies as they pertain to assassinating suspected terrorists, and on the other rejecting the use of violent protests against police brutality.
In one recent poll, nearly three-quarters of respondents said that it’s acceptable for the U.S. to use unmanned aerial drones to kill American citizens abroad if they are suspected of having joined a terrorist organization. The survey, conducted by the Associated Press and GfK in the days following President Barack Obama’s public apology for a CIA drone strike in Pakistan that inadvertently killed American Warren Weinstein and Italian Giovanni Lo Porto, found that only 13 percent oppose the use of drones in this respect, with six in ten supporting the practice of assassinating terror suspects without due process.
Although some have criticized the wording of the survey, such as Dan Froomkin and Jon Schwarz noting at The Intercept that the AP itself acknowledged that it did not include questions about collateral damage, it nevertheless provides a fairly strong indication of public support for a policy that since 2002 has killed more than 1,000 civilians in hundreds of strikes against Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan. A similar poll conducted last year also found most Americans were “inclined to support the government in its lethal attacks on citizens and non-citizens it deems to be terrorists.”
With this sort of broad support for the government’s liberal use of lethal force, one might assume that the American public generally agrees that violence is a legitimate recourse in response to potential threats or sources of injustice. But while six in ten Americans consider legitimate the use of drone strikes to kill U.S. citizens without being charged or tried, a virtually identical number considers illegitimate the use of riots to protest police brutality.
In a CBS News/New York Times poll conducted from April 30 to May 3, 2015, 61 percent of respondents said that the unrest in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray was unjustified. These results were generally in line with a survey conducted by Rasmussen Reports, which found just 25 percent describing the uprising as “legitimate outrage.”
This is despite the fact that according to another survey, by Pew Research Center, most Americans agree that multiple factors – including poverty, anger over the police murder of Freddie Gray, and the unresponsive foot-dragging by city officials following his death – contributed a good deal to the unrest. While the public largely supports the decision by Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby to file criminal charges against the six officers connected to Gray’s arrest and transport on April 12, most Americans do not have much confidence in the legal process ultimately delivering justice in the case.
Just 13 percent say they have a great deal of confidence into the investigations of Gray’s death, according to the Pew survey, while 44 percent have little or no confidence, statistics that were reflected on the streets of Baltimore following Mosby’s announcement. Although her decision was greeted by cheers of jubilation from some quarters, not everyone was impressed. Interviewing several demonstrators in Baltimore following the announcement, journalist Amy Goodman found some expressing skepticism that the police will face any real justice for their crimes.
“I’m going to say like this,” said Ashton True Nichols. “It’s been times where as though people get 20 and 30 charges and might end up with one. So, what she said sounds good, but we want to see the work, because you go to court, you can have 20 charges and end up with one or end up free.”
He expressed disappointment that the most serious charge levelled against police was second-degree “depraved heart” murder. “A lot of them charges going to be dropped,” he predicted. “Because I ain’t hear the right charge: first degree. They knew what they was doing. Yeah, they knew.”
Despite widespread cynicism over the legal proceedings, Americans still tend to doubt the sincerity of the unrest that rocked Baltimore after Gray’s funeral on April 26. According to the Pew survey, large margins of Americans (66 percent of whites and 54 percent of blacks) attributed the violence mainly to people taking advantage of the situation in order to commit crimes rather than genuine opposition to police brutality.
In some ways, of course, it shouldn’t be surprising that Americans would reject the kind of violence that was seen on the streets of Baltimore last week. After all, riots are dangerous to public safety, frightening to watch and to may seem nonsensical – with many wondering why anyone would want to burn their own neighborhoods.
President Obama and newly sworn in Attorney General Loretta Lynch touched on these points, calling the Baltimore riots a “grave danger,” as well as “counterproductive.” Obama noted that there is “no excuse” for violence, and that the riots may have regrettably distracted from the “entirely legitimate concerns of these communities in Baltimore” over police brutality.
Lynch echoed these sentiments. The riots were “counterproductive to the ultimate goal here,” she said, “which is developing a respectful conversation within the Baltimore community and across the nation about the way our law enforcement officers interact with the residents they are charged to serve and protect.”
While in some ways it is encouraging to hear top U.S. officials recognizing the unintended consequences of violence, there is of course an element of hypocrisy to their statements since the same arguments could be applied to drone strikes, which have been criticized for years as detrimental to their stated goals, and ultimately as much more dangerous than breaking windows or setting police cruisers on fire.
Robert Grenier, who headed the CIA’s counter-terrorism center from 2004 to 2006 and previously served as a CIA station chief in Pakistan, said three years ago that the CIA’s drone assassination program could lead to such a high degree of political instability that it could create safe havens for terrorists.
“It [the drone program] needs to be targeted much more finely. We have been seduced by them and the unintended consequences of our actions are going to outweigh the intended consequences,” Grenier said in an interview with The Guardian newspaper in June 2012. He expressed particular concern about Yemen, where al-Qaeda linked groups had captured large swathes of territory from the over-stretched local army. “I am very concerned about the creation of a larger terrorist safe haven in Yemen,” he said.
Now, with Yemen in a state of all-out war and “headed for protracted violence on multiple fronts” according to the International Crisis Group, it is clear how prescient his warnings were. Not only have terrorist havens been established in Yemen, but these havens have already contributed to terror attacks against the West.
According to journalist Jeremy Scahill, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was operating a training camp in Yemen that provided the perpetrators of the January 7, 2015 attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine offices with training, and discussed with them the idea that they should attack media outlets that publish the image of the Prophet Muhammad in a demeaning or a disgraceful manner.
Scahill, who has multiple sources inside Yemen, faults the long-running drone war against the country as at least partially responsible for creating the conditions leading to these sorts of terror attacks. “What we’ve done since 9/11,” he said in a January 12 interview on Democracy Now, “and actually going back well before 9/11, with the unquestioning support for Israel, with the drone bombing campaigns, with the invasions and occupations of countries, with the torture of prisoners around the world, we have projected a message that we are at war with a religion.”
Yet, American policy toward Yemen – and U.S. counter-terrorism strategy in general – still relies on an exceptionally violent approach, for example by providing diplomatic and military support to the current Saudi bombing campaign, including by supplying cluster bombs that are banned under international law. This U.S.-backed proxy war has killed more than a thousand people, including at least 115 children, according to the United Nations.
Despite the ongoing crisis the United States continues its drone attacks on Yemen, with more strikes carried out last month than any month since November 2014. As the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports, four U.S. drone strikes hit targets in eastern Yemen in April while the Saudi air force bombed the western half of the country. “At least 13 people were killed – the highest death toll in a month since two drone strikes killed 20 people in December 2014,” the Bureau notes.
Notwithstanding the blowback that the policy has created, the U.S.’s drone program continues to be broadly supported by Americans of both the liberal and conservative persuasions, with the recent AP/GfK survey finding that support for the U.S. drone war crosses party lines. Nearly 6 in 10 Democrats favor using drones to bomb suspected members of terrorist groups, while only 16 percent are opposed. Among Republicans, 72 percent are in favor and only 10 percent are opposed. If innocent Americans might be killed in the process, public support for drone strikes drops to 47 percent.
One wonders what these numbers might be like if the U.S. media treated violence – whether drone strikes or riots – in a consistent way. While the American media made sure to highlight the transgressions of the Baltimore uprising, few journalists have been willing to make comparable criticisms of U.S. foreign policy. This reality has been acknowledged even by members of the mainstream media who concede that their coverage of drone strikes is lacking.
A December 2014 report on NBC’s Meet the Press for example featured a discussion about the media’s lackluster interest in civilian casualties related to drone strikes and more generally the heavy reliance on drones in U.S. foreign policy. NBC correspondent Richard Engel told viewers that “some are asking whether years from now we’ll debate drones the way we’re debating torture.” Chuck Todd noted that “10 years from now, we could be finding out we droned innocents.”
This tepid response to the drone wars is in stark contrast to the media coverage of the Baltimore riots, which were unequivocally condemned. It was especially revealing to witness CNN personality Wolf Blitzer attempting to browbeat a community organizer into confirming the narrative that the mainstream media seemed intent on establishing, namely that the primary concern was the unrest on the streets and not the systemic police violence that sparked the unrest.
On live television, Blitzer directly challenged activist DeRay McKesson to state clearly his condemnation of violence – not the violence of police but the violence of protesters. “I just want to hear you say that there should be peaceful protests, not violent protests, in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King,” Blitzer insisted.
“Yeah, there should be peaceful protests,” McKesson replied. “And I don’t have to condone it to understand it, right? The pain that people feel is real.”
He added: “And you are making a comparison. You are suggesting this idea that broken windows are worse than broken spines, right?” Trying to keep the discussion focused on the issue at hand, McKesson pointed out that “police are killing people everywhere.”
Highlighting the media’s double standards, Scahill pointed out on Twitter that violence should be treated the same way regardless of who perpetrates it. “The way ‘journalists’ demand black people condemn violent protests is how they should question US officials on their wars,” wrote Scahill in a comment that was re-tweeted more than 3,000 times. “But they won’t,” he noted.
And he’s right. They won’t and they don’t, and this disparity in media coverage likely goes a long way in explaining the discrepancy in views among the American public when it comes to the legitimate use of violence, whether pertaining to unruly protests or U.S. bombing campaigns.
It’s worth recalling that in 2003, it was only after months of sustained media coverage on the supposed threat posed by Saddam Hussein that opinion polls reached their height of 72 percent of Americans supporting the invasion of Iraq. But by early 2013, following years of media coverage detailing the harsh realities of the war for the people of Iraq and for U.S. soldiers, support for that decision had declined to 41 percent.
Similarly, in October 2001, just weeks after the 9/11 attacks and amid a patriotic fervor fueled in large part by the media, support for U.S. military action in Afghanistan was at 90 percent. By December 2013, public approval of the Afghanistan war had dropped to just 17 percent.
Rather than reflecting a growing conviction among the American people on nonviolence as a general principle, what it may indicate is an inclination towards manipulation, particularly when the public is needed to either condone or condemn violent acts.
“Violence is not the normal or sole means of the state, but it is what is specific to the state,” observed political scientist Max Weber. Perhaps this is why public opinion-shapers like Wolf Blitzer find the violence of the powerless so offensive and the violence of the powerful so tolerable, and why the public largely seems to agree.