Let's Stop Killing People for 'Probably' Being Up to No GoodS

Since 2002, America has been killing people — terrorists, or, at least, people that American intelligence believes are terrorists — with missiles shot out of Predator drones, mostly in Pakistan, but also in Yemen and Somalia. They're precise, but only up to a point; anyone nearby is likely to die as well. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism places the number of civilian deaths between 500 and 1000.

The White House disagrees. The correct number of civilian deaths, a senior administration official told the New York Times on Tuesday, is in "single digits." The administration has arrived at this figure through "a disputed method for counting civilian casualties," one that "in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants." For the White House, this is "simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good."

This might sound familiar. In February, 7,000 miles away from Yemen and 8,000 from Pakistan, a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain named George Zimmerman called 911. There'd been some break-ins nearby, and Zimmerman had seen a black male in his late teens wandering around. "This guy looks like he's up to no good," he told the dispatcher.

Against the dispatcher's advice, Zimmerman followed him. Trayvon Martin, 17, was staying in the neighborhood with his father and future stepmother. He had stepped out to go to the local 7-11. The pair fought, briefly, and Zimmerman shot Martin once in the chest, killing him. He was carrying Skittles and an iced tea.

It's probably easier to think of Zimmerman's behavior as aberrant — the actions of a demented bigot. To do so would be to ignore that he'd just adopted the "simple logic" of the targeted-killing program. (Will Bunch and Ta-Nehisi Coates have both also made this connection). Zimmerman was the protector of his gated community just as the executive branch is the protector of the United States, and Zimmerman "knows," with the same kind of simple certainty with which Obama "knows": military-age males, in an area of known activity, are probably up to no good.

"Probably": this is the quantum logic of the security state. Definitive statuses — "at war," "arrested" — are replaced with uncertain states and nebulous designations; individual rights and universal laws are suspended in favor of profiles and probabilities. "Probably up to no good" is the logic that holds sway in the Pentagon, in Langley, in the Oval Office, in the skies above Pakistan and Yemen and Somalia. In a gated community in Sanford, Fla. And on the streets of New York City.

Last year in New York City, 1,000 miles north of Sanford, 685,724 people were stopped by the police. In order for police to stop a person on the street in the United States without probable cause for arrest, the Supreme Court has ruled, they must have reasonable suspicion that he or she has just committed, is in the midst of committing, or is about to commit a crime.

In around one-half of the police stops between 2006 and 2010 in an eight-block area of Brownsville, Brooklyn, an area with a high crime rate, reasonable suspicion was engendered by "furtive movement" or "other," according to a Times report. According to the NYCLU, the most-frequently listed reason for stops in 2006 was "area has a high crime incidence." Of those stopped in 2011, 168,126 were young black men near military age, between 14 and 24, a number that exceeds the city's entire population of young black men.

Tyari Jenkins goes to school at Teachers Prepatory High School, just outside that eight-block area of Brownsville, which has one of the highest crime rates in the city. He's 14 now. When he was 12, he was stopped for the first time by the police. "He was like, ‘You,' and I was like, ‘Me?' He said, ‘Yeah,'" Jenkins told WNYC's Ailsa Chang recently. Jenkins says the police stop everyone in his neighborhood, "because to them... everyone seems to look the same."

The Bloomberg administration and the police department claim that stop-and-frisk has reduced crime rates in the city over the last decade. There's some evidence that this is true. But focusing on the measurable ends is just another extension of the calculating logic of "probably up to no good" — another way of hiding its costs, of ignoring its suspension of rights and laws. There are other numbers to count besides crime rates: "One in five people stopped last year by the New York City police department was a teenager between the ages of 14 and 18," Chang writes. "Last year, there were more than 120,000 stops of black and Latino kids between 14 and 18."

Trayvon Martin was 17. He was born in February of 1995. Seven months later, 1,500 miles away in Denver, Gihan Mohsen Baker gave birth to Abdulrahman Anwar al-Awlaki. Like Martin, al-Awlaki turned 16 last year. Unlike Martin he never turned 17. A few weeks after his birthday, which he celebrated in Yemen, al-Awlaki left the city of Sana'a to look for his father, Anwar, a radical imam and alleged member of al-Qaeda hiding in the country's rural south. Two weeks later, Anwar was killed in a C.I.A. drone strike; two weeks after that, on October 14, Abdulrahman was killed by a Hellfire missile shot from a Predator drone.

There were no judicial proceedings and no criminal charges for either al-Awlaki. Abdulrahman "was in the wrong place at the wrong time," a U.S. government official told Time. Abdulrahman's family says that place was a barbecue. (I had a weird moment yesterday reading the Fox Nation headline "Barbecues Targeted by Top Democrat." It referred to Senator Chuck Schumer's calls for investigation into the product safety of metal grill brushes.) The real target, according to the Yemeni government, was Ibrahim al-Banna, a military-age top al-Qaeda operative, with whom Abdulrahman was apparently barbecuing. Initially the Yemeni press reported Abdulrahman's age as 21. Simple logic. Military age males, in an area of known activity, are probably up to no good.