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[The following is slightly adapted from chapters two and three of Grégoire Chamayou’s new book, A Theory of the Drone, with special thanks to his publisher, the New Press.]

Initially, the English word “drone” meant both an insect and a sound. It was not until the outbreak of World War II that it began to take on another meaning. At that time, American artillery apprentices used the expression “target drones” to designate the small remotely controlled planes at which they aimed in training. The metaphor did not refer solely to the size of those machines or the brm-brm of their motors. Drones are male bees, without stingers, and eventually the other bees kill them. Classical tradition regarded them as emblems of all that is nongenuine and dispensable. That was precisely what a target drone was: just a dummy, made to be shot down.

However, it was a long time before drones were to be seen cruising above battlefields. To be sure, the idea dates back quite a while: there were the Curtiss-Sperry aerial torpedo and the Kettering Bug at the end of World War I, and then the Nazi V-1s and V-2s unleashed on London in 1944. But those old flying torpedoes may be considered more as the ancestors of cruise missiles than as those of present-day drones. The essential difference lies in the fact that while the former can be used only once, the latter are reusable. The drone is not a projectile, but a projectile-carrying machine.

It was during the Vietnam War that the U.S. Air Force, to counteract the Soviet surface-to-air missiles that had inflicted heavy casualties on it, invested in reconnaissance drones nicknamed “Lightning Bugs,” produced by Ryan Aeronautical. An American official explained that “these RPVs [remotely piloted vehicles] could help prevent aircrews from becoming casualties or prisoners… With RPVs, survival is not the driving factor.”

Once the war was over, those machines were scrapped. By the late 1970s, the development of military drones had been practically abandoned in the United States. However, it continued elsewhere. Israel, which had inherited a few of these machines, recognized their potential tactical advantages.

In 1973, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), facing off against Egypt, ran up against the tactical problem of surface-to-air missiles. After losing around 30 planes in the first hours of the Yom Kippur War, Israeli aviation changed its tactics. They decided to send out a wave of drones in order to mislead enemy defenses: “After the Egyptians fired their initial salvo at the drones, the manned strikes were able to attack while the Egyptians were reloading.” This ruse enabled Israel to assume mastery of the skies. In 1982, similar tactics were employed against the Syrians in the Bekaa Valley. Having first deployed their fleet of Mastiff and Scout drones, the Israelis then sent out decoy planes that were picked up by enemy radar. The Syrians activated their surface-to-air missiles, to no effect whatsoever. The drones, which had been observing the scene from the sky, easily detected the positions of the antiaircraft batteries and relayed them to the Israeli fighter planes, which then proceeded to annihilate them.

The drones were used for other purposes as well:

“Two days after a terrorist bomb destroyed the [U.S.] Marine Barracks in Beirut in October 1983, Marine Commandant Gen. P.X. Kelley secretly flew to the scene. No word of his arrival was leaked. Yet, across the border, Israeli intelligence officers watched live television images of Kelley arriving and inspecting the barracks. They even zoomed the picture in tight, placing cross hairs directly on his head. Hours later, in Tel Aviv, the Israelis played back the tape for the shocked Marine general. The scene, they explained, was transmitted by a Mastiff RPV circling out of sight above the barracks.”

This was just one of a series of minor events that combined to encourage the relaunch of American drone production in the 1980s. “All I did,” confessed Al Ellis, the father of the Israeli drones, “was take a model airplane, put a camera in it, and take the pictures… But that started an industry.”

At this point, however, the drones were simply machines for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. They were just eyes, not weapons. The metamorphosis came about almost by chance, between Kosovo and Afghanistan, as the new millennium began. As early as 1995, General Atomics had invented a new remote-controlled spy plane prototype, the Predator. Despite its disquieting name, the beast was not yet equipped with claws or teeth. In Kosovo, where it was deployed in 1999, the drone limited itself to filming targets and illuminating them by means of lasers, allowing the F-16 planes to strike.

But it would take a “‘different kind of war’ to make the Predator into a predator.” No more than a few months before September 11, 2001, officers who had seen the Predator at work in Kosovo had the idea of experimentally equipping it with an antitank missile. Writes Bill Yenne in his history of the drone, “On February 16, 2001, during tests at Nellis Air Force Base, a Predator successfully fired a Hellfire AGM114C into a target. The notion of turning the Predator into a predator had been realized. No one could imagine that, before the year was out, the Predator would be preying upon live targets in Afghanistan.”

Barely two months after the outbreak of hostilities in Afghanistan, George Bush was in a position to declare: “The conflict in Afghanistan has taught us more about the future of our military than a decade of blue ribbon panels and think-tank symposiums. The Predator is a good example… Now it is clear the military does not have enough unmanned vehicles.”

The Principles of Manhunting

“Individual will research and incorporate current manhunting experiences and procedures in order to provide an educational forum for manhunting issues… Must possess a SECRET level clearance and be able to obtain a TOP SECRET/SCI security clearance.”

— Job description for a special operations manhunting program analyst in an advertisement published by the military contractor SAI in 2006

In 2004, John Lockwood set up a website called The idea was at once simple and innovative. By subscribing online for a few dollars, the Internet surfer could become a “virtual hunter.” Thanks to a camera fixed to a mobile forearm, itself connected to a remote control device, one could, without stirring from home, shoot live animals let loose for the occasion on a ranch in Texas.

When it made the news, there was a rush to condemn it. The editor-in-chief of the magazine Outdoor Life, acknowledging the profound “ethical problems” that such a venture presented, set out a fine definition of what hunting meant for him: “To me, hunting isn’t just about pulling the trigger on an animal. It’s about the total experience… Hunting is about being out there, not about pulling the trigger with the click of a mouse.”

A Wisconsin lawmaker took up the theme, giving the definition a strangely environmentalist twist: “To me, hunting is being out in nature and becoming one with nature.” Even the extremely conservative National Rifle Association expressed its opposition, joining with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in an unusual alliance: “We believe that hunting should be outdoors and that sitting in front of a computer three states away doesn’t qualify as ‘hunting.’” A Houston police officer was even more adamant, saying, “It’s not hunting. It’s killing… Someone gets a computer and pushes a button and something dies for no reason.”

Lockwood protested, claiming that his foremost purpose had been to allow handicapped people who were passionate about hunting to indulge in their favorite pastime and mentioning an American soldier in Iraq who had thanked him for offering such a fine opportunity, saying that he had no idea when he might be able to go hunting again. But it was all in vain. Hunting online was forbidden. Lockwood, disappointed, tried to salvage his scheme by suggesting that his clients should fire at cardboard targets representing Osama bin Laden. However, his intended Internet audience shifted to other, no doubt more exciting, online pleasures, and the little venture that had seemed so promising collapsed.

The triggers of moral indignation are quite mysterious sometimes. While the virtual hunting of animals was almost universally condemned as scandalous, the remote-controlled hunting of human beings was at the same moment taking off without any of those same people making any objections.

In the immediate aftermath of September 11th, George W. Bush had predicted that the United States would embark upon a new kind of warfare, “a war that requires us to be on an international manhunt.” Something that initially sounded like nothing more than a catchy Texas cowboy slogan has since been converted into state doctrine, complete with experts, plans, and weapons. A single decade has seen the establishment of an unconventional form of state violence that combines the disparate characteristics of warfare and policing without really corresponding to either, finding conceptual and practical unity in the notion of a militarized manhunt.

Reaping the (Human) Prey

In 2001, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had become convinced that “the techniques used by the Israelis against the Palestinians could quite simply be deployed on a larger scale.” What he had in mind was Israel’s programs of “targeted assassinations,” the existence of which had recently been recognized by the Israeli leadership. As Eyal Weizman explains, the occupied territories had become “the world’s largest laboratory for airborne thanatotactics,” so it was not surprising that they would eventually be exported.

But one problem remained. “How do we organize the Department of Defense for manhunts?” Rumsfeld asked. “We are obviously not well organized at the present time.” In the early 2000s, the U.S. military apparatus was not yet ready to roll out on a worldwide scale the sort of missions that normally are assigned to the police within a domestic framework: namely, the identification, tracking, location, and capture (but in actual fact the physical elimination) of suspect individuals.

Within the United States, not all the high-ranking officers who were informed of these plans greeted them with enthusiasm. At the time, journalist Seymour Hersh noted that many feared that the proposed type of operation — what one advisor to the Pentagon called “preemptive manhunting” — had the potential to turn into another Phoenix Program, the sinister secret program of murder and torture that had once been unleashed in Vietnam.

Of course, there was the additional problem of how to legally justify these hybrid operations, the enfants terribles of the police and the army. At the levels of both warfare theory and international law, they seemed to be conceptual monstrosities. But we shall be returning to this point.

In any case, a new strategic doctrine became necessary. Researchers set about defining the “manhunting theoretical principles” that could provide a framework for such operations. George A. Crawford produced a summary of these in a report published in 2009 by the Joint Special Operations University. This text, which set out to make “manhunting a foundation of U.S. national strategies,” in particular called for the creation of a “national manhunting agency,” which would be an indispensable instrument for “building a manhunting force for the future.”

The contemporary doctrine of hunting warfare breaks with the model of conventional warfare based on concepts of fronts and opposed battle lines facing up to each other. In 1916, General John J. Pershing launched a vast military offensive in Mexico in an unsuccessful attempt to lay hands on the revolutionary Pancho Villa. For American strategists who cite this historical precedent as a counterexample, it was a matter of reversing polarity: faced with the “asymmetrical threats” posed by small mobile groups of “nonstate actors,” they should use small, flexible units, either human or — preferably — remotely controlled, in a pattern of targeted attacks.

Contrary to Carl von Clausewitz’s classical definition, the fundamental structure of this type of warfare is no longer that of a duel, of two fighters facing each other. The paradigm is quite different: a hunter advancing on a prey that flees or hides from him. The rules of the game are not the same. “In the competition between two enemy combatants,” wrote Crawford, “the goal is to win the battle by defeating the adversary: both combatants must confront to win. However, a manhunt scenario differs in that each player’s strategy is different. The fugitive always wants to avoid capture; the pursuer must confront to win, whereas the fugitive must evade to win.” The hostile relationship now boils down, as in a game of hide-and-seek, to “a competition between the hiders and the seekers.”

The primary task is no longer to immobilize the enemy but to identify and locate it. This implies all the labor of detection. The modern art of tracking is based on an intensive use of new technologies, combining aerial video surveillance, the interception of signals, and cartographic tracking. The profession of manhunters now has its own technocratic jargon: “Nexus Topography is an extension of the common practice of Social Network Analysis (SNA) used to develop profiles of HVIs… Nexus Topography maps social forums or environments, which bind individuals together.”

In this model the enemy individual is no longer seen as a link in a hierarchical chain of command: he is a knot or “node” inserted into a number of social networks. Based on the concepts of “network-centric warfare” and “effects-based operations,” the idea is that by successfully targeting its key nodes, an enemy network can be disorganized to the point of being practically wiped out. The masterminds of this methodology declare that “targeting a single key node in a battlefield system has second, third, n-order effects, and that these effects can be accurately calculated to ensure maximum success.”

This claim to predictive calculation is the foundation of the policy of prophylactic elimination, for which the hunter-killer drones are the main instruments. For the strategy of militarized manhunting is essentially preventive. It is not so much a matter of responding to actual attacks but rather of preventing the development of emerging threats by the early elimination of their potential agents — “to detect, deter, disrupt, detain or destroy networks before they can harm” — and to do this in the absence of any direct, imminent threat.

The political rationale that underlies this type of practice is that of social defense. Its classic instrument is the security measure, which is “not designed to punish but only to preserve society from the danger presented by the presence of dangerous beings in its midst.” In the logic of this security, based on the preventive elimination of dangerous individuals, “warfare” takes the form of vast campaigns of extra-judiciary executions. The names given to the drones — Predators (birds of prey) and Reapers (angels of death) — are certainly well chosen.

Grégoire Chamayou is a research scholar in philosophy at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris. He is the author of A Theory of the Drone (excerpted above) and Manhunts: A Philosophical History . He lives in Paris.

(Republished from TomDispatch by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Drone War 
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  1. Amazing how the terror dystopia of the Terminator movies is actually becoming true.

  2. Kiza says:

    This is a simplified and dramatized French version of the ‘History of the Drones’. Some interpretations and historical facts are wrong, but it is mostly true and it is an interesting philosophical take on what has transpired with drones.

    In the military sense, back as the 1980s, there was a clear trend in aviation towards un-manned aviation, for two basic reasons:
    1) no dead or, much worse, captured pilots, and
    2) on-board computer requires much less environment-conditioning inside a flying machine than a human pilot (thus, big savings in both space and weight).

    At the time, exactly the same arguments applied to space-flight, especially after a few shuttle disasters, everybody was saying – the future of space flight is in robots, not in human astronauts. The Israelis now claim (supported by this author) that they invented drones out of the blue, which is a typical mythomania rubbish.

    Drone technology was simply waiting for military satellites (geostationary and lower-orbit GPS) to cover the Earth so comprehensively that globe-covering drones could be controlled from a trailer somewhere in the US.

    Yet, technology is nothing compared with the social, moral, ethical and all other human issues of drones. I could easily imagine a future of ubiquitous use of drones: not only to deliver mail parcels, then for example, one could hire an armed drone to kill one’s job competitors, just like in Costa Gavras’ cult movie Le Couperet (The Ax): Pourquoi non? Why not? Jobs are becoming really hard to get and there are many more job competitors than there are terrorists. Once the bottom falls out of the anti-terrorism drone market, eliminating job competition could be the next big growth opportunity. Only sky is the limit.

  3. bob sykes says:

    The chief problem with drone attacks, ignored by Chamayou, is that they always kill numerous bystanders, some of which are not terrorists. Moreover, some (many? most?) drone attacks fail to kill their intended victim(s), although they do kill bystanders. These failures require yet more drone attacks, and produce yet more dead bystanders.

    Then there is the ugly spectacle of a secret committee drawing up a list of intended victims without any kind of juridicial process. One notes that American citizens, Anwar al-Awlaki and his teenage (16?) son, were killed this way. It is also disturbing that the President signs off on these killings.

    One has to believe that drone attacks generate intense anti-American feelings among the affected populations and enhanced support for the terrorists. They also provide justification for assassination of American leaders. Why this has not happened yet is a mystery. Perhaps the Dept. of Homeland Security is effective.

    It is difficult to see these drone killings as anything other than premeditated murder, and our President as a serial mass murdered.

    • Replies: @solontoCroesus
  4. As a long-time, second-generation builder and flyer of radio-controlled model aircraft, I can tell you this drone thing is nothing new. It was always on the way. It will not go away.

    Remotely piloted vehicles are the present and future of war and also of exploration. Witness our roving laboratories on Mars, and the Voyager spacecraft in interstellar space.

    There are undeniable advantages to robotic aircraft and spacecraft. Only our morality can determine how we use them.

    And do not for one second assume that any of our competitors would demonstrate superior morality in their use.

    • Replies: @solontoCroesus
  5. @Buzz Mohawk

    And do not for one second assume that any of our competitors would demonstrate superior morality in their use.

    1. When another technology — chemicals — were used as weapons of war against Iranian soldiers as well as citizens, Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, denied Iran’s generals’s request to use chemical weapons in retaliation. The Islamic Republic of Iran functions under Islamic principles — what some call Sharia law –, and use of such weapons is an offense against Islam. 80,000 Iranians died or were permanently disabled as a result of chemical weapons attack.

    2. The best way to ensure that the superior morality of a competitor — although in this context the term adversary seems more appropriate — is not relied upon is to demonstrate superior morality in the first instance.

    Exactly that approach is counseled by Machiavelli: In his Discourses on Livy Machiavelli paid careful attention to the example of St. Francis of Assissi:

    Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
    Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
    Where there is injury, pardon;
    Where there is doubt, faith;
    Where there is despair, hope;
    Where there is darkness, light;
    Where there is sadness, joy.

    O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
    To be consoled as to console,
    To be understood as to understand,
    To be loved as to love;
    For it is in giving that we receive;
    It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
    It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.

    If the American people are incapable of contemplating that another culture and set of religious tenets, such as those of Islam as practiced by Iran, are not their cup of tea, at least they should make the effort to decouple “Christian” from the false god of zionism and return to their own values based on the example of Jesus rather than Bibi. And also of St. Francis.

    • Replies: @Buzz Mohawk
  6. This issue has come into play because the world’s ethno-national states are breaking down. In order to enforce the new multiculturalism, future governments must now track down “enemies within”. Sad stuff.

  7. @solontoCroesus

    You will get nowhere lecturing me on morality by using, of all things, Sharia law and Machiavelli. That alone proves my point. Peace through strength is the only way.

    It’s best not to be sheep in a world full of wolves who preach Sharia law and Machiavelli.

    My feelings on this matter have nothing to do with Israel, Zionism, or even foreign policy, but I have lived a lifetime seeing what those who hate Israel have done to defenseless American citizens. Those you praise here as moral are in fact cowards who attack the weak and have done so for centuries.

    • Replies: @solontoCroesus
  8. @Buzz Mohawk

    “There are two methods of fighting, one with laws, the other with force: the first one is proper to man, the second to beasts.” – Machiavelli

    Peace through strength is the only way.

    How’s that workin’ out for ya?

    Blaise Pascal (a mathematician) argued that “All men seek the good.”
    To do otherwise is irrational.

    It’s reasonable to assert that, likewise, All men seek peace.

    Therefore, by your formula, all men should seek peace through strength; all men, that is, groups, states, nations, should seek equal strength to achieve peace.

    That is, if by Peace you mean equal rights and justice for all.

    George Washington was fond of quoting Micah:

    They shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid

    It’s not likely Washington contemplated a nuclear umbrella so he didn’t suggest that “all men sit under their own nuclear umbrella,” but he certainly understood the difference between being armed for war and living in peace.
    He did not urge that “they shall all sit surrounded by rifles and bayonets and no one shall make them afraid.”

    Furthermore, the Constitutional republic he midwived established itself on the basis of rule of law and not of men, as did Solon.

    After Solon drafted a set of laws for Athens, he left the city: a test period whether the polis could conduct itself under its laws uninfluenced by his personality; each citizen was expected to bear responsibility for his own compliance with the law. Solon did lead men in battle, but interestingly, those battles that he won were not on the basis of “strength,” as in military armaments, etc., but rather through poetry and through argued-for equity.

    There is compelling evidence that the ideology of neoconservatives (for whom the shorthand ‘zionist’ was used) is antithetical to the rule of law and therefore of the Constitutional republic that Washington sought to establish.

    For example, in this discussion of Machiavelli, Donald Kagan, father of neoconservative war hawk Robert Kagan, said:

    “Rule of law applies in domestic affairs but in international affairs there is no rule of law; it’s a jungle. People don’t want to believe that because it makes them uncomfortable, but it’s true. Therefore, you need a strong army.”

    Has a strong army produced peace anywhere?
    Isn’t Kagan really talking about “the ability to impose one’s will on another,” and not the condition of “not being afraid under one’s own vine and fig tree?”

    Israelis adopt a deliberate policy of eroding the rule of law that, contrary to Kagan’s assertion, actually does exist.

    Consider —

    It is, however, hard to find any principle of due process, the several Geneva Conventions, or the Nuremberg trials that has not been systematically violated in the Holy Land. Examples of criminal conduct include mass murder, extra-judicial killing, torture, detention without charge, the denial of medical care, the annexation and colonization of occupied territory, the illegal expropriation of land, ethnic cleansing and the collective punishment of civilians, including the demolition of their homes, the systematic reduction of their infrastructure and the de-development and impoverishment of entire regions. These crimes have been linked to a concerted effort to rewrite international law to permit actions that it traditionally prohibited, in effect enshrining the principle that might makes right. [i.e. the Kagan/ neoconservative/zionist principle]

    As the former head of the Israeli Defense Forces’ (IDF) Legal Department has argued:

    “If you do something for long enough the world will accept it. The whole of international law is now based on the notion that an act that is forbidden today becomes permissible if executed by enough countries . . . . International law progresses through violations.

    A colleague of his has extended this notion by pointing out that:

    “The more often Western states apply principles that originated in Israel to their own non-traditional conflicts in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, then the greater the chance these principles have of becoming a valuable part of international law.”

    On the one hand, at least the quoted Israelis acknowledge that international law does exist, contrary to Donald Kagan. On the other hand, their practice is to enshrine violence and lawlessness as a principle of international law!

    Is their goal peace?

    What IS their goal? Do they know?

    The rational man observing the results of their principle of “might makes right” sees only chaos and not peace.

    My own opinion is that it takes a great deal more strength — moral strength — to forego violence than it does to amass and use superior means of killing people.

    It takes tremendous strength — moral strength — to agree upon and abide by a rule of law that has uniform application to all men and women, than it does to kill people for the purpose of enforcing one’s own particularist will.

  9. “Robots could do better than humans as war fighters because they provide better sensors, such as seeing through walls.

    “They have an absence of self-preservation emotions. They have an ability to recompute scenarios in the light of fresh data and most importantly they can have a complete focus on the strictures of military duty and the rule of international humanitarian law.”

    Armies are already using robotic technology including drones, which are unmanned planes, Mr Welsh said.

    You aren’t you and we are better than us. With Skynet and fewer human errors the moral imperative can be maintained and we can replace politics with morality as Albert Camus predicted.

  10. @bob sykes

    The chief problem with drone attacks . . . is that they always kill numerous bystanders, some of which are not terrorists.

    The wars that the USA has engaged in, beginning most specifically with World War II, deliberately targeted civilians. WWII was not a war of military vs. military, it was a war in which Allies defined victory as capitulation and capitulation was to be achieved by killing civilians. Killing civilians was planned and rehearsed, it was not accidental or collateral damage.

    The concept of “terrorist” provides the ability to expand the target field and erase any distinction between warrior and civilian.

    How large was the Afghan air force? How about its navy? How many military bases did the Afghans have?

    Terrorist has been used to label (originally) Arafat’s PLO, then Taliban, then Al Qaeda, now ISIS/ISIL or anybody else who gets in the way of the hegemonic power.

  11. Art says:

    There is a big problem with these drones – the USAF pilots are quitting – they do not like the job. Good people cannot stomach being snipers with bombs that kill innocent bystanders.

  12. Renoman says:

    “The trouble with normal is it always gets worse”.
    The issue at present is acclimatizing people to horrible violence. Islamic State shocks people with beheading’s and we go nuts while we drop cluster bombs and it’s oh ya that’s just War. It’s all horrible violence, everybody has ridiculous gear and the Kids are getting toughened up with video games.
    In the end it will be biological, everything else makes too much mess, I bet Cheney has the vial in his office safe as we speak.

    • Replies: @another fred
  13. @Renoman

    In the end it will be biological, everything else makes too much mess, I bet Cheney has the vial in his office safe as we speak.

    Biological, no doubt, but I doubt the disease exists yet. The most powerful will be those for which only the disseminator has a vaccine. He will have the vaccine because he created the disease. Of course that is not to say his entire population will be protected, all nations have an abundance of troublemakers.

  14. “Peace through Strength” is simplistic slogan easily turned with pre-emptive wars into “The Peace of the Grave.”

  15. Uneasy with drone-murder?

    Presumably the psychopaths that are the Neo-cons will extend their corporate/political recruiting strategies to identifiable sadists who relish ‘bug-splattering’ in far off distant places.

    The Yemenis, however, have had enough of being serial-killing ‘ targets’ – particularly at weddings, social events, in their homes: seeing their children murdered has been the last straw. There is no doubt in the international arena at this point who the real terrorists are, and it’s not just ISIS.

    As for Kagan, if boarding a plane was all it took to acquire outlaw rights, we can only be thankful that there are less, rather than more of his psychopathic ilk. Otherwise, the Germanwings disaster would the norm.

    It is simply unbelievable that people like this ever get into office: it’s like hiring Ted Bundy for the Girl Scouts.

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