What a Few Cakes Say About the US Drone Program

Earlier this month, Lawfare’s infamous “Baker of Hard National Security Choices” unmasked herself. Stephanie Carvin, a professor of international relations at Carleton University who has worked as a national security analyst for the Canadian government and served as a consultant to the U.S. Defense Department, declared in a series of tweets that she was the creator of several cakes displayed on the Lawfare website since 2013. These cakes variously celebrate drone strikes and other targeted killings. As Carvin herself put it, “National Security is difficult and demanding work. In most cases it takes years before you may see the results of all of your efforts. I figure that edible targets are one way to relieve the stress of it all.”

Backlash to Carvin’s tweets was swift and understandably angry. The reactions prompted Carvin to delete the thread and issue an apology. While some might dismiss this event as another example of “cancel culture,” the incident offers important insights that shouldn’t be brushed aside. Carvin’s cake-baking provides a rare window into a largely closed culture of national security policymaking. The creations, and Carvin’s decision to publicly share them and then retract them (not once but twice; according to her original thread she hastily requested Lawfare remove her name from the images after they attracted public criticism in 2013) should prompt us to reflect on what her confections, as well as their publication on a prestigious national security website, suggest about the nature of the U.S. targeted killing program and the national security sector more broadly.

The cakes and their consumption highlight, for example, the almost inevitable dehumanization of those being killed and their powerlessness to confront their attackers, either on the battlefield or in a court of law. They speak to the spectacle of celebration that often accompanies these killings and belie the “hard choices” involved in planning and executing these operations, as depicted in government and media accounts. They also underscore the ways in which these circumstances are actively nurtured and promoted by parts of the national security establishment.

Dehumanization and Powerlessness

Carvin’s cakes, some of which were made for other people’s birthdays, facilitate the literal dismemberment and consumption of victims of targeted killings. In one cake, the dead body of Osama Bin Laden is depicted in fondant form to be sliced, diced, and eaten. Regardless of how strongly we detest the deceased leader of Al Qaeda for the atrocities he committed, this sort of memorialization dehumanizes its subject, constructing him as undeserving of any moral consideration. The cake also excludes innocent individuals who were wounded or killed in the raid – like Bin Laden’s twelve year-old-daughter. In this way, the cake underscores the critical connection between targeted killing programs and processes of dehumanization and erasure. As research has shown, popular support for “militaristic counterterrorism” measures – defined to include the deliberate targeting of both civilians and combatants through drone strikes – is closely connected with the dehumanization of Arabs and Muslim and the erasure of civilian casualties. Carvin’s cakes suggest this dehumanization and erasure extends to the very institutions that are tasked with making these policies.

Carvin’s other treats show human beings trapped within little cups of pastry, powerless to resist their consumption by others who are vastly more powerful than they are. In one of her now deleted tweets, Carvin also displayed a cake commemorating the drone killing of Anwar Al Awlaki, a U.S. citizen whose targeting was unsuccessfully challenged in federal court. In this way, these concoctions underscore the power differential central to the U.S. drone program’s utility. Through that program, the U.S. government is able to train its massive military power on individuals and groups, some of whom are engaged in armed conflict with it, but who are nevertheless largely powerless to confront U.S. dominance. This power disparity creates a one-sided battlefield, in which there is no risk of casualties on the American side but a substantial likelihood that targeted individuals, as well as innocent third parties in their vicinity, will be injured or killed. In the courtroom, the few challenges that have been brought against specific U.S. targeting decisions have been swiftly dismissed. The Al Awlaki case, which was brought by Al Awlaki’s father to enjoin the U.S. government from killing his son, was dismissed as non-justiciable and for lack of standing in December 2010. Al Awlaki was killed in a U.S. drone strike on September 2011. It is this sort of substantial power disparity that has, in part, made the drone program and other targeted killings the approach of choice for U.S. counterterrorism efforts abroad.

A Spectacle for Western Consumption

On an even deeper level, Carvin’s confectionary creations demonstrate how targeted killings are a form of spectacle choreographed by the U.S. national security establishment to be consumed by Western audiences. The movie that Carvin’s “Zero Dark Thirtieth Birthday Cake” references is a particularly fitting example of this. The 2012 film, Zero Dark Thirty, purported to tell the story of the U.S. hunt for Bin Laden. According to reporting, the CIA enthusiastically supported the project from its inception. The film’s creators worked closely with the CIA and were given access to people involved in the hunt, as well as details about the 2011 raid on the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan where Bin Laden lived. As one reporter described it, the CIA’s collaboration with the movie’s creators paid off, “with Zero Dark Thirty serving as the most effective piece of propaganda for the agency’s torture program.” More broadly, like the “Zero Dark Thirtieth Birthday Cake,” the film reproduced a narrative about Bin Laden’s killing that exclusively reflected the perspective of those who either sanctioned or condoned that killing.

Carvin’s creations also belie the way in which both these desserts, and the targeted killing program, are presented to the public. While described as “hard national security choices,” Carvin’s cakes suggest that targeting decision are, at least sometimes, made cavalierly. That they are, for some, as easy to contemplate as baking a cake. In this way, Carvin’s cakes present a particular challenge to government and media depictions of the U.S. drone program. As drone strikes became a more central part of the War on Terror during the Obama administration, the government worked hard to sanitize them through law and present them as a source of consternation and hand-wringing for decision-makers who were ultimately trying to act in morally sound ways. While criticism of the drone program has been substantial, media portrayals have, nevertheless, often reproduced the government narrative and depicted officials as grappling with hard targeting decisions.

Of course, these decisions may, in fact, often be difficult ones for many, or even most, individuals involved. In her eventual apology, Carvin herself emphasized that her “early career was based on criticism of US policy with regards to the laws of war” and cited her publications on “Getting Drones Wrong” and “The Trouble with Targeted Killing.” But as these cakes remind us, the decision to kill is not always treated as a difficult one, worthy of solemn consideration.

A Window into a Culture

In reacting to Carvin’s Twitter posts, some squarely focused on her individual culpability in creating and tweeting about her cakes. Of course, Carvin is ultimately responsible for her own actions. Her perspective on the targeted killing program is, however, also a byproduct of a national security establishment in which these attitudes are rarely criticized and often promoted.

Lawfare, a very well-respected and influential site within the national security field, published images of her cakes in an uncritical and even celebratory fashion (images of some of the cakes have now been removed from the site).Without their promotion of her work, it is unlikely anyone would have ever even known about the “Baker of Hard National Security Choices” beyond the small circle of individuals who partook of her creations. Lawfare also responded glibly to a mention of the cakes in Rolling Stone, repeatedly using that publication’s characterization of the cakes as “notorious” to preface and promote Lawfare’s publication of subsequent cakes. Then earlier this month, Lawfare’s editor-in-chief Ben Wittes approvingly retweeted the thread in which Carvin unmasked herself as “the Baker.” He stated, “Having @RollingStone call @StephanieCarvin’s cake infamous was a proud moment in the history of the site!” (Wittes’ tweets have since been deleted). This portrayal of the cakes begs the question: in the intervening seven years since the first cake was published on Lawfare, has the field learned nothing about the dangers of a cavalier attitude toward national security decision-making?

Lawfare has, of course, published thoughtful and critical pieces on the use of drone strikes. But the continued celebration of the cakes ought to turn the spotlight on an area of both scholarship and legal practice where morally and ethically troubling attitudes and practices have become far too common and largely accepted by some.

It is good that Carvin deleted her original tweets and apologized for “causing hurt.” In this sense, her actions are a welcomed departure from the government approach to targeted killing, which has rarely resulted in any remorse or apology including to innocent civilians caught in the crossfire. Nevertheless, Carvin’s cakes are an important testament to the troubling realities of the U.S. government’s targeted killing program, and give an unobstructed window into the national security establishment more broadly (images of her cakes still remain on the Lawfare website, as of this writing).  This transparency is rare for a sector known for its secrecy. Whether or not they reflect prevailing attitudes, Carvin’s cakes are the proverbial canary in the coal mine—warning of deeply troubling beliefs and practices intertwined with the U.S. approach to national security.

Image: UNSPECIFIED, PERSIAN GULF REGION – JANUARY 07: A U.S. Air Force MQ-1B Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), awaits a mission at an air base in the Persian Gulf region on January 7, 2016. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Maryam Jamshidi

Assistant professor at the University of Florida, Levin College of Law. Follow her on Twitter (@MsJamshidi).