On May 29, The New York Times published an extraordinarily in-depth look at the intimate role President Obama has played in authorizing US drone attacks overseas, particularly in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. It is chilling to read the cold, macabre ease with which the President and his staff decide who will live or die. The fate of people living thousands of miles away is decided by a group of Americans, elected and unelected, who don’t speak their language, don’t know their culture, don’t understand their motives or values. While purporting to represent the world’s greatest democracy, US leaders are putting people on a hit list who are as young as 17, people who are given no chance to surrender, and certainly no chance to be tried in a court of law.
Who is furnishing the President and his aides with this list of terrorist suspects to choose from, like baseball cards? The kind of intelligence used to put people on drone hit lists is the same kind of intelligence that put people in Guantanamo. Remember how the American public was assured that the prisoners locked up in Guantanamo were the “worst of the worst,” only to find out that hundreds were innocent people who had been sold to the US military by bounty hunters?
It has lately become usual for right-wing columnists, bloggers, and jingo lawmakers to call for the assassination of people abroad whom we don’t like, or people who carry out functions that we don’t want to see performed. There was nothing like this in our popular commentary before 2003; but the callousness has grown more marked in the past year, and especially in the past six months. Why? A major factor was President Obama’s order of the assassination of an American citizen living in Yemen, the terrorist suspect Anwar al-Awlaki. This gave legal permission to a gangster shortcut Americans historically had been taught to shun. The cult of Predator-drone warfare generally has also played a part. But how did such remote-control killings pick up glamor and legitimacy? Here again, the president did some of the work. On May 1, at the White House Correspondents dinner, he made an unexpected joke: “Jonas Brothers are here tonight. Sasha and Malia are huge fans. But boys, don’t get any ideas. Two words: predator drones. You will never see it coming.” The line caught a laugh but it should have caused an intake of breath. A joke (it has been said) is an epigram on the death of a feeling. By turning the killings he orders into an occasion for stand-up comedy, the new president marked the death of a feeling that had seemed to differentiate him from George W. Bush. A change in the mood of a people may occur like a slip of the tongue. A word becomes a phrase, the phrase a sentence, and when enough speakers fall into the barbarous dialect, we forget that we ever talked differently.