American soldiers have to be trained how to kill, but for American presidents killing comes naturally.
Anyone who aspires to become president must surely ask themselves: am I willing to end someone else’s life, be that an individual or perhaps tens or hundreds of thousands or even millions of people? After all, even though it’s not spelled out in the Constitution, it’s clear that a pacifist could never hold this office. Killing comes with the territory.
Even so, I can’t help wondering when it was the Barack Obama posed this question and decided, “yes I can.”
With candidate George W Bush we didn’t need to ask the question. He had a track record — as the Governor of Texas he presided over 152 executions. But with Obama, we may never know when he came to regard killing as a tolerable part of his job.
It’s hard to imagine that as a community organizer he ever entertained the idea that wiping people out could become a dimension of working towards the greater good, yet at some point he must have seen this coming and — from all the evidence we now see — not flinched.
But to contrast Obama and Bush as killers, here’s what’s scary and yet passes without comment: Obama’s approach is dispassionate, with no explicit moral calculation. Whereas Bush felt driven to assume an air of righteousness and moral superiority, casting his actions within a drama of good and evil, Obama presents the image of an administrative process through which, after careful analysis and legal and political deliberation, lives are terminated.
Under the morally insidious rubric of “procedures” — a notion that peels away personal responsibility by replacing it with impersonal rules-based behavior — the president, the CIA, the military, the administration, the media, and the American public are all being offered an excuse to look the other way. An unnamed official assured a Washington Post reporter: “[there are] careful procedures our government follows in these kinds of cases.”
When Anwar al-Awlaki, an American born in New Mexico is shredded and incinerated — his likely fate at the receiving end of a Hellfire missile — there will be no account of the last moments of his life. No record of who happened to be in the vicinity. Most likely nothing more than a cursory wire report quoting unnamed American officials announcing that the United States no longer faces a threat from a so-called high value target.
Representative Jane Harman, Democrat of California and chairwoman of a House subcommittee on homeland security, was out prepping the media and the public on Tuesday when she called Awlaki “probably the person, the terrorist, who would be terrorist No 1 in terms of threat against us.”
Although it was only this week that a US official announced that Awlaki is now on the CIA’s assassination list, US special forces were already authorized and had made at least one attempt to kill the Muslim cleric who now resides in Yemen.
While both the military and the CIA make use of drones for the purpose of remotely controlled assassination, the fact that Awlaki is now considered a legitimate target for “lethal CIA operations” raises questions about the methods the agency might use.
Last summer CIA Director Leon Panetta shut down a secret CIA program which would have operated assassination teams for hunting down al Qaeda leaders. The news was presented as though the new administration was again distancing itself from the questionable practices of the Bush administration, yet at the time, Director of National Intelligence Dennis C Blair told Congress that the termination of that particular program did not rule out the future use of insertion teams that could kill or capture terrorist leaders.
One of the many ironies here is that the Obama administration appears to have abandoned one of the Bush era rationales for torture in favor of its own rationale for murder.
The most frequently used justification for torturing terrorist suspects has been the claim that in the scenario of a so-called ticking time bomb, vital information might be forced out of a suspect enabling an imminent act of terrorism to be thwarted.
Anwar al-Awlaki is supposedly just such a suspect. “He’s working actively to kill Americans,” an American official told the Washington Post. But whatever vital intelligence he might be able to provide, we’ll probably never know. Once dead he won’t hatch any new plots, but as for the ones already set in motion, well, we’ll just have to wait and see what sort of surprises may yet appear.
Needless to say, I am not suggesting that torturing terrorist suspects is any more acceptable than murdering them.
Ken Gude, a human rights expert from the Center for American Progress, argues that Awlaki is a legitimate target for assassination because of his claimed role in assisting the 9/11 attackers. On that basis, his killing would appear to be an act of extra-judicial punishment rather than the removal of a potential threat. But even if the administration sticks assiduously to its focus on future threats, it should not claim a God-like power to predict the future. Nor should it assume that the threat someone poses is necessarily diminished once they are dead.
In weighing the fate of Anwar al-Awlaki, this administration would do well to remember the case of Mohammed El Fazazi, a Moroccan cleric who from a Hamburg mosque preached to Mohammed Atta, Ramzi Binalshibh and Marwan al-Shehhi, three of the men who participated in the 9/11 attacks, that it was the duty of a devout Muslim to “slit the throats of non-believers.”
Eight years later, Fazazi had a new message as he appealed to Muslims to air their grievances through peaceful demonstrations. He is helping turn young men away from violent jihad. But what would stir the hearts of such men now if rather than hearing Fazazi’s moderated message, instead they held the memory of a day he became a martyr when struck by an American Hellfire missile?