“I don’t want to just end the war,” Barack Obama said in January 2008, “but I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place.”
That was a line which seduced many a progressive across America during the presidential campaign and it’s one reason so many now feel betrayed. Either Obama later had a change of heart, or he knew at the time that he was cynically making a vacuous statement for the sole purpose of hooking a slice of the electorate — one that might be sufficiently inspired to provide useful foot soldiers in his campaign.
Reflecting some of that sense of betrayal, David Bromwich writes:
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.
I’m not sure about Bromwich’s claim that the turning point was 2003.
Relatively early in America’s expansionist history, the slogan, “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” positioned extra-judicial killing at the center of a conception of justice in which the gun was elevated to the status of a sacred instrument.
It should have come as no surprise a week after the September 11 attacks, that a cowboy in the White House would try shaping the American mindset into one necessary for war, by employing those words.
President Bush said yesterday that he wanted Osama bin Laden, the Saudi exile, “dead or alive” in some of the most bellicose language used by a White House occupant in recent years.
“I want justice,” he said after a meeting at the Pentagon, where 188 people were killed last Tuesday when an airliner crashed into the building. “And there’s an old poster out West that says, ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive.’ ”
He then seemed to temper his remarks by adding: “All I want and America wants is to see them brought to justice. That’s what we want.”
Almost nine years later, Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder confirmed that the same mindset was still at work — in spite of the Democratic president’s campaign promise — and assured Congress that bin Laden “will never appear in an American courtroom.”
The clichéd phrase, “bring to justice,” even if it might seem to preclude the justice of extrajudicial killing, nevertheless connotes justice as the exercise of power — not the enactment of a legal process that should by definition have an unpredictable outcome.
Which brings us to the American wrath now being directed at Julian Assange. His “crime” — the fact that most Americans wouldn’t be able to say what crime he might have committed hasn’t dampened their desire to see him punished — has I believe less to do with national security or legal statutes than the simple fact that he and WikiLeaks have embarrassed America. How dare a scruffy Australian have the audacity to do that?
Imperial power has no humor and responds to the smallest affront with fierce indignation.