By Tom Engelhardt
Religious Cult or Mafia Hit Squad?
Here’s a believe-it-or-not footnote to our American age. Who now remembers that, in the early years of his presidency, George W. Bush kept what the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward called "his own personal scorecard for the war" on terror? It took the form of photographs with brief biographies and personality sketches of those judged to be the world's most dangerous terrorists, each ready to be crossed out by Bush once captured or killed. That scorecard was, Woodward added, always available in a desk drawer in the Oval Office.
Such private presidential recordkeeping now seems penny-ante indeed. The distance we’ve traveled in a decade can be measured by the Times' description of the equivalent of that “personal scorecard” today (and no desk drawer could hold it):
“It is the strangest of bureaucratic rituals: Every week or so, more than 100 members of the government’s sprawling national security apparatus gather, by secure video teleconference, to pore over terrorist suspects’ biographies and recommend to the president who should be the next to die. This secret 'nominations' process is an invention of the Obama administration, a grim debating society that vets the PowerPoint slides bearing the names, aliases, and life stories of suspected members of Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen or its allies in Somalia’s Shabab militia. The nominations go to the White House, where by his own insistence and guided by [counterterrorism ‘tsar’ John O.] Brennan, Mr. Obama must approve any name.”
In other words, thanks to such meetings -- on what insiders have labeled “terror Tuesday” -- assassination has been thoroughly institutionalized, normalized, and bureaucratized around the figure of the president. Without the help of or any oversight from the American people or their elected representatives, he alone is now responsible for regular killings thousands of miles away, including those of civilians and even children. He is, in other words, if not a king, at least the king of American assassinations. On that score, his power is total and completely unchecked. He can prescribe death for anyone “nominated,” choosing any of the “baseball cards” (PowerPoint bios) on that kill list and then order the drones to take them (or others in the neighborhood) out.
He and he alone can decide that assassinating known individuals isn’t enough and that the CIA’s drones can instead strike at suspicious “patterns of behavior” on the ground in Yemen or Pakistan. He can stop any attack, any killing, but there is no one, nor any mechanism that can stop him. An American global killing machine (quite literally so, given that growing force of drones) is now at the beck and call of a single, unaccountable individual. This is the nightmare the founding fathers tried to protect us from.
In the process, as Salon’s Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, the president has shredded the Fifth Amendment, guaranteeing Americans that they will not “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel produced a secret memo claiming that, while the Fifth Amendment’s due process guarantee does apply to the drone assassination of an American citizen in a land with which we are not at war, “it could be satisfied by internal deliberations in the executive branch.” (That, writes Greenwald, is “the most extremist government interpretation of the Bill of Rights I’ve heard in my lifetime.”) In other words, the former Constitutional law professor has been freed from the law of the land in cases in which he “nominates,” as he has, U.S. citizens for robotic death.
There is, however, another aspect to the institutionalizing of those “kill lists” and assassination as presidential prerogatives that has gone unmentioned. If the Times article -- which largely reflects how the Obama administration cares to see itself and its actions -- is to be believed, the drone program is also in the process of being sanctified and sacralized.
You get a sense of this from the language of the piece itself. (“A parallel, more cloistered selection process at the C.I.A. focuses largely on Pakistan…”) The president is presented as a particularly moral man, who devotes himself to the "just war" writings of religious figures like Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, and takes every death as his own moral burden. His leading counterterrorism advisor Brennan, a man who, while still in the CIA, was knee-deep in torture controversy, is presented, quite literally, as a priest of death, not once but twice in the piece. He is described by the Times reporters as “a priest whose blessing has become indispensable to Mr. Obama.” They then quote the State Department’s top lawyer, Harold H. Koh, saying, “It’s as though you had a priest with extremely strong moral values who was suddenly charged with leading a war.”
In the Times telling, the organization of robotic killing had become the administration’s idée fixe, a kind of cult of death within the Oval Office, with those involved in it being so many religious devotees. We may be, that is, at the edge of a new state-directed, national-security-based religion of killing grounded in the fact that we are in a “dangerous” world and the “safety” of Americans is our preeminent value. In other words, the president, his apostles, and his campaign acolytes are all, it seems, praying at the Church of St. Drone.
Of course, thought about another way, that “terror Tuesday” scene might not be from a monastery or a church synod, but from a Mafia council directly out of a Mario Puzo novel, with the president as the Godfather, designating “hits” in a rough-and-tumble world.
How far we’ve come in just two presidencies! Assassination as a way of life has been institutionalized in the Oval Office, thoroughly normalized, and is now being offered to the rest of us as a reasonable solution to American global problems and an issue on which to run a presidential campaign.
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