A Killer In the White House

“No, Charlotte, I’m the jury now. I sentence you to death.”
The roar of the .45 shook the room. Charlotte staggered back a step.
“How c-could you?” she gasped.
“It was easy.”
– Mickey Spillane, I, The Jury

The news that Barack Obama — a Constitutional scholar and recipient of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize — has taken personal charge of lethal US drone hits in Yemen and Pakistan is one of those stories that takes time to sink in.

The New York Times stresses how serious the issue has become. “With China and Russia watching, the United States has set an international precedent for sending drones over borders to kill enemies.” It’s no longer a cool video-game experiment; it’s the beginning of robot warfare, and, if history is a lesson, it will have unanticipated consequences and our enemies will learn to counter the weapon with imaginative weapons of their own, including drones. We should expect to be surprised and blindsided. Martin Luther King spoke of it as a futile rising cycle of violence.

Exactly how many non-combatants and innocent people are being killed is the big question. There’s no way to know. One, there’s a pathological level of secrecy in our militarized government and, two, we can’t believe a word the government says anyway.

The President’s counterterrorism adviser John Bennan, for example, makes the preposterous claim that “not a single non-combatant has been killed in a year of strikes.” The Times interviewed former intelligence officials familiar with the issue and they “expressed disbelief.” It recalls the days during the Vietnam War when all Vietnamese corpses were VC.

We know of entire families killed in Yemen, as reported by Jeremy Scahill. And Britain’s Sunday Times reports since Obama began the campaign, 300 to 500 civilians have been killed, more than 60 of them kids.

Back in the sixties, during Operation Rolling Thunder, Lyndon Johnson took personal charge of targeting for the aerial bombing of North Vietnam. And George W. Bush was notorious for the little check-off list squirreled away in his desk drawer of men he wanted whacked. So the idea of a US President personally overseeing hits like a gang boss is not that novel. What’s new is the means of killing and the fact Mr. Obama is so lawyerly about it.

A US drone and an angry man protesting US drones on the street in Sanaa, YemenA US drone and an angry man protesting US drones on the street in Sanaa, Yemen

We’re told it’s a matter of the President manning-up and taking responsibility for a morally gray activity. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. It’s lonely at the top. He’s reportedly reading up on Just War Theory and other international legal precedents. But Alberto Gonzalez, John Yoo and Harriet Miers set the tone for this a decade ago, when all a President had to do was dial up the OLS, the Office of Legal Sophistry.

“You want language saying it’s legal to whack somebody? No problema! We’ll send it right up.” Since it was coming from the White House, who in government was going to question it? Clarence Thomas?

Our Constitutional law professor President has already broken legal ground by ordered the drone hit in Yemen of a US citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki. In this case, the legal sophistry needed to maneuver around the Constitution was done by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which prepared a memo, according to The Times, “asserting that while the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process applied, it could be satisfied by internal deliberations in the executive branch.”

Mike Hammer in I, the Jury liked to make the same kind of “internal deliberations” before he whacked somebody. But, then, Hammer was a brute and didn’t give a damn about Just War Theory.

The Kid From Jakarta

The part of Obama’s memoir that takes place in Jakarta has always fascinated me. His Indonesian stepfather, whose family had been insurgents against brutal Dutch colonial forces, took the young Barack under his wing and, aware of his vulnerability on the streets of Jakarta, taught him how to fight to protect himself.

I think it’s fair to surmise the fighting techniques he was taught were more “Asian” in character than the standard, head-on American pugilistic approach. One might also put it this way: John McCain fights like an A-4 Skyhawk coming in at 1,000 feet and Barack Obama fights like a man taught as a kid to fight on the streets of Jakarta.

This kid from Jakarta, then, educates himself in US Constitutional Law and becomes a legal fighter, figuring out the law and the angles for manipulating it and getting around it. Incredibly, he figures out how to get himself elected President of the United States of America.

When he walked into the oval office for the first time he must have been hit smack in the face with two daunting realities: One, the US economy was a basket case thanks to a plutocratic culture of financial Ponzi players who had just tripped over their tumescent greed. And, two, the nation was up to its neck in two wars of occupation and the military was a powerful runaway train ruled by profiteers and career-minded generals.

As anyone in the so-called “peace movement” knows, this monster Eisenhower called the Military Industrial Complex gives no quarter, and it always seems to grow bigger and bigger like something out of a child’s nightmare.

 "Listen, man, this will work."President Obama and Vice President Biden: "Listen, man, this will work."

So, back to my little story: The ambitious kid from Jakarta has figured out how to be President, but he now has to figure out how to tame this voracious monster and make it purr like a kitten in his lap. Enter Vice President Joe Biden, the “working class” Democratic senator from the Corporate State of Delaware. Joe has the answer.

“Cut all this expensive counter-insurgency crap and just concentrate on whacking the right people,” he tells the kid from Jakarta. Joe looks around the room with his signature self-satisfied smirk and then whispers into Obama’s ear: ”Listen, man, this will work. This is a big fuckin’ deal.”

The legislative history of the Drug War reveals that, following the defeat of Jimmy Carter and the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan, Senator Biden fashioned himself into one of the key architects of the US Drug War we know today. Ted Gest covers it well in his book Crime & Politics: Big Government’s Erratic Campaign for Law and Order. He writes about “Biden’s aggressive manner … to make crime a winning issue for Democrats.” Carter had tried things like legalizing marijuana, and Democrats were tagged as soft on crime; Biden wanted to change that and make the issue work for them. “Give me the crime issue,” Gest reports Biden saying in Democratic caucus meetings, “and you’ll never have trouble with it in an election.”

How did so much crime legislation pass in the partisan 1980s? Gest says one key was the “important personal relationships” between Biden and other senators, especially Strom Thurmond, the Republican Senate Judiciary Chairman before Biden himself assumed that role in 1987.

A master of bi-partisan wrangling, Biden pushed for the creation of the cabinet level “Drug Czar.” He pushed through huge Crime Bills that gave federal money to local police forces, strengthening the links between the federal and local levels. He helped streamline federal police operations and boosted linkages with the military. He generally operated as a liberal check on Republican excesses, though he was also blindsided by them.

In the 1984 Crime Bill, for example, a powerful and controversial forfeiture law was passed that, Gests writes, “skewed the priorities of law enforcement at all levels.” The new law allowed police departments everywhere to seize the property of anyone simply charged with a drug crime; conviction was not necessary. The law fostered a litany of horror stories of innocent people’s property seized and not returned. For cops, it was like manna from Heaven and a means to finance all sorts of new military tools. It took 16 years to reform the bad law.

The legislative momentum that Biden and others were riding was all going the way of more police and military empowerment in the War On Drugs. Meanwhile, Harm Reduction and other demand-oriented anti-drug programs — the things Latin Americans want us to focus on — went hungry.

The War On Drugs has become a voracious monster of corruption and violence in MexicoThe War On Drugs has become a voracious monster of corruption and violence in Mexico

The criminologist Joel Rosch in a 1985 essay called “Crime As an Issue in American Politics” cites Barry Goldwater in his 1964 run for President as the first politician to use crime as a national campaign issue. According to Rosch, Goldwater used crime to “symbolize more than people being robbed or assaulted.” Goldwater and his advisers felt the crime issue spoke to “a general feeling many Americans had about the growing disorder and perceived anarchy in American society.” To be tough on crime “would put an end to the growing chaos in American society.” Many felt it was code to fight civil rights activism.

While Goldwater lost the election to Johnson, “he succeeded in setting the scene for debate about crime.” Rosch concludes that, symbols aside, the only truly effective way to address crime is to involve citizens and communities in the criminal justice process. Unfortunately, Goldwater set off a trend that has gone the other way, often turning police culture and poor communities against one other. The problem is beefing up police culture actually exacerbates the drug crisis by creating an us-versus-them, “war” mentality.

Mexican cartoon mocking the US Drug WarMexican cartoon mocking the US Drug War

[Cartoon Translation: The explosive cloud on the other side of the border says: “Narco-War in Mexico.” Obama is hit by a skull saying: “Assassinations of North Americans.” The flower pot says: “Drug Consumption – Mafias – Arms Trading”]

After decades, the Drug War created and defended by Biden and others has not staunched the flow of drugs north (it’s presumed goal) and, instead, has contributed to corruption and murderous chaos in Mexico and elsewhere. The talk now is of Mexico as a “failed state” ruled by ruthless drug gangs with military and police corruption a powerful and inherent way of life. To the south, in Honduras, after a 2009 coup opened the way, US Special Ops units are now being based there to stop drug shipments north.

It’s the marriage of The Wars On Drugs and Terror, and it’s only a matter of time before the marriage made in Hell spawns a truly frightening offspring.

Liberal Democratic leaders like Joe Biden are the match-makers for this marriage. Besides his work fostering the War On Drugs, Biden has been one of the most vocal proponents in the Obama administration for a “counter-terrorism” doctrine versus the well publicized “counter-insurgency” doctrine touted by General David Petraeus.

Petraeus’ COIN baby was allowed to expire in its crib when the economy went south; it was just too expensive to feed and too time-consuming to raise. Biden’s baby was lean and mean and didn’t require all the humanitarian pampering; it fed on intel and focused killing. Petraeus was conveniently elbowed laterally to head the CIA.

The kid from Jakarta — now the man who whacked Osama bin Laden — sits dead-center in the middle of the new doctrine. In addition to secrecy, surveillance and focused killing, he has now added the development of Cyber Warfare to his quiver of 21st Century war-making skills.

Instead of following up on promises to promote peace and justice that led many Americans to vote for him, with his crony Joe Biden, President Obama has chosen the classic path of snuggling up to military power. It’s a much safer and less risky pursuit than the former, since Fear and Violence are always powerful levers to manipulate when times are tough. Peace? Give me a break!

By all indications, Obama has successfully tamed the voracious military monster into a lean and mean purring cat in his hands. The devil’s due will come with the need to keep on killing.

The Myth of Precision

In an amazing little essay (“A Game of Drones”) in May’s The American Conservative magazine, the Chilean journalist Ximena Ortiz puts all this in context. In her view, the United States is “enabled by a central idea,” and that idea is what she calls a “precision-guided mythology [that] masks a brutal truth.”

She cites a Washington Post-ABC poll that shows 77 percent of “liberal Democrats” support stepped-up drone attacks. “Killing foreigners — and a smattering of US citizens — by drone remains popular,” she concludes. “The truth” that the policy is infuriating Yemenis and Pakistanis and getting us deeper into conflict with the Muslim world is, par for the course, lost in the cultural cacophony.

This mythology of precision, this Chilean journalist says, distinguishes us in our own minds from Third World people who torture, spy-on and kill in a much cruder manner. In the US, we’re better. Our violence is precise and we employ it only when it’s absolutely necessary.

President Obama is playing the Precision Myth for all it’s worth. As an important adjunct to the Myth of American Exceptionalism, it allows Americans to feel good about themselves as they get away with murder. It will probably get Barack Obama re-elected in an election that only offers bad and worse.

May God have mercy on our souls.