‘If the President Does It, It Isn’t Illegal’
— Richard M. Nixon
Drones are finally coming out of the closet. During John Brennan’s confirmation hearings for C.I.A. director, we started to learn a little more about the use of deadly drones by the U.S. government. Brennan’s testimony acknowledged the the use of drones, including attacks that targeted an American citizen. Mainstream media outlets like NPR have even been talking about U.S. drone policy and its place within the framework of U.S. and international law.
Currently, drones are being used as surveillance vehicles armed with cameras, and as killing machines armed with one or two 100-pound Hellfire guided missiles. As we learned earlier this year, every Tuesday morning, the president and his national security team regularly go over the list of current bad guys and decide if they want to kill any of them.
Many of these “kills” are located in countries where we have to rely on sketchy intelligence provided by people with agendas of their own. Many of the “bad guys” are not bad; they are just unlucky enough to have the same name as a bad guy, or a bad guy as a brother or cousin. (“Bad” is also in the eye of the beholder. Many deemed “bad” by US officials see themselves, or are seen by locals as “freedom fighters” against an unwanted occupier.)
If any male (technically any male older than sixteen, but the US isn’t asking for birth certificates) is in the vicinity of a “bad guy,” then in the US view, he is a terrorist by association and his death gets to be counted in the tally of enemy dead, as opposed to being another unfortunate number in the collateral damage column. It resembles the Vietnam War, when all the dead in a search-and-destroy mission were counted as “VC kills.”
How hard we have worked to develop an appropriate vocabulary to describe death dissemination!
Violating international borders, stalking an individual and blowing him up without the benefit of accusation or trial – most people would call that premeditated murder. If the person being murdered is an important public figure, we think of it as an assassination. But “murder” and “assassination” are problematic, because both are illegal under U.S and international law. Only under strict circumstances of imminent threat does U.S. law give the president authorization to actively pursue and kill an “enemy”.
The Obama administration, taking a page straight out of the Cheney/Bush playbook, is claiming a blanket authorization cloaked in the vagaries of their war on terror even though they no longer call it the war on terror. We are supposed to trust that they will only righteously strike the truly bad.
Under the tutelage of the national security state, the press and the American public have been trained to make some crucial substitutions in their utterances. Murder and assassination have been changed to “strikes”, preferably surgical ones. Young boys become “militants”, which dehumanizes and militarizes them at the same time.
The president, meanwhile, is not a murderer, or even a noble assassin. No, he is our protector, our guardian, our kick-ass-we’re-number-one-in-chief. The afore-mentioned “collateral damage” has neatly bundled the killing field-scape of dead and dismembered people into something more palatable to assuage the public, which might otherwise become concerned.
Our adversaries of the moment, whether they are fanatic religious terrorists, uniformed troops from the wrong country, or simply people taking up arms against a foreign occupation or a corrupt domestic regime, have all been lumped together as “bad guys.”
It makes everything so simple, like a John Wayne western.
In print and on line, editors will change “drone murder” to “drone strike.” Why does death by arbitrary government fiat get a pass on being called murder? Why are attempts to refer to the president as “Predator O’Drona” edited and sanitized? Does our respect for the office of the presidency supersede our respect for the Constitution and the rule of law? Today, we scoff at President Nixon’s assertions that “If the President does it, it isn’t illegal”. But how is giving Obama a free pass on playing God with peoples’ lives without any accountability any different?
Amazingly, commentators, politicians and patriots alike still summon the supercilious gesture and tut tut about the inhumane violent acts of untrained Afghan soldiers, or Turks, or Pakistanis etc. At the same time, these same voices are calmly debating the value of intelligence that may have come from U.S. torture techniques, which for the purpose of these discussion, are politely referred to as “harsh interrogation” or even better, “enhanced interrogation”.
We’re kidding ourselves (but no one else) if we think that such euphemisms will soften the damage that our descent into the scrum of world powers who utilize murder and torture will do to us as a nation and as people.
We don’t want to call it murder because we would then feel obligated to stop it, which is hopelessly difficult. But we must call it murder precisely so we do act. This government must never be allowed to hear anything but the truth from us about their actions in our names.
If we decide as a nation to embrace murder, assassination and torture in order to maintain our pre-eminence as a world power, it will be a foul day indeed.
But today we are allowing murder, assassination and torture to occur without even having the courage to have a conversation about them. If we care at all about the mythology of an America that stands for truth and the rule of law, we must act now.
Our political system is imploding. While the politicians dally and posture, long-term damage to our national security, and more importantly to our idea of national honor, is being wrought by these murderous and misguided policies.
A government that acts in secrecy and outside of the law does not deserve our trust. Just say no to murder by drone.
DAN DeWALT is an activist and journalist based in New Fane, VT. He wrote this article exclusively for ThisCantBeHappening!