After reading the article that appeared under the headline “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will” in the May 29 New York Times, I couldn’t talk about much else. I found myself wanting to analyze it, as one might dissect a literary text, to better understand how it produced its effect on the reader: in my case, shock and awe, tempered by consolatory flickers of disbelief. Like literature, the story resists summarization, partly because the Times reporters, Jo Becker and Scott Shane, employ detail, word choice, diction, and tone to direct and influence the reader’s response without, on the surface, appearing to do so—and to make a familiar narrative seem new.
The article begins with dramatic immediacy. “This was the enemy, served up in the latest charts from the intelligence agencies: 15 Qaeda suspects in Yemen with Western ties.” That gustatory “served up” is striking, since what is on the conference table are documents. So the people whose mug shots and capsule biographies are laid out on charts resembling a “high school yearbook” must logically be the items “served up” on the menu. “Several were Americans. Two were teenagers, including a girl who looked even younger than her 17 years.” Given what we soon learn—that this meeting has been convened to decide which people on the charts should be killed—we may well wonder about the fate of the young girl. Though we discover nothing more about her, her presence (a wake-up call to those who may have pitied terrified children at airport security checkpoints) hovers over the text, which will go on to consider the problem of accidentally killing children during a drone attack.
As drama, the scene is reminiscent of great moments in cable TV: Tony Soprano and his colleagues deciding whom to whack, The Wire’s Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell conferring on which of their child employees must be eliminated. But it’s one thing to see murders planned on television and quite another to read that this planning session is occurring in the White House Situation Room in January, 2010, and that President Obama has assumed the grim responsibility of casting the final vote on every death sentence that this jury (so obviously outside traditional legal channels) is handing down.
It’s no secret that governments, including ours, sanction covert assassinations and that we are using drones to kill suspected terrorists and unfortunate civilians in the Middle East. And for more than a decade we’ve been told that, in the course of waging a perpetual “war on terror,” authorized by Congress, we are justified in eliminating enemies whose crimes, allegiances, identity, and intentions (unlike those of soldiers in a more conventional army) may be unclear. But the language of the journalists and of their interview subjects may make readers feel that they are receiving fresh and troubling information.
The first question we hear the president ask concerns the age of the people in the photos. “If they’re starting to use children,” Obama says, “we are moving into a whole different phase.” In case there is any doubt about what phase we have already moved into, the reporters rapidly dispel it. We are observing a “top secret ‘Nominations’ process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical.” The chart “introduces people whose deaths (the president) might soon be asked to order.”
When the journalists portray President Obama poring over “what one official calls the macabre ‘baseball cards’ of an unconventional war,” it’s only the first of several jarring metaphors alluding to sports and games (and one which recalls the “personality identification playing cards” that were given to U.S. Troops during the 2003 invasion of Iraq to help them recognize the most-wanted members of Saddam Hussein’s regime). Evidently, Obama was initially criticized for his “’Whac-A-Mole’ approach to counterterrorism,” and a senior official jokes about the imprecision with which the administration identifies threats. “When the C.I.A. sees ‘three guys doing jumping jacks,’ the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp.” One source characterizes Obama’s failed efforts to close Guantanamo as “a boxing match where a cut opens over a guy’s eye.” Considering that the speakers are discussing the deaths of human beings, the jauntiness with which they refer to the state-sanctioned hit lists at the “Terror on Tuesday” meetings seems not merely unseemly, but appalling. “One guy gets knocked off, and the guy’s driver, who’s No. 21, becomes 20?” asks William M. Daley, the president’s 2011 chief of staff.
More than 60 years after Orwell published his essay, “Politics and the English Language,” the Times piece reminds us that political agendas have continued to distort the meaning of the words we use. In order to reduce the body count of civilians, the definition of “militant”—an already elastic construct—has been broadened to include every male of military age killed by a drone strike, “unless there is explicit evidence posthumously proving them innocent.” According to one source, “They count the corpses and they’re not really sure who they are.” Meanwhile, the drone war has warped the language into absurdity, making the distinction between “personality strikes” aimed at specific individuals and “signature strikes” against suspicious camps and compounds that, too late, may turn out to have been family gatherings.
Since 9/11, euphemism and obfuscation—the use of “enhanced interrogation” and “aggressive techniques” as synonyms for torture, of “extraordinary rendition” to mean kidnapping and imprisonment in foreign countries without trial—have become all-too-familiar elements of of our political, military, and cultural vocabulary. But more recently, as the Times article suggests, the expense, ineffectiveness, and public-relations drawbacks of capture and interrogation have led the government to conclude that it’s often more efficient to dispense with the messy business and to use drones to murder suspected terrorists outright—in situ, as it were. And so the Orwellian doublespeak employed to conceal the grim realities of torture has at least partly given way to a new set of euphemisms intended to camouflage the fact that we have been dispatching unmanned missiles to murder suspected miscreants without the legal processes that might establish their guilt, or innocence.
Ultimately what makes the piece rewarding to analyze is the skill with which its authors employ objective reportage to alert us to the ways in which innocent lives are being lost and basic constitutional protections subverted. From the start we may sense that a point of view is being expressed, but it’s hard to identify exactly what it is. In the second paragraph Becker and Shane acknowledge that Obama’s first year in office was “punctuated by terrorists plots…culminating in a brush with catastrophe over Detroit on Christmas Day.” And their (unfortunate, in my view) use of the word “metastasizing” to describe the spread of Islamic terrorism persuades us that they understand: a serious threat does exist. At moments, it is challenging to distinguish the language of the inappropriately jocular interviewees from the vivid style of the reporters: they state that the government is chasing the enemy “into new and dangerous lands,” an argument that implicitly favors drones over risking our own “boots on the ground.”
But about halfway through the text, something happens that makes us realize that, unlike so many of their interview subjects, the writers take these lives and deaths very seriously indeed. At the risk of repeating themselves, they revisit the article’s opening, as if to make absolutely certain that we understand what we have been reading:
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.
After that, we begin to read differently, noting how the journalists cite Hillary Clinton’s complaints about the drones-only policy and her suggestion to the president that “there should be more attention paid to the root causes of radicalization” to introduce the idea that alternatives to current practices do exist. Becker and Shane address the questions raised by the drone strike against Anwar al-Awaki, an American-born cleric and Qaeda propagandist hiding in Yemen, in order to examine issues of legality, constitutionality, justice, and the rule of law. “Could (Obama) order the targeted killing of an American citizen in a country with which the United States was not at war, in secret and without the benefit of a trial?” The problematic answer, provided by the Justice Department, was yes. “While the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process applied, it could be satisfied by internal deliberations in the executive branch.” Are we really meant to believe that “internal deliberations in the executive branch” should replace due process?
The successful drone strike, announced this week, against Abu Yahya al-Libi, the deputy leader of al-Qaeda, would seem to argue for the efficacy of the program—unless one believes that killing terrorist leaders without a judicial process, and in a manner that may kill many innocent civilians as well, may harm us as much as it does the enemy; unless one agrees that, in the aftermath of World War II, the decision to try the Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg—instead of proceeding directly to execution—was considered necessary for the moral recovery not only of Germany but of the Allies; unless one agrees with Secretary Clinton, that this endless war cannot be won without addressing the root causes of terrorism; unless one imagines that the ultimate result of these attacks might resemble the orgy of revenge and violence that would unleashed if a missile, dispatched from Yemen, were to strike the White House.
The Times essay merits attentive reading for its chillingly Rasputin-like portrait of Obama’s chief counterterrorism advisor, John O. Brennan, as a “dogged police detective, tracking terrorists from his cavelike office in the White House basement, or a priest whose blessing has become indispensable to Mr. Obama.” The allusion to religion recurs as we learn that Obama seeks guidance in the “writings on war by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas”—a short list of spiritual thinkers from which Jesus is conspicuously absent.
By the article’s final section, its authors have amassed enough evidence to support a condemnation of the policies they have described. “(Obama’s) focus on strikes has made it impossible to forge, for now, the new relationship with the Muslim world that he had envisioned. Both Pakistan and Yemen are arguably less stable and more hostile to the United States than when Mr. Obama became president. Justly or not, drones have become a provocative symbol of American power, running roughshod over national sovereignty and killing innocents.”
Aside from the reference to the deaths of innocents, this is primarily a political rather than a moral critique. For that, we need to examine the article’s final line, which continues to resonate after we have set aside our papers. Presumably, pages of transcripts must have been sifted through in order to find (and end with) the following quote from Michael Leiter, former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center.
“You can pass a lot of laws,” Mr. Leiter said, “These laws are not going to get Bin Laden dead.”
Get Bin Laden dead? With its execrable grammar, its calculated thuggishness, and, for all that we have been reading about the assumption of personal responsibility, its euphemistic avoidance of what is really at issue (to get dead is not the same as to kill, and it’s never laws but people who get other people dead), the quote suggests a new dispensation in which our government, at the highest level, has given Tony Soprano license to ignore the rule of law and murder actual human beings, some of them harmless civilians. Shouldn’t we feel more frightened than reassured by the knowledge that the leader of our country holds himself accountable for every one of these deaths?