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Judge, Jury, and Executioner

President Obama, that is.

I seem unable to let go of Jo Becker and Scott Shane’s piece in the NYT last week on Obama’s drone policies and now famous kill list. I’ve already written about it twice, here and here. I return to it today to draw your attention to Francine Prose’s insightful post at The New York Review’s blog. (Yes, Francine Prose, famous novelist.)

Prose begins by explaining what draws her to the subject:

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.

She then proceeds with the analysis, which I urge you to read. I won’t say more about it. I will only quote the ending, which so aptly captures how President Obama has followed in Bush’s footsteps by trampling on the US as a nation governed by the rule of law. Before quoting Prose, let me mention how astonishing it is that our secretary of state routinely lectures other nations on their need to live under the rule of law.

Let’s see. I’ve just done a google search on “Hillary Clinton rule of law”. Here are the first four hits:

  • A Reuters item from last December with the headline "Clinton: Syrians must oust Assad, move toward rule of law."
  • An Al Jazeerah item from a month ago describing Clinton as having “appealed to Bangladeshis to respect the rule of law.”
  • A post at the Department of State’s official blog on “Strengthening the Rule of Law and Combating Crime.”
  • Another post at the Department of State’s blog telling Liberians that “justice and rule of law is needed to fully move on from its former state of war.”
  • Thank God for our State Department. Maybe Hillary can have a chat with Barack. Speaking of whom, here is Prose’s conclusion (emphasis added by me):

    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?

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    Categories: Law, Politics, War
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