“To My Mind, to Kill in War is not a Whit Better than to Commit Ordinary Murder”–Einstein
When U.S-born Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan were killed by our government a few weeks ago there was in some quarters a mild tone of rumbling dissent, but the overwhelming response seemed to be a collective sigh of relief that the chief operators of America’s nemesis, the dreaded Al Qaeda, were dead! The qualms, if any, had to do with the targeting of American citizens (which they were) amid questions about due process and the rule of law. What didn’t seem to enter the conversation much were questions about morality; the concern about killing our own citizens was lost in the overall perception that they were traitors to our ideals and therefore not worth worrying about now that they were dead, but we seem to have accepted without much demur that some assassinations are perfectly acceptable—Bin Laden’s death, for instance, was celebrated with fanfare!
I realize, of course, that the reality of Al Qaeda has changed the national debate about such things—they’re out to get us so we must get them at all costs. The truth is that Al Qaeda isn’t a new phenomenon on our terrorist landscape; it just managed to get further than anyone else in that it carried out devastating attacks on US soil. Some other famous terrorists at home were John Brown, The KKK and other white supremacists, The Weathermen, Timothy McVeigh…some would include the Black Panthers…
But for years the CIA took lethal action against all kinds of real and imaginary foes (imaginary only in that they were defined as enemies), killing and assassinating putative enemies of the state in astonishing numbers, waging covert operations of destabilization, political activism, and subversion in countries all over the globe (now that Robert Gates has declassified thousands of documents we can clearly see that the whispers were not mad conspiracy theories)! All those people and organizations were in some way ancestors of Al Qaeda, which became the epitome of the millions who were snuffed out. So we have a long and bloody history of carrying out our own acts of terror. Perhaps, and in some quarters this may even be seditious language, the CIA’s actions together with so many of our misguided foreign policies may have led to Al Qaeda. This is not to excuse anyone’s murderous intents, simply to frame a context around all of it.
If we have tacitly and explicitly condoned acts of terror perpetrated by our own government as well as clandestine assassinations carried out or aided by our operatives throughout the world, why then should there be even a mini outcry now? Is it because we can actually put public faces on the people we kill as opposed to the nameless, faceless millions destroyed in the “dark?” Are we finally acquiring a conscience, engendered no doubt by the uncertainties of the times? I wish I could believe that, but I see little evidence of a national moral compass—we remain as reactionary as we ever were, bending in directions forced by misguided interpretations of events, shortsighted in the way we sigh as a wronged, misunderstood nation only trying to protect our “national Interests,” whatever that means!
Power certainly corrupts, but not always in the way we think. The moral choices of our political leaders reverberate throughout the body politic, and apathy in the face of those choices is the worm that destroys every moral fiber in the republic, leaving us spineless and unable to protest as horrific acts are perpetrated in our name. When did War move from last to first resort? Worse, how did we permit “preemptive strikes” to enter the lexicon of political action? And what happens to nice people like Obama and the Bushes when they enter the Oval Office? I’m sure their NSA and CIA advisors paint a horrific picture of doom not available to us; after all, we poor darlings shouldn’t bother our pretty heads over what doesn’t concern us, letting those in charge do their duty.
One of the great moral inversions of the twentieth century was the justification of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—that it saved many more lives by hastening the end of the war. And with that shocking rationalization we lost whatever innocence was left. Jimmy Carter was pilloried as an unrealistic politician for his belief that the morality of a situation, if upheld, would win through in the end. But he wasn’t thinking about easy fixes—he was concerned about our national moral spirit; and not in a fundamentalistic way. I wish we had listened. We should have known that we are entitled to decide the moral direction of our country. Unless we are just ruled by a few good men like Colonel Jessep:
“You can’t handle the truth! Son, we live in a world that has walls. And those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You?… I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom…You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: that Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives…You don’t want the truth. Because deep down, in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall.
We use words like honor, code, loyalty…we use these words as the backbone to a life spent defending something. You use ’em as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it! I’d rather you just said thank you and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand a post. Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you’re entitled to!”