The Taser's Edge


The Distillation of War

Last night, NBC released a 16-page document from the Justice Department, which laid out the legal arguments for killing a US citizen who has connections to Al-Qa’ida. As NBC’s Michael Isikoff reported it:

A confidential Justice Department memo concludes that the U.S. government can order the killing of American citizens if they are believed to be “senior operational leaders” of al-Qaida or “an associated force” — even if there is no intelligence indicating they are engaged in an active plot to attack the U.S….

Although not an official legal memo, the white paper was represented by administration  officials as a policy document that closely mirrors the arguments of classified memos on targeted killings by the Justice Department’s  Office of Legal Counsel, which provides authoritative legal advice to the president and all executive branch agencies. The administration has refused to turn over to Congress or release those memos publicly — or even publicly confirm their existence.

And from the DOJ white paper itself:

Under the traditional due process balancing analysis of Mathews v. Eldridge [Ed.: see here or here], we recognize there is no private interest more weighty than a person’s interest in his life. But that interest must be balanced against the United States’ interest in forestalling the threat of violence and death to other Americans that arises from an individual who is a senior operational leader of al-Q’aida or an associated force of al-Q’aida and who is engaged in plotting against the United States.

In the past, President Obama has given an overtly theological vision of how he approaches statecraft, going so far as to name the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. So here is Reinhold Niebuhr, from his 1937 Beyond Tragedy (with the quotation and a bit of the immediately following analysis drawn from Mac McCorkle’s “Why the Left Needs to Read Up on Reinhold Niebuhr”): “Without the statesman who uses power to correct the injustices of power, we might allow the vision of the Kingdom of Christ to become a luxury of those who can afford to acquiesce in present injustice because they do not suffer from it.”

The problem, even when holding to Niebuhr, is that Niebuhr’s vision of the statesman’s use of power is balanced by his vision of the prophet who continually calls for the just use of the state’s power. Today, Obama has no prophets who actually have his ear, although he does have several who do not have his ear (as Cornel West well knows, and as others–both libertarians and progressives finding themselves in the same boat, if they are honest–could also tell you).

My own wondering, however, is not whether Obama will ever listen to his prophets. Stranger things have happened, and they have always been miracles of grace unforeseen (although not unhoped and unprayed for).

I wonder, instead, whether in this present war of technology, in which we often conceive of the rise of drone and other remote warfare as the dehumanization of war, it might actually be the re-humanization of war.

Might war actually be being purified by the use of  a list of names of particular human individuals which cross the president’s desk so he can personally decide who to spare and who to kill? Might war be being distilled when the drone operator is given not just a set of coordinates on which to drop a bomb from 9,000 feet (about as low as a B-29 ever regularly flew) but a home address or a description of a personal vehicle or a description of a single human being?

Perhaps alongside calling this a distillation or purification of war, we could also call it an unmasking of war. War is one individual and particular human being personally deciding on a good enough reason to kill another individual and particular human being.

War’s beginning to feel a lot like murder.

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