Thursday, July 31, 2014
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Kill and Let Die

NEW YORK – By a strange but fitting coincidence, US President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, held their final debate – which focused on foreign policy – just as the new James Bond film, Skyfall, had its world premiere in London. Although 007, who turned 50 this year, is a British-born global brand, his influence on the American political psyche – and that psyche’s influence on Bond – is obvious.

Indeed, the latest production is a British-American partnership, and the violent special-operations action hero that Bond has come to embody reflects US assumptions about foreign policy and the rule of law. The presidential debate merely reinforced the dominant real-time plotline: Assassinating people (including US citizens) solely on the president’s orders, once considered a war crime, has become an applause line.

That is as true for Romney as it has been for Obama. Romney asserted that his foreign policy was “pretty straightforward.” It was, he said, “to go after the bad guys, to make sure we do our very best to interrupt them, to kill them, to take them out of the picture.” In other words, he would “kill them” where they were found, not only on the battlefield, but also in other sovereign countries, such as Pakistan, without charge or trial.

Obama, for his part, scored points by shaming Romney for having opposed the illegal raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. Later, he championed the drone-strike strategy that he has used to “kill bad guys” without charge or trial. Romney cheered. Neither candidate mentioned that, by some estimates, the drone strikes have killed far more civilians than “suspected terrorists.” The most authoritative study puts civilian deaths from drone strikes between June 2004 and mid-September 2012 at 474-881, including 176 children.

Prior to the debate, CNN Chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin asked Obama about his drone strategy. His vaguely worded answer – the attacks “must be authorized by our laws” – made no mention of trials for those accused of terror crimes, of international war-crimes treaties, or any other bow to legality. Indeed, US law cannot “authorize” drone strikes if they are carried out in countries with which the US is not at war.

Not even Americans are exempt. Obama averred that American citizens “are subject to the protections of the constitution and due process.” But Anwar al-Awlaki was a US citizen whom Obama directed to have killed in just this way. So was al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, who was deliberately killed by a drone strike two weeks later.

I happened to watch the debate while surrounded by other American teenagers. They had grown up in a post-9/11 environment saturated with the claim that US presidents may call anyone anywhere a “bad guy” and order his or her summary assassination. “That’s illegal,” I kept saying when the candidates spoke of “killing bad guys” rather than arresting or extraditing them to face criminal charges.

None of these well-educated teenagers believed me. Having grown up with presidents and presidential candidates tossing around the Bond meme virtually without challenge, they thought I was making things up. “Of course it’s legal,” they said. Both candidates had just told the entire world that they planned to continue to engage in what are, according to both US and international law, criminal acts. The debate’s moderator, Bob Schieffer, who should have known better, said nothing.

In the background of this legal and moral failure is major cheerleading about the Bin Laden raid, in which a US Navy SEAL team swarmed a compound in a residential Pakistani neighborhood and assassinated a lot of people. The book No Easy Day, written by a team member, is a bestseller. Likewise, this month the magazine Vanity Fair published a hagiographic behind-the-scenes look at the steps that Obama and his team took in the run-up to the raid.

What is striking about No Easy Day and the Vanity Fair article is that the rationale for legal due process is reflected in every other paragraph. The sources cited by Vanity Fair confirm that the intelligence on which the team made the decision to “go in” was impressionistic and incomplete (that is, the target, judging from the length of his shadow, was “tall and thin” like Bin Laden, but his identity was not 100% certain). It was also clear from the piece that arresting the man would have been no more difficult – and perhaps easier – than killing him and jeopardizing his family.

Like the Navy SEALs and other special-ops teams now roaming the planet in secrecy, Bond is an extrajudicial killer, whether for personal revenge, as in Quantum of Solace; geopolitical reasons, as in Die Another Day; or simply because someone is in his way. His bosses, too, identify targets from afar and order their annihilation, without revealing any awareness of ambiguity concerning who is a “bad guy” or acknowledging the possibility of poor intelligence or mistaken identity. His innocent victims, meanwhile, are invisible. Fabulous military technology is part of the spectacle and becomes its own justification – a character in the hero’s story line.

For 50 years, James Bond and his “license to kill” have stood for imperial justice beyond the limits of law. But he is imaginary, as are his victims. America’s violation of domestic and international law – and the bodies of innocents mown down by drones or operatives – are all too real.

Read more from our "America Votes" Focal Point.

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  1. CommentedGabriel Nagy

    Is now common around the world government that don’t stick and act according to the law; they are the law...they make the law… Christopher Hitchens in his book Hitch-22: A Memoir wrote ‘the true essence of a dictatorship is in fact not is regularity but its unpredictability and caprice; those who live under it must never be able to relax, must never be quite sure if they have followed the rules correctly or not.’ At for those who live outside of it can’t expect a fair trial.

  2. CommentedMK Anon

    The latest issue of the "maniere de voir" du monde diplomatique is about that issue. Very interesting
    monde-diplomatique.fr/mav/

  3. CommentedMelanie holzman

    It is poor analysis to take one word and extrapolate it into an entire paragraph. A political speech is short, strong and terse. They tend to the theatrical. You as well as many journalists and analysts ignore the context. Words are dissected and analysis performed ad nauseaum. All of you are past tired.

  4. CommentedCarol Maczinsky

    War is war. There is no nice war. That is the way it always has been and always would be. The real choice of the US is if they want to get to war or not, if they want drone terrorism or not. Currently the US does because it simply can do. We don't know how many innocent lives Obama's drones saved.

  5. CommentedJames DeLorey

    I am floored, Ms. Wolf, by your total disconnect from reality.

    We should be concerned that (gasp) BIN LADEN'S FAMILY WAS JEOPARDIZED! by the assault on his hiding place? We should be concerned that HE COULD HAVE BEEN ARRESTED RATHER THAN KILLED! by the assault team? Should we have sent in a crack team of DOJ lawyers instead of SEALs?

    The reality, Ms. Wolf, is that there ARE Bad Guys out there. Bad Guys who do not give a damn about international or domestic laws. Bad Guys who are so vehemently anti-feminist, they would proudly put a bullet in the head of a girl who advocates equal education for females. Bad Guys who rejoiced at the killing of three thousand innocent civilians within our shores on 9/11, and who doubtless would be only too happy to replicate their slaughter.

    The true moral failure would be to gutlessly allow these murderers the latitude to plot and commit their terrorist crimes against the people of the US (and other nations) with complete impunity.

    Maybe you should take a break from immersing yourself in books, magazines, and movies, Ms. Wolf. Maybe you should climb down out of your moral ivory tower and go visit the 9/11 Memorial some time.

    And by the way, I'm a liberal, leftish progressive, not some war-mongering neo-con. As soon as our foes cease indulging in extra-judicial killings, I shall be only too happy to see the US reciprocate. But in the meantime, kudos to drones, kudos to targeted assassinations, and may our enemies be ever looking nervously over their shoulders...

  6. Commentedjim bridgeman

    Lincoln could have been jailed for things he did during the Civil War. Jefferson Davis was. The only difference was the political outcome. Same thing for Stalin/Churchill/Roosevelt versus Hitler. So long as (a) the U.S. political consensus approves these actions and (b) the U.S. military force is sufficient to protect its politicians from those who disagree, just so long will the juridical argument be moot.

  7. CommentedDavid Nowakowski

    If the US really did behave like James Bond, Ms Wolf might have a point. In reality, while nothing is perfectly black or white, this column is a blatant distortion of facts and consideration. True, the U.S. is in some hot water over its trigger-happy drone strikes: see http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/oct/25/un-inquiry-us-drone-strikes.

    But for a more measured and intelligent discussion (as opposed to this bloviation), I would recommend CFR's investigation: http://www.cfr.org/counterterrorism/targeted-killings/p9627, and urge readers to purge the silly ideas in this column. At the very least, we should take the serious threats of Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and other terrorist organizations into account, realize that those aiding and abetting them are also guilty of terrorism or its planning, and consider whether some self-defense of a homeland makes some killing within a legal framework rather than an illegal assassination.

  8. CommentedFrank O'Callaghan

    What will be the American view when this precedent is used by the next global power against it those terms "bad guys"? What if the new "bad guys" are Americans at home in their own country? What if the drones are Chinese or Indian or African or Russian or Iranian or some as yet unmentioned entity? If they are not drones but genetically engineered viruses?

    What is to be the international standard? Extra-judicial killing of "bad guys" is a genie that will not return to the bottle.

  9. CommentedM Patel

    Options on the table to deal with terror camps and terrorist:
    1) Drone Attack.
    2) On ground attacks to catch them alive and follow the due process of law (High risk, High Civilian and Military Casulty, Politically unacceptable to Pakistan, Might end up in full blown war with Pakistan).
    3) Do what India does (i.e. nothing) and suffer thousand cuts.

  10. CommentedCharles Travis

    If only al qaeda was as committed to the rule of law and the interests of justice as the author, instead of utilizing even less focused murderous violence, I too might feel outrage rather than an unsettling uneasiness. That they are a loosely knit international organization rather than a clearly demarcated nation state makes little difference to either their victims or the state of war they have declared.

      CommentedJeff S

      If only the US presidential candidates were as committed to the rule of law as the author, instead of utilizing even less focused murderous violenece, I too might feel an unsettling uneasiness rather than outrage.

      See how that works? The enemy is the lawlessness and arbitrariness of undeclared and unending "war". Neither side can claim moral legiticmacy if both disregard the law.

      Commentedlee kus

      If our foreign interests and garrisons require a little foreign bloodshed, it's no biggie, eh?

  11. CommentedAlexandros Liakopoulos

    Excellent work in bringing the essence of the political debate between Obama and Ronmey back to the center of the political discussion. While the American establishment and the rest of the world keeps on getting confused with appearance, body language, marketing-built profiles and public statements built in a voter-friendly manner that devalues the real questions of the world US agenda, you keep reminding the Western Society that manipulating its own over-production of Power, is neither Legal, nor Ethic (or legitimated).
    However, even your whole argument is quite apparent to anyone with a sense of morality and legality, we have to face the fact that we have entered a New Era of the Extremes, following the Decade of the Extremists of George Bush junior time. Therefore, while sanity and prudence get on the defense, the basic instincts of a Far-West society, where the "rule of the gun" prevails, come into force, without the legitimacy for such development - or even the inevitable consequences - being considered as important part for the overall equation of the White House agenda. This - as you bring in light in your last phrase - however, does bear with inevitable consequences, while, on their turn, inevitable consequences give the necessary ground for hatred to be cultivated, extremist groups to be created and so forth.

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