"No, Charlotte, I'm the jury now. I sentence you to death."
The roar of the .45 shook the room. Charlotte staggered back a step.
"How c-could you?" she gasped.
"It was easy."
- Mickey Spillane, I, The Jury
The news that Barack Obama -- a Constitutional scholar and recipient of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize -- has taken personal charge of lethal US drone hits in Yemen and Pakistan is one of those stories that takes time to sink in.
The New York Times stresses how serious the issue has become. "With China and Russia watching, the United States has set an international precedent for sending drones over borders to kill enemies." It's no longer a cool video-game experiment; it's the beginning of robot warfare, and, if history is a lesson, it will have unanticipated consequences and our enemies will learn to counter the weapon with imaginative weapons of their own, including drones. We should expect to be surprised and blindsided. Martin Luther King spoke of it as a futile rising cycle of violence.
Exactly how many non-combatants and innocent people are being killed is the big question. There's no way to know. One, there's a pathological level of secrecy in our militarized government and, two, we can't believe a word the government says anyway.
The President's counterterrorism adviser John Bennan, for example, makes the preposterous claim that "not a single non-combatant has been killed in a year of strikes." The Times interviewed former intelligence officials familiar with the issue and they "expressed disbelief." It recalls the days during the Vietnam War when all Vietnamese corpses were VC.
A US drone and an angry man protesting US drones on the street in Sanaa, Yemen by unknown
We know of entire families killed in Yemen, as reported by Jeremy Scahill. And Britain's Sunday Times reports since Obama began the campaign, 300 to 500 civilians have been killed, more than 60 of them kids.
Back in the sixties, during Operation Rolling Thunder, Lyndon Johnson took personal charge of targeting for the aerial bombing of North Vietnam. And George W. Bush was notorious for the little check-off list squirreled away in his desk drawer of men he wanted whacked. So the idea of a US President personally overseeing hits like a gang boss is not that novel. What's new is the means of killing and the fact Mr. Obama is so lawyerly about it.
We're told it's a matter of the President manning-up and taking responsibility for a morally gray activity. A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. It's lonely at the top. He's reportedly reading up on Just War Theory and other international legal precedents. But Alberto Gonzalez, John Yoo and Harriet Miers set the tone for this a decade ago, when all a President had to do was dial up the OLS, the Office of Legal Sophistry.
"You want language saying it's legal to whack somebody? No problema! We'll send it right up." Since it was coming from the White House, who in government was going to question it? Clarence Thomas?
Our Constitutional law professor President has already broken legal ground by ordered the drone hit in Yemen of a US citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki. In this case, the legal sophistry needed to maneuver around the Constitution was done by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, which prepared a memo, according to The Times, "asserting that while the Fifth Amendment's guarantee of due process applied, it could be satisfied by internal deliberations in the executive branch."
Mike Hammer in I, the Jury liked to make the same kind of "internal deliberations" before he whacked somebody. But, then, Hammer was a brute and didn't give a damn about Just War Theory.
The Kid From Jakarta
The part of Obama's memoir that takes place in Jakarta has always fascinated me. His Indonesian stepfather, whose family had been insurgents against brutal Dutch colonial forces, took the young Barack under his wing and, aware of his vulnerability on the streets of Jakarta, taught him how to fight to protect himself.
I think it's fair to surmise the fighting techniques he was taught were more "Asian" in character than the standard, head-on American pugilistic approach. One might also put it this way: John McCain fights like an A-4 Skyhawk coming in at 1,000 feet and Barack Obama fights like a man taught as a kid to fight on the streets of Jakarta.
This kid from Jakarta, then, educates himself in US Constitutional Law and becomes a legal fighter, figuring out the law and the angles for manipulating it and getting around it. Incredibly, he figures out how to get himself elected President of the United States of America.