Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 3 September 2014

Truth hits home for US in high-stakes game of drones

Pain barrier: heartbreak as people come to terms with the aftermath of the Boston marathon blasts
Pain barrier: heartbreak as people come to terms with the aftermath of the Boston marathon blasts

Scarcely had the smoke cleared from Monday's atrocity in Boston but President Obama was back playing the game of drones.

The attack on the city's marathon had been "an act of terror", he declared. But make no mistake: the full weight of American justice would fall upon the perpetrators.

The human detail was horrendous. No one of ordinary sensitivity can have failed to feel a shudder of sorrow and pity at accounts of eight-year-old Martin Richard – killed by the blast as he ran back to his mother and sister after cheering his father over the finishing line.

And there was the second bomb, obviously deliberately intended to kill people hurrying to tend to the injured and dying. "How does anyone become that evil?" asked Washington columnist David Freddoso yesterday.

Freddoso, like most Americans and most others, was evidently unaware that follow-up bombing is standard practice in US strikes against suspected terrorists in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere. The military term is "double-tap".

Since coming to office, Obama has authorised more than 300 drone attacks in Pakistan alone, killing at least 3,000 people, including as many as 1,000 civilians, of whom 176 have been confirmed by aid and human rights agencies as children.

The US is not at war with Pakistan. So whence comes Obama's legal or constitutional authority to order the bombing of its territory and the killing of its citizens?

A 16-page memo – titled simply The White Paper – leaked to NBC News in February sets out the administration's justification for strikes against presumed al-Qaida operatives abroad, including US citizens, such as Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, killed by drones in Yemen, in spite of never having been indicted for any crime.

The precedent cited is the Nixon/Kissinger bombing of Cambodia in 1969. But one difference between then and now is that the Cambodia bombing caused consternation within Nixon's administration.

One senior State Department official, William Watts, point-blank refused an order from Kissinger to co-ordinate information on the effect of the attacks, because he wasn't convinced the action had a sound legal basis. Kissinger told him: "Your views represent the cowardice of the Eastern establishment."

Pulitzer Prize-winner and New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis described Watts then "coming towards Kissinger as if to strike him", before turning and walking out of the office. Minutes later, Watts's written resignation was delivered into Kissinger's hand.

Watts was then confronted by Kissinger's top military aide, Alexander Haig, shouting, "You can't resign. You've just had an order from your commander-in-chief." Watts retorted: "F*** you, Al. I just did." Two other Kissinger aides – Anthony Lake and Roger Morris – also quit.

The point is, can anyone imagine any of those smart, plausible, progressive people who surround Obama taking such a principled stance today?

Roger Morris had no compunction back then about publicly declaring that bombing countries with which the US was not at war was criminal and, coming from people who waxed eloquent about the rule of law and the sanctity of life, shamingly hypocritical.

Where are his equivalents today? All too busy, perhaps, finessing their boss's nicely calculated expressions of concern at the three murders on Monday?

It has been a striking feature of Obama's presidency that opposition to his military adventures has mainly come not just from the Right, but from some who are regarded as the Ridiculous Right.

Six weeks ago, Tea Party Republican Rand Paul mounted a 13-hour filibuster in the Senate, delaying the nomination of new CIA chief John Brennan in protest against Obama's refusal to say straight that it would be illegal for the president to order the drone-killing of an American citizen on US soil. Is this not astonishing? And astonishing that it hasn't sparked hullaballoo? Can Obama not acknowledge in his mind that the family, the friends, the neighbours of adults and children blown to bits by American bombs are likely to be as angered by the cruelty and loss as he has been by the murder of young Martin Richard?

Does it not occur to him that this is among the main reasons for the hatred of the US which drives so much terrorism in today's world?

He is a learned man who has said he loves Shakespeare. Perhaps he should re-read The Merchant of Venice, Act III, Scene I.

Shylock: "If you prick us, do we not bleed?/If you tickle us, do we not laugh?/If you poison us, do we not die?/And if you wrong us, do we not revenge?/If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that."

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