Following up on last night’s post on drones, the “war on terror,” and the leaked memorandum purporting to justify targeted killings of Americans working for al Qaeda and related groups, my friend Quad City Pat alerted me to this post by Bob Cesca on The Daily Banter. It’s a well-reasoned, calm, rational discussion of a topic that seems to make a lot of people’s heads explode, which makes it extraordinarily unusual these days.
Cesca takes a slightly different approach to the administration’s policy than I do, but I can’t say I disagree with his conclusions. And as I attempted to do last night, he points out the huge difference between the “war on terror” and previous wars where Americans may have risked death if they fought against their own country:
But those wars were finite, with clear goals and well-defined endings. The war on terrorism appears to be perpetual, as there will always be terrorists no matter what we do or how many drones we launch. Therefore there’s no justification for an endless war in which American citizens can be targeted for execution. And this memo makes a case for such a plan: killing anyone who’s accused of committing or plotting to commit a crime in a vaguely-defined war.
This, to me, is the crucial point: It’s not that Americans who go to war with America are somehow insulated from the normal risks of war – which is to say, being, you know, killed in war. It’s that this isn’t even recognizable as a war; not, in any event, as that term has been understood since, well, forever. It’s not just a war without end. It’s a war that our government thinks it can fight anywhere, against anyone, without having to adhere to the normal legal standards for going to war, waging war, or ending war.
On the one hand, you could look at the leaked “white paper” as a slight advancement in terms of protecting Americans working the wrong side of this conflict, because in a traditional war, if you join up with the other side, you’re treated just like any other enemy soldier in battle. Here, the government is saying that it’ll be extra cautious when it comes to doing to Americans what it does to other members of al Qaeda. It’ll first make sure that those Americans are “senior operational leader[s]” of al Qaeda or an affiliated group, and that they are “actively engaged in planning operations to kill Americans.” Meaning, I guess, it won’t just blow the hell out of some location where Americans are chilling with al Qaeda without first trying to determine whether the Americans meet those criteria. But the perceived need for this approach stems not just from the potential controversy involved in killing Americans, but from the very nature of the conflict itself: It’s open-ended, ill-defined, poorly conceived … and almost always involves attacking hard-to-find targets located in the middle of civilian populations.
It’s a war, but it’s impossible to fight without a huge risk to civilian life and property, it’s extremely difficult to figure out whom we’re fighting and where they’re located, and oh, yeah, there may be some Americans who have some sort of relationship with other side. Hence the need for extra-special precautions. At least when Americans are involved.
In any event, Cesca’s piece goes on to discuss the inherent dangers in allowing any president to have these kinds of powers in this kind of war, especially following eight years of abuse and erosion of civil liberties courtesy of George Walker Bush and his merry band of thieves:
Today — right now — we’re passing through the point of no return on the war on terrorism, and it’s urgent that we at least try to wrap things up. Otherwise, we’re going to careen recklessly into a very, very dark and unconstitutional place. This president — the president who killed Bin Laden and shattered much of al-Qaida’s leadership — has the power and anti-terrorism political capital to end all of this madness. If we’re lucky, the leaking of the drones memo will be the inciting incident that leads us back to a place where endless war is quaint artifact of an overzealous and fearful time in American history.
Even if you don’t share Cesca’s concern that we’re passing the point of no return, certainly he’s correct that the “war on terror” has led to absurd results – not the least of which is this business of targeting Americans. While I’m more concerned about the conduct of this inane war in general, I think it’s way past time we talk about these issues like grown ups. Posts like Bob Cesca’s do that. And nobody’s head has to burst into flames.