The found poetry of state terror continues its strange mutilations of the English language. The bizarre verbal heavings of Donald Rumsfeld, for example, are rightly celebrated as choice examples of the genre. And noted English playwright David Hare once fashioned a whole play built largely on the “thought-tormented music” wrought from verbatim transcripts of the principal authors of the war crime in Iraq.
In this regard, as in almost every aspect of the Terror War, “continuity” has been the hallmark of the Obama Administration. But we would do the progressive, forward-looking president a grave disservice if we were to imply that this dynamic, historic figure has confined himself to mere continuity. No, in field after field of governmental endeavor, Barack Obama has striven mightily not just to uphold the many authoritarian and militarist innovations of the Bush Administration, but to expand them — increasing their scope and depth, codifying, normalizing and making permanent many practices which his predecessors had enshrouded with ambiguity, deception and deliberate murk. Bush and Cheney were afflicted with a vestigial embarrassment at the howling illegality and constitutional subversion of many of their Terror War policies, and seemed to fear these acts would provoke some kind of public outcry or political controversy — or even prosecution — should they be made too explicit.
But our cool, savvy and thoroughly post-postmodern president carries none of that dead lumber from our long-vanished past. Where Bush was content with smirks and hints about his assassination program, Obama is bold, sending his security chief to declare openly before Congress that the president now has the unrestricted right and power to murder anyone, Americans included, in cold blood, by the simple expedient of declaring his victim a suspected terrorist of some vague description. Whereas Bush and Cheney usually resorted to backroom bureaucratic knife-twisting or bombastic but empty public threats to try to silence and cow officials who expose high crimes of state, the Obama Administration brazenly brings down the draconian power of federal prosecution against whistleblowers. Our progressives-in-power will not just take away your government job or bluster at your editors if you give your fellow citizens a glimpse of the blood-soaked sausage-making that goes on behind the imperial curtain; no, they will put you in the penitentiary, to rot away with murderers and child abusers, which is where they rank all such treacherous tellers of truth.
So we should not be surprised to find the Obama Administration outstripping its mentors and models from the Bush years in the production of Orwellian nomenclature. Nor is it remarkable that these perversions of language are leading to further perversions of law, morality and plain common sense.
We refer to the recent story in the Los Angeles Times about the vast expansion of the CIA’s powers to murder people in Pakistan with missiles fired by robot drones. These remote-control killings were originally aimed at specific, known, named individuals suspected of being top “militant” leaders. But now, people are being targeted not because of any action they are known or alleged to have taken, but simply because they seem to fit an arbitrarily designated “pattern of life” — even if the remote-control killers don’t know the victim’s name.
This “pattern” is put together from clumps of data gathered by surveillance robots hovering high in the sky above Pakistani towns and villages, watching people as they go about their ordinary business, and from whatever bits of local gossip the CIA can glean from paid operatives raking through their neighbor’s private lives. Naturally, the CIA refuses to describe “the standards of evidence” by which it decides to kill unknown, defenseless people with missile strikes on houses, compounds and neighborhoods. And of course, the Agency claims it is targeting only “militants” (however that infinitely elastic term is being defined these days).
Yet at the same time, the Terror War operatives cannot resist boasting that they are sweeping up so much information that they can determine “the characteristics of individual people.” And since is it the pattern of observed daily life that yields the designation of a person as a “militant,” the CIA must inevitably be tracking countless numbers of innocent people as well. Otherwise, how could they discern specific “patterns of life” that indicate the existence of a hitherto unknown “militant” within a given population? You can only get such data by observing that population as a whole.
In other words, the program, for all its technological whizbangery, is essentially a crude KGB-style rape of the privacy of individual human beings, whose lives are a forced open book, with every action and interaction being judged by a remorseless spy, holding the power of life and death in his hands. People who act “suspiciously” — by unknown criteria, determined in secret — can be killed without warning, without trial, without charge, without even their names being known to their killers. But here, of course, our thoroughly modern president outstrips the KGB, which usually picked off its victims piecemeal, quietly, individually. Nowadays, we send heavy missiles screaming through the sky to destroy whole buildings and city streets in order to kill one unnamed, unknown suspect who has somehow exhibited the wrong “pattern of life.” In almost every case, many people — sometimes dozens — die with the victim, regardless of the “pattern of life” they displayed for the deadly peeping toms on the Potomac.
As the Times notes, this particular tactic of state terror was initiated in the last year of the Bush Administration, but has been greatly expanded and “even streamlined” by the Obama Administration. The result has been the deaths of hundreds of people. As the Times reports:
Of more than 500 people who U.S. officials say have been killed since the pace of strikes intensified, the vast majority have been individuals whose names were unknown, or about whom the agency had only fragmentary information. In some cases, the CIA discovered only after an attack that the casualties included a suspected terrorist whom it had been seeking.
The CIA was directed by the Bush administration to begin using armed drones to track Osama bin Laden and other senior Al Qaeda figures, as well as Taliban leaders who fled to Pakistan’s tribal areas after the Sept. 11 attacks.
President Bush secretly decided in his last year in office to expand the program. Obama has continued and even streamlined the process, so that CIA Director Leon E. Panetta can sign off on many attacks without notifying the White House beforehand, an official said.
Missile attacks have risen steeply since Obama took office.
Note the telling little details. In some cases, it is only after an attack that our CIA guardians (or more likely, their paid private contractors) discover there was a suspected militant among the smoking, stinking pile of dead bodies that their drones have left behind. And the “vast majority” of these officially claimed 500 victims (the true number of dead is much greater, of course) were killed on the basis of “only fragmentary information” at best. What’s more, the LAT reports that these deadly attacks are being carried out in Pakistan at the rate of one every three and a half days.
Let’s be clear. A program like this, conducted on such a broad and relentless scale, is in no way aimed solely at eliminating individual “militant leaders” or even “insurgent networks.” It is, quite demonstrably and unarguably, a terrorist campaign, designed to terrorize the target populations into acquiescence with the attacker’s agenda. Again, despite its use of advanced technology and sophisticated Orwellian techniques — Big Brother in the sky, with a bomb — it is no less primitive, morally and politically, than a carload of fireworks and fertilizer left to explode on a city street. The only result of the program will be to engender more hatred of the United States (and of the vaunted “civilized values” the United States purports to represent), and to provoke more retaliation, more bloodshed, more extremism.
This is the “pattern of death” that a system based on terror, violence and domination will inevitably produce. You can pervert the language that surrounds it, cloaking it with security-geek jargon, or fine phrases about freedom and security; you can tell jokes about it, turning stone-cold mechanized killing based on “fragmentary information” into a jolly jape to titillate sycophantic journalists and vacuous celebrities. You can do anything you like to disguise the reality of your terrorist campaign — but you cannot change that reality on the ground where it is occurring, nor stop the reverberations from your evil and idiotic actions from spreading their turbulence in ways you have never foreseen, and can never control.