Losing the capacity for shame

Glenn Greenwald has the details of the drone killing that killed the 16-year old son of Anwar al-Awlaki, the son’s 17-year old cousin, and seven others while they were reportedly having a meal. The US government will no doubt spin some story to justify their action. The standard operation is to immediately put out some self-serving lies and not worry about them unraveling later, since few people worry about corrections once the initial impression has been made. Nowadays they don’t even have to bother doing that since the killing by a US drone of a US teenager by the US government aroused hardly any interest. Just another ho-hum event.

In fact, starting with Saddam Hussein’s sons and with Mohammed Gadafi being the latest, celebrating the deaths of whoever has been named a major enemy and exulting over the display of their brutalized corpses with whoops of triumph, akin to one’s favorite football team scoring a touchdown, has become the norm. Glenn Greenwald is worth quoting at length:

As I wrote previously, “no decent human being would possibly harbor any sympathy for Gadaffi, just as none harbored any for Saddam.” And it’s understandable that Libyans who suffered for four decades under his rule (like Americans after 9/11 or Muslims after years of violence and aggression in their countries) would be eager for vengeance. Nonetheless, and regardless of what one thinks about Gadaffi or the intervention, summarily shooting a helpless detainee in the head is one of the most barbaric acts imaginable — under all circumstances — but Gadaffi’s gruesome death nonetheless sparked waves of American jubilation and decrees of self-vindication this week.

It is difficult to articulate exactly why, but there is something very significant about a nation that so continuously finds purpose and joy in the corpses its government produces, while finding it in so little else. During the Bush years, I frequently wrote about how repetitive, endless fear-mongering over Terrorism and the authoritarian radicalism justified in its name was changing — infecting and degrading — not just America’s policies but its national character. Among other things, this constant fixation on alleged threats produces the mindset that once the government decrees someone to be a Bad Guy, then anything and everything done to them (or ostensibly done to stop them) is not merely justified but is cause for celebration. That was the mentality that justified renditions, Guantanamo, vast illegal domestic surveillance, aggressive war against Iraq, and the worldwide torture regime: unless you support the Terrorists and Saddam, how could you oppose any of that?

That character-degradation is produced at least as much by conditioning the citizenry to stand and cheer, to beat its chest, to feel righteous and proud, each time the government produces a new dead Bad Guy. Even at its most necessary and justified, the act of ending a human life with state violence should be a somber and lamentable affair. There’s something bloodthirsty about reacting ecstatically. To react that way when guilt is unproven (Awlaki), or when the person is unknown (most drone victims), or is killed by acts of pure barbarism (Gadaffi) is the mind of a savage. But it’s now been more than a decade since 9/11, and this has been the prevailing mentality in America continuously since then (to say nothing about the lengthy, brutal wars fought before that). What happens to a citizenry and a nation that so frequently erupts into celebratory dances over the latest dead body its government displays?

What’s perhaps most revealing about these death-celebrations are how reflexive — how visceral — they have become. For a President to claim the power to target his own citizens for death — and to do so in total secrecy, with no rules or oversight — is literally one of the most radical powers that a political leader can seize. The Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of “due process” was intended to prohibit exactly that, as was the Constitution’s heightened requirements for proving “Treason” in a court of law. Had George Bush seized this power, it would have led the list of progressive “shredding-the-Constitution” grievances against him. But all of that was washed away in the celebrations over Awlaki’s death, drowned out by the blind ritualistic war cry of He was Bad and so I’m glad he’s dead!

Constantly celebrating the people we kill — dancing over their corpses — is now one of the most significant and common American rituals shaping our political culture. One of the most consequential aspects of the Obama legacy is that this mentality has become fully bipartisan. And it’s hard to see how this will change any time soon: once one goes down that road, it’s very difficult to turn around and go back. That’s true both individually and of a nation.

Even the Los Angeles Times notes the remarkable expansion in the use of deadly force by Obama, saying:

For a president who promised to end the gunslinger ways of his predecessor, Barack Obama has proven himself comfortable with the use of lethal force… All told this year, he has sent U.S. troops into action on land or in the skies of seven countries on two continents.

Now he has added Moammar Kadafi to the list of enemies eliminated.

“This comes at a time when we see the strength of American leadership across the world,” Obama said from the White House Rose Garden, tabulating his achievements with language that betrayed a trace of bravado.

Our Nobel Peace Prize-winning president Obama is really on a roll now, deliberately killing foreigners and US citizens with abandon. And as the deaths of al Awlaki’s son and nephew indicate, even adolescents and children are fair game. As Jacob Hornberger says, “The assassination of 16-year-old American Abdulrahman al-Awlaki confirms that we now live in a country whose government has the unfettered authority to assassinate anyone it wants, adult or minor, foreigner or American, and remain mute about it.”

Amy Davidson wonders in The New Yorker how far along we have to go on this road of celebrating the killing and imprisoning of even children and adolescents before we begin to ask ourselves who or what we have become. How young must the victims get before we recoil in horror? At long last, have we no shame?

UPDATE: Rick Santorum raises the ante saying that the US should actually cold-bloodedly murder any scientist who may be working on nuclear weapons programs for countries the US or Israel does not like. And this person is seeking the presidential nomination of a major party.

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