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2012 Fall Issue 5 (October 19, 2012)

When You Smell Flowers, Look For a Coffin

October 19, 2012
By Griffin Johnson

It always shocks me when I see somebody on TV who was born after 1995, you know? I’m like, Those people are in high school! They probably don’t even remember ska music! Is this what getting old feels like, seeing the charred, maimed corpse of a kid your sister’s age lying in the desert on CNN and realizing that all your friends—and possibly you—are going to vote the person who made it happen into the highest office in the country?

The radical Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was an American citizen, and an American robot turned him into red mist on a hill in northern Yemen last fall. His son Abdulrahman was also an American citizen. He was born in Denver on August 26, 1995, making him just shy of a month younger than my sister. He could not drink, vote, or volunteer for the military and statistically speaking he had probably not yet lost his virginity when an American robot vaporized him as he sat by a campfire in southeastern Yemen. He had been looking for his father. It might be pertinent to add that America isn’t at war with Yemen and that Congress has never given any form approval for military intervention there.

Since Obama took office the number of airstrikes by Predator drones has gone from 11 per year to 80 per year, largely in countries where America has no active combat troops. The targets of these strikes are one of an undisclosed number of people whose names are on secret “kill list.” The process whereby somebody gets on the kill list is absolutely opaque; all we know is that Obama oversees every name personally. But at least Guantanamo is transparent now, I suppose.

Eric Holder justified Anwar’s extrajudicial killing by saying that “due process” does not necessarily equal “judicial process,” i.e. that a close review of your files by a small number of government officials is every bit as rigorous as a public trial, which is a lie every bit as flagrant and appalling as “I don’t recall” or “I am not a crook” or “I did not have sex with that woman.” He didn’t justify Abdulrahman’s killing but I suppose we’re meant to assume that his first statement holds; after all, he was getting towards college-application age, so he must have expected his fate to be decided by an opaque review process. He knew what he was getting himself into.

Drone strikes are typically justified because they are “precise,” meaning that rather than a bomber or a squad of American soldiers flattening a whole village, we have laser-guided airplanes liquefying none but the evil, American citizens or not. That’s a ridiculous exaggeration, but even if it weren’t it still wouldn’t be an excuse, because the deaths, covert as they are, are only the most visible aspect of the trauma that the Obama administration has rained on the Islamic world.

In many villages in northwest Pakistan—the hardest-hit by the drones, and also typically some of the poorest in the country—the streets are riddled with missile craters, and the air is alive with the low buzz of unseen drones flying back and forth or hovering overhead. The noise might fade from hour to hour, but it never goes away, even at night, and people wake up screaming because they imagine it’s getting louder. Nobody can sleep.

Distrust and suspicion run rampant because, after all, if your neighbor has al-Qaeda connections that you don’t know about, then it is literally life-threatening to stand near them. It’s too dangerous for school or for proper weddings and funerals. It is utterly impossible to know if you are going to be instantly killed the next moment. Life is unending terror, and yes, to lampshade a familiar rhetorical maneuver, that is “terror” as in “terrorism.”

I will unblinkingly blame this on Barack Obama. His conscious and calculated reaction against Shock and Awe, against all the idiotic Bush-era flailing that America was so sick of by 2008, was to advocate for a new kind of war, war conducted with systematic oversight and rigor, war that would avoid the spectacular in favor of the practical, and that would compensate for human error by obliterating the human element entirely—replacing fallible American soldiers with a fleet of intangible white aircraft and the low buzz they emit. American power in Pakistan is disembodied; it’s an environment, a sensation, a sound, the low buzz of the drones. Can you imagine a meathead like George W. Bush or a joiner like John McCain instigating that kind of paradigm shift? No, it takes a liberal academic do that.

Bear in mind, though, that for all the conceptual change it’s undergone, we’re still fighting war the American way. The missiles the drones used to kill Abdulrahman al-Awlaki are called Hellfire missiles, which is the kind of idiotic name you’d expect Captain Keyes to drop in the first level of Halo. Our president, Harvard law professor and onetime poet that he is, still can’t get beyond the basic push-button idiocy that pervades American culture in its entirety—and so, while for Pakistani militants America might have transformed into an invincible, intangible force, for Americans at air force bases, Pakistani militants are just moving blotches of light on grainy black-and-white screens. The drone war is unending dread for its victims; for its perpetrators, for us, it’s a video game.

Moreover, a robot—even more so a noise—is a lot easier to hate than a human, so every new village we bomb and terrorize into sociopathy joins the growing crowd of people who don’t need to have any reservations to hate America because the only thing they’ve experienced of it is the low buzz of the drones, and that buzz sounds the same whether you’re in Pakistan, Yemen or the Philippines.

And the worst thing is that the left, or at least the bubbly leftist twentysomethings of Jezebel and Gawker, have utterly let Obama off the hook for making all of this happen. Obama’s administration has murdered American citizens without giving them trials and conducted a brutal shadow war that threatens to radicalize another generation of Central Asian islamists. It is disgusting, and it is disgusting that educated leftists continue to back him with their full energy. I don’t understand how the people who should be the toughest critics of any war can look completely past this one. Is it just because he listens to the Fugees and drives bumper cars that we can’t seem to let go of him?

Barack Obama is not your guy. He works in terms of realpolitik, not principles. The left should not be any different. If you vote for him, remember that you are voting less for a person than for an institution, and. if he is elected, recognize that you will need to manipulate that institution to get what you want. Nag. Scheme. Occupy, even. Whatever you do, do not let Obama off the hook, and above all be realistic. Idealism and loyalty are symptoms of laziness, and what we have to show for our laziness the last four years is a lot of craters in Waziristan.

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