"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
(updated below – Update II)
During the NSA eavesdropping controversy, Bush defenders insisted there was no harm from bypassing the FISA court because they were only eavesdropping on Bad Terrorists (who could possibly object to that?), which prompted this obvious, unanswerable question (one I asked here, among other places): if you really have so much evidence proving that the targets of your eavesdropping are Terrorists, then why not go show it to the court and get a warrant? After all, the more incriminating evidence you claim exists, the more (not less) reason there is to show it to a court. Similarly, during the controversy over Bush’s (and now Obama’s) detentions without due process, administration defenders insisted there was no need to charge the detainees or try them in a court because they were only imprisoning the-worst-of-the-worst, too-dangerous-to-release Terrorists (who could possibly object to that?), which prompted the same question: if there’s so much evidence proving they’re Terrorists, isn’t that even more of a reason to prove that in court?
Now that hordes of Obama defenders are running around justifying the President’s due-process-free assassination of U.S. citizen Anwar Awlaki based on exactly the same claim and mindset — our President targeted a Very Bad Terrorist, so no due process or disclosure of evidence was needed — the same question obviously arises: if there’s so much evidence showing that Awlaki was involved in plotting Terrorist attacks on the U.S. (as opposed merely to delivering anti-U.S. sermons protected by the First Amendment), isn’t that even more of a reason to have indicted him and charged him with crimes before killing him? Please watch this amazing video of ABC News‘ Jake Tapper persistently questioning a stonewalling, imperious White House spokesman Jay Carney about this issue; remember: he’s asking the White House what evidence justified the U.S Government’s targeting of its own citizen for assassination with no due process, and the White House is telling him: we have it in secret but don’t need to show anyone (via Robert P. Murphy):
That is the mindset of the U.S. Government and its followers expressed as vividly as can be: we can spy on, imprison, or even kill anyone we want — including citizens — without any due process or any evidence shown, simply because we will tell you they are Bad People, and you will trust us and believe us. That was absolutely the principal justification offered by Bush followers for everything their Leader did — I know they’re Terrorists because My President said so, so no courts or evidence is required – and that is now exactly the mindset of Obama loyalists to justify what he does (back in December, 2005, I described that defense as the ”Very Bad People” justification for lawless, due-process-free acts).
That mentality — he’s a Terrorist because my Government said he’s one and I therefore don’t need evidence or trials to subject that evidence to scrutiny — also happens to be the purest definition of an authoritarian mentality, the exact opposite of the dynamic that was supposed to drive how the country functioned (Thomas Jefferson: “In questions of power, let no more be heard of confidence in men, but bind him down from mischief with the chains of the Constitution“). I trust My President and don’t need to see evidence or have due process is the slavish mentality against which Jefferson warned; it’s also one of the most pervasive ones in much of the American citizenry, which explains a lot.
Providing evidence and proving their accusations is exactly the opposite of what Obama officials did in the Awlaki killing. Not only did they refrain from indicting this Obviously Guilty Terrorist Against Whom There is So Much (Secret) Evidence, but even when they were brought into court by the ACLU and CCR, they adhered faithfully to the Bush/Cheney playbook of invoking an array of procedural and secrecy arguments as to why they need not present evidence of Awlaki’s guilt before killing him. And rather than present evidence to the public, The Most Transparent Administration Ever did what it normally does in such cases: it ran to the media, usually anonymously, to justify its actions by — as Time put it — “dishing about classified intelligence which they say shows Awlaki was not just a YouTube inciter but also an operational planner for al Qaeda’s dangerous Yemen branch.” In other words: we have evidence to prove our accusations, but it’s secret and we won’t show it to you; instead, the media will go forth and dutifully assure everyone we said there is secret evidence and you’ll just trust us.
The reason they do this is because they know it will work: as the Bush years proved, the American population is well-trained to screech Kill Him!! the minute the Government points to someone and utters the word “Terrorist“ (especially when that someone is brown with a Muslim-ish name, Muslim-ish clothes, and located in one of those Bad Muslim countries). If Our Government Leaders say that someone named “Anwar al-Awlaki” — who looks like this, went to a Bad Muslim-ish place like Yemen, and speaks ill of America — is a Bad Terrorist, then that settles that. It’s time to kill him. Given those “facts,” only a “civil libertarian absolutist” would think that things like “evidence” and “trials” are needed before accepting his guilt and justifying his state-sanctioned murder.
This was absolutely the heart and soul of the Bush War on Terror: the President can do whatever he wants to anyone he wants — with no oversight, due process, or checks — because we’re at War and these are Bad Terrorists (says the President, unilaterally and in secret); again, read what I wrote back in December, 2005 about the justifications for the NSA eavesdropping program offered by Bush followers — or what I wrote about their justifications for merely imprisoning (rather than killing) a U.S. citizen without due process — to see how true that is. The heel-clicking, blind faith in secret, unproven accusations of the President that someone is a Terrorist is what drove support for Bush’s secret War on Terror excesses, and it is now exactly the mindset driving support for Obama’s killing of Awlaki.
That’s why — contrary to the conceit of Obama loyalists that conservatives would condemn him for the Awlaki killing — the most vocal praise has been heaped on Obama by the likes of Rick Perry, Dick and Liz Cheney, Mitt Romney, Bill O’Reilly, Newt Gingrich, Charles Krauthammer, and Bill Kristol. It’s also why the legal justification for Obama’s actions is being supplied by the likes of former Bush DOJ official Jack Goldsmith, whose views on the War on Terror and executive power led him to approve of Bush’s warrantless NSA eavesdropping program and to demand detention without charges.
It’s because, at least in this case, those right-wing warriors (in stark contrast to their Democratic Party “adversaries”) are being principled and consistent rather than changing their views based on which party controls the White House: they cheered for such actions and the authoritarian, lawless mindset behind them during the Bush years and they are doing so again now. They insisted no due process, checks or evidence were needed to justify President Bush’s actions against accused Terrorists back then, and they still think that way now about President Obama (the President says he’s a Terrorist, and therefore he is). That’s why, as I’ve argued before, Dick Cheney’s demand for an apology (expressed again this weekend) is not unreasonable: it is simply a fact that many of the actions for which he was so harshly condemned by Democrats and Obama himself (not all, but many) have become Democratic Party dogma under Obama, beginning with the notion that slogans such as We’re at War! and He’s a Terrorist! justify whatever the Leader does and dispenses with quaint, obsolete, pre-9/11 concepts like evidence, charges, trials and due process.
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Four related points:
(1) the most ignorant claim justifying the Awlaki killing is that he committed “treason” and thus gave up citizenship; there’s this document called the “Constitution” that lays out the steps the Government is required to take before punishing a citizen for “treason” (“No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court“); suffice to say, it’s not met by the President secretly declaring someone guilty backed up by leaked, anonymous accusations to the press;
(2) a new U.S. military study today finds that Awlaki’s killing won’t impede Al Qaeda’s operational capabilities, so for those of you worried that this killing might impede Endless War, don’t worry: like the bin Laden killing, Endless War will march on unimpeded; that’s why it’s called Endless War;
(3) in the wake of the Awlaki killing, the Obama administration, and the President himself, heaped praised on the Saleh regime in the midst of that regime’s slaughter of dozens and dozens of its own citizens; I suppose condemning Yemen for killing its own citizens while Awlaki’s corpse is not yet cold would be a bit too much even given the extremely permissive standards of American political rhetoric;
(4) some journalists and priests of the National Security State are now calling on the Obama administration to reveal the evidence proving Awlaki’s guilt; while that is certainly better than nothing, evidence presented in a one-sided manner that isn’t subject to review is the opposite of due process; even more so, the idea of executing a citizen and thereafter showing evidence of guilt is precisely what the Queen in Alice in Wonderland demanded when she decreed: ”Sentence first – verdict afterwards!” That we’re reduced to begging the government to at least comply with the standards of Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts is a potent an indicator of the depths to which we’ve fallen.
UPDATE: Shortly after publishing this, I saw that Matt Yglesias this weekend assured his readers about the Awlaki killing that “this militaristic aspect of Obamaism should be seen as a departure from Bush’s view of the terrorism problem”; in the wake of that killing, Andrew Sullivan similarly hailed Obama as the “Un-Bush.” Indeed: here’s Obama announcing that he has the power to kill any American citizen whom he secretly and without a shred of due process or oversight accuses of being a Terrorist, but he’s so very different than George Bush. Why, it’s almost like they’re from different planets.
There are some technocratic differences in the tactics they’ve used to prosecute the War on Terror, including those identified by Yglesias and Sullivan. But the day after Obama assassinates an American citizen without a shred of due process — based on the secret, unreviewed accusation that he’s a Terrorist — is a really bad time to try to convince people that he’s radically different than Bush in this area.
Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department last week incredibly admitted what was obvious all along: there is no legal basis for stripping Awlaki of the protections of citizenship:
While the Obama administration contends al-Awlaki’s U.S. citizenship didn’t prevent the CIA from targeting the alleged terror leader with a drone, the government didn’t have the right to take away that citizenship.
“It’s interesting,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at Friday’s daily briefing amid a barrage of questions on the airstrike that killed al-Awlaki in Yemen. Nuland said she asked State Department lawyers whether the government can revoke a person’s citizenship based on their affiliation with a foreign terrorist group, and it turned out there’s no law on the books authorizing officials to do so. “An American can be stripped of citizenship for committing an act of high treason and being convicted in a court for that. But that was obviously not the case in this case,” she said. “Under U.S. law, there are seven criteria under which you can strip somebody of citizenship, and none of those applied in this case.”
In other words: we wanted to strip Awlaki of his citizenship, but there’s no legal authority for us to do that, so we just went ahead and killed him. What a world apart from George Bush.
UPDATE II: I was interviewed about the Awlaki killing by Sam Seder earlier today for his show, and that discussion can be heard here.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)