Can we have empathy for our fellow citizens and our president, as well as those killed in drone wars? We have to
I pretty much always agree with the Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky. Just last week I hailed his article appraising Hillary Clinton’s political career (to date) as the best of a lot of great profiles. But I had just as strong a reaction, only this time a negative one, to his Wednesday piece on the Obama administration’s “white paper” on targeted killings of American citizens. It got me thinking more deeply about the debates I’ve been having with liberals and progressives on this issue over the last couple of years.
Tomasky opened by admitting that whenever he’s evaluating a politician’s actions, he’s always written “with part of my brain focused on the question of what I would do if I were in Politician X’s position. This line of thought came so naturally to me that I imagined everyone did this. But I guess everyone doesn’t.”
No, everyone doesn’t. I do sometimes, and not others. But it’s a worthwhile thought exercise. Tomasky continues, noting that he’d just read the targeted killing white paper, and:
It’s certainly not something that makes the breast swell with pride. But it does make me wonder what I would do in this situation, and I can’t honestly come up with easy answers.
Well, I’ll be honest: I can’t either. We all know there are no easy answers. We’re all forced to reason with the best information we’ve got and with our own values, and that includes President Obama. We assume, as Americans, that we share many values when we approach these questions; as liberals, we assume we share most values.
But maybe we don’t. Or maybe we don’t when it comes to evaluating liberal leaders’ decisions, anyway.
The person I always think about when I’m confronted with a question of state power, in terms of “what I would do in this situation,” is not the president, but the person targeted, and whether that person is wrongly accused. I thought about that person when George W. Bush was president, and when Dick Cheney was vice president, and I still think about him or her under Barack Obama.
I’m not saying this to guilt-trip Tomasky, who I’m sure thinks about the rights of the accused, including the wrongly accused, as he approaches these questions. But his argument made me wonder whether we lose some of our empathy with and concern for the powerless when we admire and identify with folks in power. We easily recognize that on the American right, which has come to reflexively favor the overdog, but I think it’s harder seeing it in ourselves on the left. But I’m seeing it.
I’m not mainly a critic of this country. I’m proud of it, and I have always winced at the casual anti-Americanism of much of the left, especially the antiwar left, whatever the war. I’m an oddball that way; it may be a vestige of my working-class Irish Catholic upbringing. But I’ve also always been clear about the enormous advantage and privilege we enjoy thanks to the sheer accident of being born in this country, in this time.
Virtually all Americans enjoy it, some vastly more than others, of course. Whatever our station, conscience requires that we occasionally engage in the exercise of thinking about what it would be like being born elsewhere, whether on an American Indian reservation or in a Chicago housing project or an Appalachian coal mining town. Or in rural Pakistan.
We remain the world’s superpower – or “the one indispensable nation,” as even liberals congratulate ourselves. That means remembering the old saying, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” We are obligated to think about the cost of “protecting” our people, and our interests (a much squishier question), and how much collateral harm we’re willing to cause to other people in the course of protecting ourselves.
There are (at least) two issues here: The use of drones generally, and their use to kill American citizens. Some values should apply to both. No doubt drone warfare is sometimes preferable to traditional combat – but can’t we debate when, and why? Isn’t it possible that removing the risk of losing American lives by using unmanned predators will make it easier for decision-makers to risk the lives of those who aren’t Americans? Shouldn’t we know more about when and why drone strikes are launched, as well as who’s been killed, at the cost of how much collateral damage, most important, the number of “non-combatants” — innocent people – who are killed?
On the question of targeting U.S. citizens: I’m proud of the extraordinary rights we enjoy as Americans, and I don’t know why so many people shrug at the notion that the president can abrogate those rights if he decides, based on evidence (which he doesn’t have to share) that you’re a terrorist. When it comes to Anwar al-Awlaki, who renounced his citizenship and made many public commitments to al-Qaida, those questions don’t keep me awake at night. But don’t we want assurances that the evidence against every citizen who winds up on that list is just as clear? Don’t we want more oversight, even after the fact?
We still don’t know enough about the drone strike that killed al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son; some U.S. accounts defined him as a male of military age who might have been a legitimate target, others as unintended collateral damage. Are we really not supposed to care about the truth?
I admit I’m disturbed by the controversy over the controversy over Obama’s mostly secret and badly defended targeted killing policy. Can it possibly be wrong to be asking questions? Does this really mark a bright line between Democrats who like and trust and support and root for the president, and those who allegedly don’t, because they want answers to some of these questions? I consider myself on both sides.
I got into a bit of a tangle about this in my last piece, when I tried to address a line of argument I saw on Twitter: that somehow questioning Obama on these issues reflected “white privilege.” The argument seemed to originate with someone I don’t follow or respect, and found its way into the timeline of someone I do, Goldie Taylor. I attributed an argument about this – that “selective outrage” over the targeted killing issue, not merely concern about it, could reflect “white privilege” – to Taylor, and she’s since told me I misconstrued her point. She declined to clarify it, and has since made her tweets private, so I can’t elaborate or untangle it now.
But I’ll apologize for what she says was misrepresenting her point of view, and address the point of view generally: I think almost all of us born here enjoy American privilege, and we should examine it when we look at the way our government protects our privilege globally. Obama’s most ardent defenders continue to insist that being concerned about targeted killing abroad somehow reflects insufficient concern for the rights of Americans neglected right here at home; I say it’s the job of people of conscience to care about all of it.
Finally, I raised Trayvon Martin in my last piece because other people had, on both sides of this targeted killing debate. Of course we can’t equate young men who actually fight for al-Qaida with young men who make the mistake of growing up poor in American cities, or growing up African-American in too many places. But we are obliged to notice when there are parallels between groups too often wrongly suspected of guilt. The New York Times piece exposing Obama’s secret “kill list” last May revealed that the administration likely undercounted its reported civilian casualties by categorizing all males killed, including minors, as “militants.” It presupposed that any young men in the vicinity of suspected terrorists must be “up to no good,” the Times explained.
Anyone who’s worked on criminal justice issues should recognize that as the mind-set too many urban cops have about young men they find in the vicinity of wrongdoing in poor American neighborhoods. Or the mind-set of George Zimmerman.
These are old debates, with new technology. Division over Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War split the civil rights and social justice movements of the mid-1960s, with good people on both sides of the issue. Labor leaders and even former pacifists like Bayard Rustin argued to stick with Johnson because of his anti-poverty and civil rights achievements; Dr. King famously came out against the war, and contended that the social justice movement had to concern itself with the rights of everyone, not just Americans. Almost 50 years later, history tells us King was right.
We won’t know who’s right in this debate for many decades. We already know that our war with al-Qaida is more just than our war with Vietnam, since they attacked us and killed almost 3,000 Americans on our soil. It’s possible future historians will tell us that President Obama only targeted our mortal enemies, with only the clearest of evidence, and that he prevented many American deaths that way. But we know that everyone involved in that ‘60s debate was right to at least have the debate. And that’s true this time around, too.
Joan Walsh is Salon's editor at large and the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America." More Joan Walsh.
More Related Stories
- Here come the tornado truthers. Already
- Peace Corps to allow gay couples to volunteer together
- Moore officials: Funds for "safe rooms" were held up by red tape
- Rand Paul: Congress should apologize to Apple, not the other way around
- Rescue crews race to find tornado survivors
- Looting in Oklahoma?
- Hundreds of low-wage federally contracted workers strike in D.C.
- Okla. mother's tearful reunion with her 8-year-old son
- New campaign compares gun control to anti-LGBT discrimination
- Study: Salt Lake City is gay parenting capital of the U.S.
- Inhofe and Coburn: Red state hypocrites
- Teen activist to meet with Abercrombie CEO
- Watch: Family emerges from storm shelter after tornado
- Must-see morning clip: Barackalypse Now
- Okla. tornado survivor reunited with dog trapped in rubble live on camera
- Is Pope Francis an exorcist?
- Oklahoma death count confirmed at 24, 9 children
- Frantic parents search for children in tornado's wake
- Crews dig through rubble after deadly tornado
- 51 killed in massive Oklahoma tornado
- Don't cry climate-change wolf
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11