Recognizing American privilege

Can we have empathy for our fellow citizens and our president, as well as those killed in drone wars? We have to

Topics: President Obama, Drones, American privilege, Kill Lists, Targeted killings, Drone Attacks, Editor's Picks, ,

Recognizing American privilegeA boy gestures to damage on a house caused by an air strike last year that was targeting al Qaeda-linked militants, in the southern Yemeni town of Jaar February 1, 2013. (Credit: Reuters/Khaled Abdullah Ali Al Mahdi)

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.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>