5/12/10: See the update to this post in light of the attempted bombing in Times Square.
In Pulp Fiction, gangster Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) recites a pseudo-biblical verse about righteousness to people who have wronged his boss, just before he delivers a bullet to their heads. “… I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you…” They’re bloody deeds (hey, it’s Tarantino), but the little speech about justice he always recites beforehand emboldens him to go on killing.
That was in a movie studio. In the White House briefing studio, the President’s press secretary acknowledges the killing of evildoers with U.S. Predator drones, but usually puts it in less assassination-ey, more humanitarian terms, like “We provide assistance to the Pakistanis as they increase their efforts …” blah blah blah. (I think he actually said “blah blah blah” but it was edited for the transcript.)
“… And if you trust the current president not to abuse this power, can you trust the next one? (Think, ‘Aww shucks,’ with an Alaskan accent.)”
Now, the killing of evil people on the ground from a silent, invisible force in the sky used to only be the work of an omnipotent “man in the sky” (if you believe in that sort of thing). But in 2010, mortal Americans do these dirty, deistic deeds quite regularly, reducing other humans to piles of flesh and bones with the touch of a button.
It goes something like this: A man in a clean-pressed uniform walks into an oval office in the eastern United States, has a few words with another man in a clean-pressed suit, and makes a phone call to an office building where someone who rocks at video games tells a remote-control drone circling a dry region on the other side of the planet to drop two Hellfire missiles onto someone else’s head.
President Obama approved more of these drone strikes in his first year as president than George W. did in his entire eight. (Not that Bush deserved the Peace Prize, the technology just wasn’t as widespread yet.) If that put fewer American troops at risk, that would be a good thing, but there’s strong evidence such targeted killings don’t injure the terrorist groups they’re supposed to, while the collateral damage of innocents turns regular people into radicals (ergo, more troops at risk). A popular Pakistani song says that Americans “kill people like insects.”
Imagine what American Tea Party activists — or even leftist pacifists — would want to do to Pakistanis if they continually incinerated selected Americans driving around Washington, D.C. or Texas by high-tech gadgets controlled from Islamabad, while regular Pakistanis wolfed down McDonalds and flocked to the latest James Cameron movie barely aware America even exists. There would be angry demands to nuke the place. (Fun fact: Pakistan is one of eight or so states known to also have nuclear weapons.)
What’s more, the Obama administration has now approved the killing of an American citizen accused of plotting terrorism. They’re apparently consoled by the fact that this American is in Yemen rather than Yorktown and that his name is not Al, but Al-Awlaki. Neither of these distinctions matters to the Constitution, but if enough Americans shrug and assume the man is better off dead, well then at least it’s not a political problem for the president.
Decisions about which American citizens to vaporize from the sky and which to allow home for dinner would be easier if we knew for certain which ones were plotting chaos. I mean, if hearing the word “terrorist” or seeing photos of the World Trade Center is enough to make you agree to tear up the Constitution, then knowing that Al-Awlaki is “evil men,” in Jules’ words, might be enough for you to say, “waste him,” and then go home for meatloaf.
But outside the movies and outside the briefing room, things are never so clear. On Mondays and Wednesdays we hold hearings into how intelligence agencies got X, Y, or Z wrong, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays we accept their guesses at face value. We just got a rare look at how one targeted killing went down in Iraq, when WikiLeaks released a video showing the aerial slaughter of more than a dozen people in Iraq from an Apache helicopter. At least one of the killed was thought to be an insurgent. Apparently his camera (he was a Reuters journalist) appeared to be a gun, from the point of view of the Apache’s gunsights.
But even if there were no fog of war — if we had perfect intelligence, and knew who has an RPG and who has a Nikon, and whether assassinating person X would increase the violence in region Y — there’s still a big reason to stop these sky-killings cold. If there’s a hard and fast law in Political Science, it’s that extraordinary powers will eventually be abused. It’s simply too easy, and maybe too tempting, for a president without a strong moral compass to use such attacks to project toughness and success for political gain, if other aspects of war aren’t going so well. As to whether the victims were guilty or not, we would never know. (Pop challenge to Tea Party members: If you distrust government so much, how come you’re willing to take its word on everything it does outside the United States?)
And to see the wide potential for abuse of a power like the discretionary killing of an American citizen, you only need to think back to the extraordinary lengths the Nixon administration went to in going after political enemies like Martin Luther King, Jr. If you’re a thorn in the side of the president, you might think twice about traveling in countries Americans don’t care about. And if you trust the current president not to abuse this power, can you trust the next one? (Think, “Aww shucks,” with an Alaskan accent.)
Without due process, accusations of terrorism, conspiracy, or other evil never need defending. Any president who wanted to use the power of the Predator could abuse it. The missiles reside in the sky, and the responsibility nowhere.
Later in the movie, Jules renounces killing and repudiates his own past righteousness: “That sh*t ain’t the truth. The truth is you’re the weak. And I’m the tyranny of evil men.”
When you’re quoting Tarantino to make a moral point, you know the world is upside down.
Political Relief sat down with outgoing President George W. Bush for one last interview…
Political Relief: Mr. President, looking back on your eight years in office, a lot of people who criticized your policies early on, and were attacked for it, are now looking at the results and saying, “Here’s the evidence. Here’s the cost and the damage of policies that are anti-regulatory, anti-environment, unconstitutional, divisive,” and so on. How can you defend your decisions when their consequences — huge deficit, an economy in critical condition, a weakened military, two unfinished wars, etc. — are so plain?
George W: Well, what I would say to them is that, I was never afraid to make the decision. And they were tough decisions. See, when you’re President you get lists of choices, from your advisers, and you get to pick one, you have to pick. And it’s not easy. But I want history to remember that I made the tough decisions. Whatever you say about how bad the decisions were, fact is I wasn’t afraid to make them.
PR: Like the Iraq War?
“Remember, President Nixon made some unpopular decisions — and now he’s no longer considered the worst president.”
GW: Yeah, like Iraq. Like my decision to ask my secretary to borrow her TV when Dick [Cheney] was out for a few hours. So I could watch the news and find out whether they had found the WMD’s in Iraq — that was a tough decision.
PR: Tough because–
GW: Well tough, because, you know … Well, you ain’t seen the Vice President when he finds out I’ve been watching the news.
And when I found that the American people weren’t going to back an invasion if there were no WMD’s — well, I acted on that intelligence, see? A President can’t be afraid to act — I had the Secretary of State tell people that if we don’t invade, one of those nucular bombs that Saddam didn’t have might grow into a mushroom.
PR: Mushroom cloud?
GW: Yeah. But, you know, I don’t make any excuses, don’t blame anyone else for things that happened on my watch. Is that what you’re asking me? Whose fault …?
PR: Uhh, no, I’m–
GW: Well if you want to know whose fault, it was the media, the elites, Hollywood, Bill Clinton, the UN, France, Europe, and . . . and the media.
See, some critics — you know, they like to hear themselves talk — some of them were critical of my decision to use the Constitution to help in the war on terror. It’s real easy, with perfect hindsight, to sit here and say, you know, Mr. President, maybe using the original copy of the Constitution to test the new shredders over at Homeland Security wasn’t the best use of that document. I’ve heard the criticisms — “they could have tested them on other paperwork,” “it’s our nation’s founding document,” blah blah blah. But I’ve never been afraid to make the tough decisions. And choosing between the Constitution and giving us more power was a tough decision. Therefore it was the right decision.
PR: Mr. President, one thing many people will remember about the Bush years is FEMA’s failure to act after Hurricane Katrina, and the neglect of the levees that led to the –
GW: Well hold on there, I just, that’s — I disagree with that assessment.
PR: That people will remember you for neglecting the–?
GW: No, no, that FEMA didn’t do a good job and the levees didn’t hold. I just — I disagree with that.
PR: Mr. President, the failure of the levees was well documented, by multiple–
GW: Listen, media has an agenda, see. And that’s fine, they’re just good folks doing their jobs. But this idea that somehow, that this hurricane hit New Orleans and the levees broke and … That’s just — I disagree with that assumption.
And people need to understand, we’re fighting an enemy. An enemy that would like to destroy us. The people who you’re talking about, you know, the Monday morning quarterbacks. What they don’t understand is that we’re in a post-9/11 world. Make no mistake about it, there is an enemy out there that would do us harm.
PR: Are we still talking about the levees?
GW: Uhh, yeah.
PR: I see.
Moving on, what do you say to Democrats who wanted to increase the country’s energy independence? The U.S. is still at the mercy of Saudi Arabia and OPEC and–
GW: What they need to understand is, we’re fighting an enemy, that means to do us harm.
PR: Well exactly, Mr. President. Getting off of oil would have cut our support for some of these extremist regimes in the Middle East.
GW: Well, look at my State of the Union address in 2006. If anyone doubts I understood the problem they can refer to my speech.
PR: But what did you actually do, to boost wind, solar, and such?
GW: Well, another time Dick was out and I snuck a look at the TV, they were saying that high gas prices and an economy in shock were making people drive less. So yes, I guess you’re right, I did help cut the country’s oil costs.
PR: You’ve said before that you think your presidency won’t look so bad hundreds of years from now. Why do you think that?
GW: Well, you know, pain . . . Things wear off after a while, that’s a fact. You know, the people who lost their homes, their pensions, maybe their loved ones and so forth — things may feel bad right now, but in 100, 200 years, they won’t remember things as clearly. And then, you know, it’ll be a question of, he-said-she-said. Was the President responsible for FEMA and not maintaining the levees, or was it, you know, maybe a local Democrat, or maybe a terrorist car bomb blew up the levees? So a lot can change.
As for Iraq, all the liberal media wanna focus on is people, you know, the misery and the suffering of the Iraqi people. But historians, what they’ll remember is not whether we achieved this objective or that mission, whether my decisions were sound and so forth, but whether I made those decisions in the first place.
You see, in a few years, kids’ history books will be saying — I’m sure they’ll put it better than this, but — “President Bush got Congress to authorize war in Iraq, and it didn’t matter whether he told some untruths along the way, what matters is that he decided to do what he thought he needed to do to get the country to agree with him.” In other words, you see, he made a decision.
Remember, President Nixon made some unpopular decisions — and now he’s no longer considered the worst president.
And think about Vietnam — thirty years ago, that was an unpopular war.
PR: And now…?
GW: Besides, I’m not trying to win Miss Popularity contest. It’s not about whether you’re popular in California but whether you did the right thing. Look at Chairman Mao in China. I can tell you, after the Cultural Revolution, the famine and all that, he wasn’t exactly loved by the media.
PR: What about your own party’s dissatisfaction with you? A lot of conservatives note that you weren’t very conservative — you increased the national debt, overstretched the military, bailed out failing institutions, –
GW: Listen, those guys were only too happy to go along with it all when they thought they could cash out after I left office. Between you and me — this is between you and me, right? — all this stuff, the bad debt and so forth — my guys told me all this wouldn’t surface till Hillary was in office. None of this was supposed to happen. On my watch.
PR: I guess my question is, how can you maintain your position that your presidency was a success when it’s not just the Democrats, most Americans, most of the world, and so on, who say you were a disaster, but most Republicans, too?
GW: Well my philosophy is, if so many people are critical of you, you must be doing something right. Right?
PR: I see.
GW: Besides, I been getting a lot of thank-you’s from my party for appointing Roberts and Alito to the Supreme Court. Those two’ll make sure Republican philosophy keeps wreaking benefits long after I leave D.C.
PR: You mean, “conservative” philosophy, not “Republican,” right?
GW: Uh, yeah.
PR: I’d like to ask you about that. What was behind your nomination of your own lawyer, Harriet Miers, for associate justice?
GW: Heh, well that’s a funny story. Some of my staff and me were kicking around a few ideas when someone, I think it was Dick [Cheney], suggested it would be good to have another friend on the Court if we ever get into trouble for, you know, some of those things we did. We all had a good laugh, but Dick, he was serious. So I said, OK, let’s try it. But my own senators kind’a abandoned me on that one. Like this one time, when I was in the Guard, my pals dared me to go– Ahh, nevermind. That’s not really…
PR: Have you made any mistakes during your presidency? Some have said that failing to regulate Wall Street led to–
GW: I’m not afraid to admit mistakes — I’ve made some. You know, my grammar … it isn’t perfectual. Umm, I’ve regretted not banning some reporters from the briefing room sooner, ahh — the question again?
GW: Yeah, well, the “Mission Accomplished” banner on the aircraft carrier in the early days of the Iraq war was obviously a mistake.
PR: Because the war was actually increasing our exposure to terrorism and–
GW: Because it became a symbol of what, you know, that people thought we were out of touch with reality. If we hadn’t used that banner, or you know, if we’d picked a better font or something, the media wouldn’t have had anything to wave in our faces and say, “See?” and basically just, you know, showing us we were somehow wrong or something.
I guess my other mistakes is that I’m a perfectionist. Maybe I try too hard, you know, protecting America.
PR: One last question, Mr. President, on that topic — protecting America — most scientists think that global warming is a huge threat to the country, but note you’ve failed to do anything about it. In 20 years time that may look like a bigger failure than the war in Iraq.
GW: Listen, global warming, that was Al’s [Gore] issue, and don’t forget who won more votes. Plus, if I had done something to make global warming go away the guys in Energy would’a laughed at me. See, when you’re President, you have to maintain respect, gotta be someone that people look up to.
PR: The guys at Energy — you mean, the Department of Energy?
GW: No, the energy industry. Let’s just say I have friends in some pretty high places.
Anyway, global warming sounds pretty scary and me, I don’t like to scare people with stories about these outside threats that could do us harm. That’s another thing, when you’re President, you have to avoid fear. You have to look strong.
Besides, I’m doing the next guy, this O’bama man, a favor. When global warming takes off it’s going to really help some parts of the economy prosper. Like anyone who builds levees or does taxidermy. They’re going to have some good years.
So back to your question, am I worried? Not at all. Some people may criticize now, but in 50 years people will look around at everything and you know what? They’re going to say to themselves, “Thank you, George W. Bush.”
The preceding interview is fiction, but truth is often stranger. Read these real reflections from the outgoing President:
The transcript of the President’s final press conference, Jan. 12.
Excerpts from ABC interview.
So many failures have occurred on President Bush’s watch and there’s no sign of them letting up yet (the latest being a massive Ponzi scheme that Bush’s SEC failed to investigate). So it’s understandable that the President would like to trumpet one of his successes while reporters are still nodding and pretending to care what he says.
Judging by his speech at the Army War College, Bush seems to have settled on the story that he “prevented another terrorist attack” on the country.
I doubt any reporter stood up and ask why he didn’t do more to prevent the first one (like, for instance, react somehow to the briefing he received titled, “Bin Laden Determined To Strike in US”). Those who ask such questions, of course, don’t go far as White House correspondents.
Taking credit for something that hasn’t happened is a tricky thing. If I’m at a bank and I stop a robber from holding it up, can I take credit? What if it’s because he already emptied his weapon into six people and he simply ran out of bullets? Or because the thug killed so indiscriminately that his own accomplice turned on him?
Then there’s the fact that terrorism by no means stopped after Bush began his “anti-terror” war — the incidents actually increased; they merely occurred in other places, farther away from the offices of ABC and the New York Times. How do you take credit for protecting Americans when you send them into the fire of a new war somewhere else, and then through cockiness and ignorance get more of them killed than died in the original terrorist attack which the new war was supposed to be about (but wasn’t)?
President Bush would have better odds getting people to remember him as Protector of America if he hadn’t shown such a lack of urgency in protecting one of its cities, New Orleans (which, by the way, was attacked by a natural, predictable threat that announced itself several days in advance).
Perhaps another concerted attack was not launched on America because the President delivered his people closer to the terrorists, letting them save on airfare and the risk of getting caught at the border.
But, President Bush would argue, though he got a lot of people killed he still protected our freedoms. By any measure he eroded those freedoms himself, through numerous executive orders and Patriot Acts one and two. Our freedoms were never at risk from terrorists, only from ourselves. But Bush would take credit for preventing terrorists from taking away our freedoms even as he surrendered them himself!
Somehow I don’t think military tacticians will be studying the brilliance of that strategy years from now.
“The best [President Bush] can hope for is to sit down in front of his computer once a week and make small edits to his entry on Wikipedia.”
And finally, there’s the intelligence finding that Al Qaeda plans attacks years in advance. Unfortunately, they may merely be in a planning phase rather than out of commission. There’s just no way to know. They could strike tomorrow, next year, or never again. If Bush’s Presidency had ended on September 10, 2001, could he have left office claiming he protected America?
Realistically, what President Bush asks the country to remember him by will have little effect on what appears next to his mug in the history books. Reality, denied by him for so long, is simply too heavy for him to move.
The best he can hope for is to sit down in front of his computer once a week while someone else writes his memoirs and make small edits to his entry on Wikipedia.
Dear Ms. Manners: How long is it appropriate to wait before attempting to rewrite history?
Â -Wounded in Washington
Barack Obama won the presidency because the media have a liberal crush on him. Poor John McCain never had a chance.
That’s the conclusion of many in the media (and, oddly, of Howard Kurtz, media watchdog for the Washington Post). To be fair, Kurtz and others usually don’t come right out and say, “Biased coverage delivered the White House to Barack Obama.” Kurtz, for one, just parrots the conclusions of particular studies, which rate and compare the news coverage of McCain and Obama.
For example, “Obama had a 2-to-1 lead in evaluations of the candidates’ policies and proposals.”
The implication of these stories is that the media were unfair to McCain and infatuated with Obama.
The assumption — never admitted, or even stated — is that the media should cover both candidates equally positively and equally negatively. By this logic, if CBS is going to criticize one of McCain’s policies, they should attack one of Obama’s, and vice-versa.
Think about what this would mean.
It would mean that a network’s analysis of a candidate shouldn’t be based on what that candidate has actually said or done, but on what the network has already said about the other candidate. If MSNBC’s Chris Matthews praised Obama’s energy policy, he should praise McCain’s energy policy too, or even the score in some other way — by lying and saying his choice of running mate showed courage and good judgment, for instance.
“…McCain could have proposed a tax cut on Hummers, and criticism of this too would have been unfair…”
When gas prices were skyrocketing and John McCain proposed a “gas tax holiday,” the media did what they’re supposed to — they interviewed economists, energy analysts, environmentalists, conservatives, and so on, and reported what they said. And most of these sources happened to be critical, saying it seemed like a political maneuver inconsistent with McCain’s past positions on energy, that it would be expensive and counter-productive, that it wouldn’t reduce fuel prices much, and so on.
(They also interviewed those who thought it was a swell idea, and if anything, gave these voices more airtime than their numbers warranted.)
But criticism of McCain’s gas tax holiday would count as unfairly negative coverage to Kurtz’s crowd. McCain could have proposed a tax cut on Hummers, and criticism of this too would have been unfair, unless they pretended Obama’s plan was equally dumb.
On the other side of the coin, in this la-la land of identical grading, the positive coverage Obama received was also unfair. (I’ll put aside, for now, all the negative coverage Obama did get, for the sins of others like Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers.) To some, who may have progressed past overt racism to a more masked kind, Obama’s success is evidence of some sort of “affirmative action” rather than anything he himself has achieved. At best, they’ll grant that he ran a good campaign — i.e, he was tactically shrewd. But they can’t bring themselves to acknowledge the intellect, composure, reason, and moderation that the majority of voters saw in Obama. (And which reporters were simply reflecting in their coverage.)
So when the economic crisis set in and Obama rose in the polls (largely due to McCain’s demonstrated incompetence about — and admitted ignorance of — all things economic), what should reporters have done, according to this equal-grading rule?
After reporting Obama’s eight-point average lead in the polls and the fact that voters trusted him on the economy, were they obliged to say something positive about McCain? Should they have said that the majority of voters also trust McCain to do a better job on the economy? Should they have found and reported some positive numbers for McCain, too, just to be sporting?Â Should they have reported that a hundred percent of the McCain household trusts John McCain to end the banking crisis?
If the media gave equal grades to everyone, they’d utterly fail in their job to report what’s happening. Imagine if they actually operated like Kurtz et al. want them to.
After the Bay of Pigs debacle, they’d have had to find a line of commentators and analysts to say with a straight face that Kennedy made the right call, despite the invasion’s failure.
And in their coverage of global warming, they’d have to give equal time to the miniscule percentage of scientists who deny that it’s happening or say humans have nothing to do with it.
Oh wait, they do give equal time to the global warming deniers. Media — especially TV news outlets — consistently cave to those who demand equal time for Exxon-supported scientists who conclude whatever Exxon wants them to. The result has been eight years of official government inaction and negligence over one of the biggest threats of our time.
And when it came to the Iraq war, and voters were divided, when “equal time” to war boosters and war critics would actually have been appropriate, the war skeptics got the short end of the stick, getting airtime far shorter than their numbers deserved. And now the media pretend these war opponents never existed in the first place, repeating the mantra of the war backers: “we all got it wrong.”
If there’s a bias in the media, it’s not towards blacks or Democrats (just ask Al Sharpton or Jeremiah Wright). It’s towards the interests of those who pay the bills — the advertisers and the corporate values they reflect, and the readers and viewers, who are more likely to stay tuned if sex or scandal is involved, whichever party is to blame.
Yeah, the media should be more objective, but they won’t get there by pretending everything’s equally good or equally bad.Let’s not be too gullible about these feigned concerns over fairness. Imagine for a second that the tables were turned.
If McCain had lived up to his reputation for being politically independent and had won the voters’ confidence in his fitness to be President, and it was Obama who couldn’t speak knowledgeably about the economy and who whipped up the extreme elements of his party, commentators like Howard Kurtz wouldn’t be crying foul. They’d be saying in all earnest that McCain won because of his experience and his ability to appeal to moderates and independents. And they’d write off anyone who blamed Obama’s defeat on media bias as sore losers.
It’s not about a new-found concern over media objectivity. It’s about finding someone to blame for McCain’s loss, someone outside the party that held the White House, governed badly, and then lost it.
Dear Wounded in Washington,
It’s never too soon to start re-writing history.