Infinite Jestice

Photo of Abderrahman Anwar al-Awlaki. Unattributed source.

The Disposition Matrix

Yesterday witnessed arguably the most substantial journalistic investigation into the Obama administration's secret 'kill list' program since the May 2012 New York Times article that broke the story (written with the cooperation of the White House). The first of Greg Miller's three-part Washington Post inquiry into the 'kill list' program reveals that not only does President Obama's drone strategy ascribe to itself the interminable and indefinite frontier of George W. Bush's global 'War on Terror,' it does so by centralizing a 'single, continually evolving database' where the metrics of targets in multiple geographies are catalogued wholesale. Targeted killing operations that were once viewed as extraordinary or emergency measures by the government's own legal and political advocates have become so commonplace that their 'efficacy' depends merely on streamlining them. If the baseball-card calculus of kill/capture lists on 'Terror Tuesdays' seemed horrifying before, the institutionalization of targeted killings into the vast architecture of the U.S.' 'counterterrorism' approach is show-stopping.

We have reached the sobering moment where the ongoing global 'War on Terror' is legitimately referred to in the past tense, as Miller does here (my emphasis):

[T]he United States has reached only the midpoint of what was once known as the global war on terrorism. Targeting lists that were regarded as finite emergency measures after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, are now fixtures of the national security apparatus. The rosters expand and contract with the pace of drone strikes but never go to zero.

As the geography of the global 'War on Terror' has dissolved traditional nation-state boundaries—a single, sovereign nation named 'Afghanistan,' 'Pakistan,' or 'Yemen' has mutated into an open-season landscape of targets—so have the normative standards of time. The unending addition of enemy names to a morphing latticework is transforming land boundaries to operational theaters and time constraints to imperium ad infinitum.

Civilians as Terror Spawn

When your hammer is a drone, civilians look like nails. This morning Atlantic staff writer Conor Friedersdorf ('How Team Obama Justifies the Killing of a 16-Year-Old American') posted a press exchange between White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and a group of unusual journalists (unusual in that they are tenacious in their effort to get a straight answer from Gibbs, who repeatedly tries to deflect their questions). Friedersdorf interrogates Gibbs' assertion of a 'homeland' threat, or that the secret drone program targets those who 'have pledged to bring terror to these shores,' writing:

Since the kill list itself is secret, there's no way to offer a specific counterexample. But we do know that U.S. drones are targeting people who've never pledged to carry out attacks in the United States. Take Pakistan, where the CIA kills some people without even knowing their identities.

As Gibbs made the claim, a journalist asked (at 1:55), 'Do you think that the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki's sixteen-year old son who was an American citizen is justifiable?'

Instead of ruling al-Awlaki's killing an accident, or even manufacturing him as a terrorist threat, Gibbs retorts, 'I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they're truly concerned about the well-being of their children.' This is what should be called the Dr. Seuss economy of death. Don't be sad 'cause he had a bad, bad dad.

Leaving aside the open lies and distortions peddled here, in the brief glimpses of clarity that belie the greater secrecy matrix (if the CIA sometimes kill people without knowing their identities, why should you?), Gibbs' claim is profound. The last time I saw this line of thinking put forward as a logical argument was on a segment of Al Jazeera's The Stream. Pakistani journalist Madiha Tahir asked Georgetown professor Christine Fair (at 15:19), who referred to bin Laden's wives as 'terror mamas' and his children as 'terror spawn': 'At what point does someone become a legitimate target for you?'

After dismissing Tahir as an 'obnoxious troll,' Fair responds to the show host (who asks whether she actually called bin Laden's kids 'terror spawn') by saying, 'Yeah, technically they are the spawn of terrorists and I'm not gonna back down by that.'

Fair was rightly lambasted for so-called fringe commentary (which even she characterized as 'flippant Twitterese,' referring to the original exchange). Yet it was remarkably similar to what Gibbs told probing reporters: 'I don't think becoming an al Qaeda jihadist terrorist is the best way to go about doing your business,' he said about the younger al-Awlaki's crime of having been unable to choose his father. Only one of these people is an Obama appointee.