C: We struck another blow for the state today.
D: No. How?
C: We executed someone branded an enemy of the state. Just took him out with a Hellfire missile.
D: I would’ve liked to see that! Body parts all over the ground. Burned out shell of a vehicle. Those Hellfires can do some damage, my man!
C: This was one bad dude. Washington says he was operational.
D: Operational? I don’t trust anything Washington says. If they say he was operational, then he wasn’t operational. What’s operational mean, anyway?
C: It means he was planning and executing attacks against the United States.
D: That’s ridiculous! He was a publicist. Or a propagandist, depending on which side you’re on.
C: You know about him?
D: Sure, he made himself pretty notorious.
C: They kept going over his rap sheet on the news today. They listed all the operations he was involved in.
D: Yes, funny how the media parrot Washington’s talking points. You can tell it all comes from the White House press office, because all the reports sound the same. Don’t those reporters have any pride?
C: So you don’t think he was operational?
D: Look, the government’s not a government anymore. It’s a bunch of people who do whatever they want to do. Why should they say anything except what’s in their own interest?
C: I’d like to analyze that sometime. Meanwhile, why is it in Washington’s interest to say this gentleman planned and executed attacks against us?
D: Look, the government’s scared. It dreads the possibility of another attack on us, large or small. It’ll do anything it can to head off another attack.
C: The government tries to keep us scared. That doesn’t mean it’s afraid, too.
D: Well remember, when I say the government, I’m talking about its political leaders. They’re the ones who take the blame if something goes wrong.
C: I understand. I don’t see why they would be scared, though.
D: They don’t want to be voted out of office, to start with.
C: I guess we all want job security.
D: The fear is more deep-seated than that, though. No one wants a second attack to occur during their watch. Your reputation for all time goes to crap.
C: Leaders would trash our country’s Constitution because they’re thinking of their own reputation?
D: They don’t see it that way. They say civil liberties are always compromised during wartime. Since we’re at war, we have to do whatever it takes to win, even if the Constitution gets a little rough treatment along the way.
C: What civil liberties are we talking about, anyway?
D: You can’t just take a guy out.
C: How do you mean?
D: The government can’t just put a guy on a hit list and assassinate him.
C: Why not? If he’s an enemy of the state, seems like that’s what you have to do.
D: Who gets to decide whether you’re an enemy of the state or not?
C: The state.
D: Does that sound like a good arrangement to you?
C: Sounds like kings and tyrants before they had any restraints on them. If they didn’t like someone, they had them hauled up on some charge or other and then executed.
D: I read that Caligula had people executed just so he could confiscate their property. That’s how he kept his treasury full!
C: How did he get them executed?
D: He said they were enemies of the state or some such thing.
C: Let me see if I have this down. The government exists to keep people safe. Then the government itself feels threatened, so it goes after its enemies and executes them.
D: That’s about it.
C: What about keeping the people safe?
D: What about it?
C: Well it seems people aren’t so safe anymore if the government can just declare you an enemy and take you out. I don’t feel so safe if a drone flies over my neighborhood, ready to blast my house with a Hellfire missile.
D: The government doesn’t use Hellfire missiles on its own territory.
C: What does it use?
D: It sends out agents to take you in for questioning. That’s usually enough to keep people quiet.
C: You mean it intimidates them?
D: Yeah, that’s what you’d call it. Intimidation and harrassment. Harrassment and legal troubles. They’ll even send you to prison. Imprisonment and, if they really don’t like you, drugs. No individual can stand up to the state and win.
C: So why did they execute the guy if they have all these other methods?
D: The guy was in Yemen. You can’t capture people in Yemen.
C: Why not?
D: No can do. Hellfire missiles.
C: Come on. Give me a real answer.
D: Okay, why didn’t the government capture bin Laden? Because it didn’t want to? Too much risk? If the government wants to capture somebody, it’ll figure out a way to do it. At least it’ll try. If it wants to kill somebody, it’ll do that.
C: But doesn’t the Bill of Rights say you can’t just go out and execute people?
D: That’s what we’ve been talking about. And you know what? The guy in Yemen was a U. S. citizen!
C: Seems to me the government would have revoked his citizenship before it shot him.
D: I don’t know if you can do that.
C: I think they did it with Bobby Fischer. He spat on that letter from the State Department, and they took away his rights as a U. S. citizen.
D: They did that with Bobby Fischer, but not with this guy from al Qaeda, who was operational?
C: Look, sometimes the government isn’t that smart.
D: I don’t suppose it looks so kosher to put someone on a hit list, then take away his citizenship.
C: That’s right. You’d have to excommunicate him first. Then mark him out for murder.
D: When the state assassinates someone or puts a someone to death, it’s an execution, not a murder.
C: So you think the government treated the Yemeni cleric as a judicial execution, but without the trial?
D: Not really. It put him in the same category as other al Qaeda leaders, all of whom deserve a drone-fired missile if we can find them. The government just didn’t see the Yemeni’s U. S. citizenship as a factor that made any difference. War is war: you have to kill your enemies, no matter what passport they carry.
C: Let’s go back to your idea that the government’s behavior is unhealthy, and that it acts out of fear. Why do you think that?
D: You just have to observe what it does.
C: Like what?
D: Democratic political leaders who want to keep their country healthy wouldn’t torture people.
C: You can be ruthless and effective without being cruel. Is that what I hear you saying?
D: Yes, that’s close.
C: We haven’t really talked about the way things have evolved since 9/11. I mean the way we’ve prosecuted the war.
D: War is war. You kill people. You blow up things. A lot of things burn. You disarm and destroy your enemy so he can’t fight anymore.
C: Yes, but how you do those things depends on who you’re fighting. Different enemies have different strengths and weaknesses, for example.
D: What does that have to do with the guy we killed in Yemen?
D: Yes, the guy with the glasses.
C: Look, after 9/11 we all said this is a different kind of war. We haven’t had a struggle to the death with non-state enemies before.
D: I remember.
C: We had to figure out different ways to prosecute a war like that. Unlike states, our enemies didn’t hold territory. They didn’t have a government or a capital. No cities or even a population we could bomb. In a lot of way, they were invisible. They were certainly inaccessible.
D: You’re right. We didn’t know how to fight an enemy like that. So we picked an enemy that had a state’s attributes, like Iraq.
C: You saw how that turned out. Our war went off the tracks right near the beginning. Now it’s ten years later, and we’re still running our train over a boulder field.
D: At least we’re winning.
C: Come back in a hundred years and see if you say that.
D: We’ve hit some rocky ground. That happens in most wars. You can’t see how your doing when you’re in the middle of it.
C: Alright, let’s keep our focus on assassinations. We found assassinations an effective way to deal with al Qaeda’s leadership. So we’ve carried out a lot of them, from the air and from the ground.
D: That means we’re winning, right?
C: How do you mean?
D: We’re killing their leaders, but they’re not killing ours.
C: We have a serious problem, though. One thing we did recognize right after 9/11 was that we couldn’t win the war without allies. Our enemies’ inaccesibility meant we had to have help from others to get at them.
D: Yes, you always want to have friends in a fight.
C: Well, when we kill people from the air all the time, we kill a lot of people who happen to be in the way. We kill our enemies, but we kill many more people who would be our friends if we didn’t kill them. People hate us when we do that.
D: They’re not our friends anymore?
C: They’re not our friends anymore.
D: So that means we’re not winning?
C: We tell ourselves we can win no matter how few friends we have or how many enemies we have. We’re the United States.
D: The all-powerful.
C: Have you ever heard of an empire that showed that kind of arrogance and stayed around for long?
C: So here we are – we’re assassinating people all over south Asia. Just wiping them out – enemies, women, children, old men and women, wedding parties, funeral processions, mountain outposts, caves, training camps, schools and playgrounds, hideouts, villages, farms, cars and trucks, apartment buildings, oil lines and refineries, shipping facilities, warehouses, weapons caches, hospitals, highways, cities, suburbs, anything that has coordinates for our GPS systems. Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Somalia: we’ve hit a lot of different places.
D: That’s how we won World War II – lots of collateral damage.
C: Let’s leave that one alone. We already know we can’t win this war the same way we won that one.
D: So do we have any friends left?
C: NATO has its own reasons for not turning against us. A lot of other countries have enough problems without making us angry at them. So they keep quiet for the most part.
D: Hugo Chavez doesn’t keep quiet.
C: Yes, but you wonder how many people agree with him without saying so.
D: We still haven’t figured out whether assassinations are a good thing or not.
C: Look, we know what doesn’t work. We just don’t know yet how to win this war.
D: Ten years is a long time to be trying out different things.
C: The problem with assassinations is that they do seem to accomplish something. They give us a sense of efficacy. We know we’re disrupting the enemy’s leadership. We keep them on the run, as we like to say.
D: Then along comes an al Qaeda leader who happens to be an American citizen. What do you do then?
C: You’re right to ask. We’ve already seen why so many attacks from the air can be self-defeating, even if we kill our targets. But if the target is a U. S. citizen, you run up against a lot of civil rights questions that didn’t exist before.
D: You mean U. S. citizens have rights that our other enemies don’t have?
C: We do have human rights that apply to everyone, everywhere. Some international lawyers would say that when you knowingly kill innocent civilians, it’s a war crime.
D: So how is targeting Awlaki worse than killing all those innocent civilians?
C: In Awlaki’s case, his rights are guaranteed in our own Constitution. The rights of all those Afghanis and Iraqis we killed aren’t guaranteed anywhere except the United Nations charter. We don’t recognize that treaty unless it’s convenient.
D: I wouldn’t go that far. We host the United Nations!
C: You just have to look at our behavior to see what I mean.
D: Alright, let’s stay with this one case. What should the U. S. government have done about Awlaki?
C: What do you think it should have done? What action would have met our needs?
D: Like we said before? Excommunicate him, then kill him?
C: Like we said before, that’s a little transparent.
D: We could agree with what the government actually did. Once you categorize someone as an enemy, that overrides every other consideration. You destroy your enemy whether or not he has rights that you recognize.
C: Meantime, though, we’ve never discussed how we want to prosecute the war!
D: Who’s we?
C: United States citizens.
D: How can that many people discuss whether or not we’re going to assassinate people?
C: We so have a national conversation of sorts, especially now with digital media. The national conversation hasn’t warmed to that topic much.
D: Why do you suppose?
C: People are weary of wartime subjects. Iraq and ten years in Afghanistan took the vigor out of them. They want these questions to go away.
D: Just tell me the good news, and leave out the bad stuff?
C: It might come down to that.
D: But if we take up these questions intelligently, we might make fewer mistakes. Then we’d have a better chance to win the war.
C: Would that our leaders thought that way. Meantime, I almost think people would rather lose the war at this point, or at least call it inconclusive. Then at least we could put it behind us. If we go through the hard work of winning it, who knows when the whole thing would end?
D: But now one knows what losing the war would mean! No victory after everything we’ve given up? It could be horrible!
C: Unfortunately, no one knows what winning the war would mean.
D: So we just keep doing what we’ve been doing?
C: We just killed bin Laden and dumped his body in the ocean. We just incinerated a U. S. citizen in Yemen. We congratulate ourselves each time we kill a prominent al Qaeda leader. But tell me, do people feel closer to victory as a result?
D: You can’t feel closer to victory when you don’t know what victory is.
C: Unless you just want the war to go away. If you make the war go away after all this time, that’s a kind of victory.
D: Yes, until the next attack. That’s what keeps the government so edgy. They don’t know for sure how to prevent the next attack.
C: What if the next attack doesn’t come?
D: That’s the terrible thing about how we reacted to 9/11. We’re on edge no matter what happens. We need leaders who are absolutely ruthless about this. Leaders who don’t get national security mixed up with their reelection chances. Leaders who can make people forget about their fears, because they’re involved in a common struggle.
C: The longer we feel edgy, the worse the problem gets. The whole country feels like it’s headed for a nervous breakdown.
D: I have one more thing I wanted to ask you about. It’s related to those something you said about assassinations.
C: What’s that?
D: Why does the CIA run the drone program?
C: It’s secret.
D: What’s secret?
C: The drone program! The CIA runs it because no one knows about it.
D: Geez, Carlo, you know I don’t these word games. How can the drone program be secret when everyone knows about it?
C: Well it started out as a secret. Once people found out about it, it was too hard to move the program over to the Pentagon.
D: How did people think you could keep it a secret once you start blowing things up from the sky?
C: The government doesn’t think that far ahead.
D: Well don’t you think the Pentagon should run military programs? Don’t you think that having a secret intelligence agency conduct military operations is a little scary?
C: We can’t do anything about it, so we let it go.
D: It seems citizens don’t want to think about difficult questions. They just look to the government and ask, when will this be over?
C: That’s why the government likes childlike, dependent citizens. You can expect citizens to complain about all the work you make them do to pay taxes. You can expect them to ask for higher allowances, but you don’t want them involved in hard questions about warfare and civil rights. That can cut into the government’s autonomy pretty far.
D: Governments want as much freedom as possible.
C: Freedom and power. The more freedom and power the government has, the less liberty citizens have. In national security matters especially, the government says: leave that to us.
D: You mean leaders don’t even want to hear from citizens about questions related to war?
C: Have you ever heard them ask for input?
C: Let’s leave it at that. We’ve come a pretty long way, but we didn’t expect to reach home. I do wish we could find a way to win. It would be good for us. It would be good for all those families who lost their sons in a fight located so far away. It would help their grief a lot.
D: You don’t sound hopeful about winning.
C: No, I don’t. From the first day of the war in Iraq, I said that blunder would take away our chance to win the larger war. That mistake was so serious, it meant the eventual end of our privileged position in the world.
D: Do you still think that?
C: Of course.