Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was a 16-year-old American citizen killed in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011. His name did not come up in the confirmation hearings for John Brennan to be head of the CIA. Or in Barack Obama's politically masterful State of the Union speech shortly afterwards. But he belonged in the same room as all the other invited guests who had been scarred by American violence. And his conspicuous absence revealed the hearings as a hollow sham, and struck a silenced note of discord in Obama's otherwise well-orchestrated speech.
It should be noted how skillfully Obama strung together a series of popular proposals, all of which Republicans oppose more or less vehemently. He may face daunting odds in getting anything passed through the GOP-dominated House of Representatives, but in his second term he seems determined to make them pay a price for their obstructionism. And yet, two systemic problems remain. First, Obama still wants bipartisan solutions, even though there are none to be had from the adversaries he faces. Second - even more fundamentally - he's rather pleased with the bipartisan approaches he can build on, regardless of the rotten fruit they actually bear.
Law and orders
Which brings us back to Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, and the profound silence surrounding him. His father, Anwar al-Awlaki - also a US citizen - was discussed at Brennan's hearing. He was also killed in drone strike, just two weeks before his son was killed. He was, most notably, the subject of a staged colloquy between Brennan and Intelligence Committee Chair Diane Feinstein, carefully tailored to present the case that Awlaki was a bad, bad man, citing multiple separate incidents he was allegedly connected to, including the Fort Hood massacre. But the US government never tried to make the case against Awlaki in a court of law. Indeed, elsewhere in the hearing, Brennan explicitly denied that drone strikes were intended to mete out justice - that's why the courts didn't need to get involved, he claimed.
Here's Independent senator Angus King of Maine cutting to the very heart of the problem with the Bush/Obama "war on terror" so far as its constitutional lawlessness is concerned:
Having the executive being the prosecutor, the judge, the jury and the executioner, all in one, is very contrary to the traditions and the laws of this country, and particularly in a situation where there is time. A soldier on a battlefield doesn't have time to go to court. But if you're planning a strike over a matter of days, weeks or months, there is an opportunity to at least go to some outside-of-the-executive-branch body, like the FISA court, in a confidential and top-secret way, make the case that this American citizen is an enemy combatant.
And here's how Brennan responded:
Senator, I think it's certainly worthy of discussion. Our tradition, our judicial tradition, is that a court of law is used to determine one's guilt or innocence for past actions, which is very different from the decisions that are made on the battlefield as well as actions that are taken against terrorists, because none of those actions are to determine past guilt for those actions that they took. The decisions that are made are to take action so that we prevent a future action, so we protect American lives. That is an inherently executive branch function.
There are multiple problems with Brennan's response, not least the just-released Department of Justice white paper supposedly justifying the drone policy legally, which states that it "does not require that the US have clear evidence that a specific attack... will take place in the immediate future" - which is to say, it does not require that an "imminent threat" actually be imminent. Rather, the white paper argues that an imminent threat can be deduced from other facts about the person targetted, specifically, about their leadership status within al-Qaeda or its allies and their ongoing involvement in planning terrorist activities in general. Replace "al-Qaeda" with "mafia" and any seasoned Law and Order fan will tell you that's exactly the sort of thing we have courts for in the first place.
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Brennan's response also raised the question of what Committee Chair Feinstein was doing by painstakingly painting al-Awlaki as such a threat. The obvious answer was that Feinstein was fearmongering, trying to cloud everyone's judgment, which has always been the US government's first line of defence against any questions surrounding the "war on terror". That's the bipartisan way this bloody failed "solution" has routinely been sold by politicians on both sides of the aisle.
But it's a whole lot harder to cloud people's judgement when you're talking about the cold-blooded killing of a 16-year-old US citizen. Which is why Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was an unperson at John Brennan's confirmation hearing, as well as the State of the Union. The naked killing of an American teenager was simply too difficult to spin.
A lost promise
Of course there have been hundreds, if not thousands of other innocent victims of US drone strikes and related remote killings from Obama's kill list of al-Qaeda operatives and allies. But the story here, we're supposed to believe, is that we're killing so much fewer of them than we were during the height of the Iraq War. This, we're told, is progress. This is what hope and change look like.
MSNBC's Chris Hayes - who represents the outer limit of acceptable discourse on elite US TV - confronted this directly recently:
Would you rather, I am often asked by supporters of the kill list, that we have boots on the ground, big expensive, destructive deadly disastrous land invasions of countries like the Iraq war? Isn't the move from wars like Iraq to "surgical strikes" in Yemen precisely the kind of change we were promised?
This narrow choice between big violence and smaller violence shows, I think, just how fully we have all implicitly adopted the conceptual framework of the War on Terror, how much George W Bush's advisers continue to set the terms of our thinking years after they'd been dispatched from office. Because that argument presupposes that we are at war and must continue to be at war until an ill-defined enemy is vanquished.
What, people ask, is the alternative to small war, if not big war? And the answer no one ever seems to even consider is: no war. If the existence of people out in the world who are actively working to kill Americans means we are still at war, then it seems to me we will be at war forever, and will surrender control over whether that is the state we do in fact want to be in.
The possibility of no war simply doesn't exist anymore for so-called political realists - "crackpot realists" as C Wright Mills called them at the height of the Cold War. "In the name of realism they have constructed a paranoid reality all their own," he wrote, and it's as true today as it was then. No war is unthinkinable for them, even though even the scaled-down war continues to make new enemies faster than the old ones can be killed (all of the sudden, there's war in Mali. Progress! But the US isn't fighting there. More progress!). Such is the nature of the bipartisanship that Obama strives for, when it is achieved. And - getting back to Anwar al-Awlaki and his son - perhaps the darkest aspect of that bipartisanship is the erosion of traditional constitutional rights.
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The two sides of Barack Obama
It's not that I liked Anwar al-Awlaki or approved of what he did. Obviously I don't. But if he was being punished for past acts - as the DOJ white paper and Senator Feinstein's questions strongly indicate, then the courts simply have to be involved. That's what it means when we Americans proudly say, "We're a government of laws, not of men." And his son? The assasination of his son epitomised the all-pervasive moral bankruptcy of America's "war on terror".
Let us be clear. No one is a worse advocate for al-Qaeda than al-Qaeda itself. Killing thousands of innocent civilians - including Muslims - does not strike most people as a convincing demonstration that you are holy warriors (rather than just thuggish criminals) in service to a merciful and compassionate God. At the same time, no one is a better advocate for al-Qaeda than the American government, whose war-on-terror response to 9/11 was first to validate al-Qaeda's previously imaginary status as warriors, then to validate al-Qaeda's broader claim that America was at war with Islam itself. The assassination of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was a classic continuation of this same pattern, whereby America's actions contradict everything America is supposed to stand for, and appear to confirm everything that al-Qaeda alleges. It represents an active rolling back of citizen rights to a pre-Magna Carta, pre-1215 era. Bush began this process with Guantanamo, with torture, rendition and detention without trial, but Obama, rather than rectifying things, has taken them even further with the targetted killing of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. And in so doing, he has crushed the promise that he once seemed to exemplify.
What's truly tragic, though, is how few people seem to even notice that the promise has been lost.
A bipartisan abberation
Writing here earlier about "The dangerous rebranding of John Brennan", Mark LeVine noted that "It's hard not to think of Hannah Arendt's idea of the banality of evil here, when reading through the memos and speeches and other attempts to bureaucratise the decision and execution of death sentences". He went on to say:
As a recent Daily Kos blog post reminds us, Arendt believed that the ability of large governing systems to perpetrate and perpetuate systematic evil depends not on the evil of the "doers", but rather on an "extraordinary shallowness" of officials at all levels of power, one which reflects an even deeper-seated "curious, quite authentic inability to think".
But there's a problem with such a dismissive analysis. Perhaps this description would fit former President Bush and his administration, which famously disdained the "reality based community" in favour of creating fantasy versions that suited their own ideological and power narratives. But is President Obama really that shallow? Can he be said to possess an "inability to think"? Such an accusation is hardly plausible.
And that's the problem in a nutshell. It's not that Obama is unable to think - it's that he's carefully, even rigorously trained himself not to. Just as when he turned his back on Jeremiah Wright for echoing Martin Luther King's prophetic condemnation of American militarism, one can almost hear Obama muttering to himself under his breath the early-80s punk lyrics of X, "I must not think bad thoughts. I must not think bad thoughts."
It's tragic, really. Obama certainly has the capacity to comprehend the sea of troubles he is sailing on, but he lacks the will, desire, and imagination to steer America into a fundamentally different direction. He cannot even begin to conceive of "no war" as an option - indeed, as Martin Luther King would say, as the only option. He is America's "leader" in a decidedly limited, managerial sense, when history and the American people had cried out for so much more - dare I say it? - For a visionary... Or at least for a leader along the path that visionaries have lit before us. Instead, Obama is a go-along-to-get-along president who shares virtually all of the imperial operational mindsets, even as the ever-mounting costs of empire are tearing the American republic apart. Virtually all the aberrations from constitutional government that the neocons under Bush advanced have been continued under Obama, thus confirming them as bipartisan aberrations.
Which is why, tragically, it's America, indulging its own demons, that continues to make al-Qaeda's case, in a way that nobody else possibly can - certainly not al-Qaeda itself.
It's not America alone, of course. It's simply the way of empire, which the poets have always understood far, far better than the politicians have. It leads me to recall "You, Andrew Marvell", Archibald MacLeish's haunting reflection on the fall of empires into darkness, from ancient to modern, from East to West, or Shelley's sonnet, "Ozymandias", which ends,
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Whoever thought that Obama would represent the American Republic against the empire must now acknowledge how terribly wrong they were. We were hoping for genuine bottom-up renewal, but instead just got more eloquent bipartisan decay. We were hoping for Langston Hughes, "Let America be America Again". Instead, we got Shelley and MacLeish.
The state of our union is dire. Who dares say so? And why?
Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, where he's worked since 2002. He's also written for Publishers Weekly, Christian Science Monitor, LA Times, LA Weekly and Denver Post. In 2000/2001, he was a principal editor/writer at Indymedia LA. He was a front-page blogger at Open Left from 2007 to 2011.
Follow him on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.