If the president can order the killing of American citizens abroad should he decide they are involved with Al Qaeda, can he assassinate suspected Al Qaeda–connected US citizens in London or Berlin? What about a suspect's teenage son, a junior in a Canadian boarding school? If he can drop hellfire missiles on a house in northwestern Pakistan because he believes a terrorist cell is meeting inside, could he blow up a motel in Florida where supposed terrorists are staying and chalk up any dead vacationers as "collateral damage"? Of course not. Pakistan is completely different. Anwar al-Awlaki may have been a US citizen, but he was in Yemen, which is different too. As for his 16-year-old son, killed in Yemen in a drone attack some weeks later along with several other people, former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs put it well, if ungrammatically: "I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the well-being of their children." Unlike in the United States, in Yemen kids choose their parents.
Whatever happened to arresting people, extraditing them, giving them lawyers, putting them on trial — all that? Even in the hottest days of the Cold War, when millions believed communism threatened our very existence as a nation, Americans accused of spying for the Soviets had their day in court. No one suggested that President Eisenhower should skip the tiresome procedural stuff and just bomb the Rosenbergs' apartment.
The president and his choice to head the CIA, John Brennan, assure us that they are extremely careful, and the kill list is "legal, ethical and wise" (although they won't tell us anything more about it). Brennan asserted in 2011 that no civilians have been killed by drones. Maybe he even believes this, although the Bureau of Investigative Journalism documented more than 500 civilian casualties in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, with a high estimate of many more. When President Obama appointed Harold Koh legal adviser to the State Department in 2009, it looked like he was sending a message: the bad old days are over. Koh, who once referred to President Bush as the "torturer in chief," was an outspoken critic of that administration's legal rationales for torture, Guantánamo and "targeted killings." Fast-forward to today, and Koh provides legal rationales for those same "targeted killings" and gives critics the kind of snide brushoff the Bushites were famous for: justice for enemies "can be delivered through trials. Drones also deliver."
"The president is a thoughtful, analytical guy," a national security adviser tells a group of CIA officers including Maya, the Osama-obsessed heroine of Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty. Before he orders the assault on Osama's compound, "he needs proof." In another scene, a TV in the background shows Obama telling Steve Croft, "America doesn't torture." Even giving Obama the benefit of every doubt, do we want the president to be a one-man death panel? And what about the next president, and the one after that? Precedents are being set that concentrate far too much power in the executive branch and rely far too much on the moral capabilities of one man. The buck not only stops with Obama; it starts with him, too.
Polls suggest that most Americans are fine with drones — including most liberals: 78 percent of viewers of Ed Shultz's MSNBC talk show. Apparently, we are not persuaded by what seems to me obvious: law and morality aside, dropping bombs is no way to win friends and influence people. Last year a Pew poll found that 74 percent of Pakistanis consider the United States an enemy. Sherry Rehman, Pakistan's US ambassador, told reporters that the drone campaign "creates more potential terrorists on the ground and militants on the ground instead of taking them out." September 11 enraged Americans so profoundly we started two wars, one against a nation that had nothing to do with it. Why do we assume that the people we attack are any different?
How did we end up here? Surely one fatal turning point was Obama's decision not to prosecute anyone connected with the Bush administration's brutal policies, especially torture. Not only did this breed cynicism and callousness; it tacitly allowed that maybe Abu Ghraib and black sites and Baghram and Guantánamo were justifiable, given the fiendish and shape-shifting nature of terrorism.
That's certainly the message I took from Zero Dark Thirty, and, frankly, I don't understand how anyone can see this much-praised movie as ambiguous on the torture question. The movie says torture works: "In the end, everybody breaks," Dan (Jason Clarke) tells the prisoner he is beating, waterboarding, walking like a dog and forcing into a tiny box. "It's biology." And sure enough, the man gives up the clue that eventually leads to Osama's front door. If, in real life, this information was actually obtained by other methods, as Senators Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin attested in a public letter about the film, there's no suggestion of it onscreen. But the movie does something even worse: it not only makes torture look necessary; it makes the torturers cool. Dan is handsome, smart, humorous and unconventional — his own person in a crowd of company men. When not stringing people from the ceiling, he's caring — a good friend to Maya, an animal lover. He doesn't let his job turn him into a brute or a sadist — he knows when he's reached his emotional limits and gets out. As for Maya, the lonely avenger of 9/11, what can one say? She's not only smart, dedicated, selfless, brave and tireless — she's Jessica Chastain! The most beautiful woman in the world, with flowing locks of red-gold hair that light up every scene she's in, including the one where she fetches a pail of water for the waterboarding.
The only person in the CIA who will see a day in prison for anything that happened during all this is James Kiriakou, the anti-torture whistleblower recently sentenced to thirty months for revealing the name of a covert CIA officer to a reporter. Don't hold your breath for a Hollywood movie about him.