In 1898, Émile Zola stunned the French nation by publishing "J'accuse," an open letter to French President Félix Faure charging him with anti-Semitism and the unlawful jailing of Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus. Tom Junod's stunning article in the latest Esquire, "The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama," is a "J'accuse" for 21st century America:
You are a historic figure, Mr. President. You are not only the first African-American president; you are the first who has made use of your power to target and kill individuals identified as a threat to the United States throughout your entire term. You are the first president to make the killing of targeted individuals the focus of our military operations, of our intelligence, of our national-security strategy, and, some argue, of our foreign policy.
Junod's subject is the Obama administration's use of predator drones to kill thousands of those deemed to be members or associates of al Qaeda. At the heart of the story is the killing of the 16-year-old son of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born imam whose murderous anti-American rhetoric has earned him a prominent place in the gallery of drone kills. Awlaki's son Abdulrahman, an American citizen like his father, was killed in Yemen last September while enjoying an outdoor barbecue with a few friends.
Just as George W. Bush pushed through his prescription drug benefit--the largest expansion of national health coverage in decades--with nary a peep from conservatives, so it is not very surprising that the predator drone program has largely been swallowed by liberals. But Junod, the sharpest magazine writer in America, slices and dices the public relations employed by the administration to make the policy go down easily: the legal rationalizations delivered by top DOJ officials who once pilloried Bush for Abu Graib and Guantanamo; the constructed accounts of the president and his top national security advisers carefully weighing each target in the balance; the image of agonizing life-and-death decisions made according to the highest moral criteria. Given the number of kills and the lack of evidence proffered for many of them, Junod isn't buying.
The domestic political appeal of the program for Obama is easy enough to grasp. It spikes the guns of Republicans zealous to attack him as soft on terrorism. But how does this constitutional lawyer, this politician who, as Junod writes, places "a large premium on being beyond reproach," square targeted assassination with the rule of law?
Obama is a well-known reader of Reinhold Niebuhr, the mid-20th-century theologian who famously stressed the Augustinian chiaroscuro of good and evil implicit in public affairs. Obama's Niebuhrianism is taken seriously by Gary Dorrien, the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary who earlier this year published a book defending the president against his leftist critics. While Dorrien does nothing himself to justify the drone program, he suggests a way to make sense of Obama's apparent lack of scruples.
No system of rules, Niebuhr taught, can morally justify something as evil as war; morally, waging war is a tragic lesser-evil business. Everything that sinful human beings do is morally ambiguous at best. But faced with the fact that attacks upon innocent people occur, the biblical command not to kill must give way to the command of love, interpreted as the duty to protect the innocent, just as Augustine taught.
The innocent, in this case, are the American people, attacked as they were on 9/11. If you believe that no system of rules--i.e. no rule of law--can morally justify targeted assassinations, then perhaps it is not so hard to embrace the ineluctable moral ambiguity and blast away.