Monthly Archives: January 2009

Obama: Drone Flights Continue

Last month, before the inauguration, I asked how long it would be until a wedding party or sleeping family were blown up by a remote-controlled aircraft on Obama’s watch. We didn’t have to wait long. Just three days into his presidency, two drone attacks occurred in Pakistan. The first found its target, “four Arab militants” including a “senior al Qaeda operative.” The second missile, apparently intended for a “Taleban commander,” instead killed “a pro-government tribal leader…and four members of his family, including a five-year-old child.” Obama is now officialy responsible for his first civilian casualties.

I object to sending robot aircraft into the skies of foreign nations, and firing rockets into people’s homes at the push of a button thousands of miles away. We wouldn’t tolerate this in our own skies, so how can we inflict it on others? Our much-vaunted principles are meaningless unless we apply then to everyone, including those who live beyond our borders. The U.S. Constitution calls for a jury trial and proof of guilt before a death sentence, and while the rules are different in wartime, a man sleeping at home with his family isn’t on the battlefield. Our Constitution grants no one the right to be judge, jury and executioner all at once. Obama, a Constitutional scholar, surely understands that.

Where is the outrage that this continues without pause from one administration to the next? Even if you dismiss the moral arguments as too fancy and delicate, and insist that the death of “four Arab militants” justifies cutting corners, there is a practical objection as well. Mistargeted missiles like the one that killed a “pro-government leader” and his family are far too common. Indeed, it seems that innocents are killed more often than not. Even if you believe that there is no time for jury trials on the battlefield, the slaughter of children should make you stop and think. It’s indefensible to spray a crowd with machine gun fire to stop a runaway criminal, but that is effectively what is happening here. If it happened to you and your family, you would know it was wrong.

So here’s my appeal to President Obama. You’re the Commander-in-Chief, and that makes you responsible for what the Armed Forces do on your watch. War is a dirty business, and we know from your campaign that you’re planning to go after the terrorists in the caves where they live. But do you really want to be responsible for the death of innocents, which will happen again and again as long as these drone attacks continue? Why not call a halt to them for a few weeks, long enough for your new envoy, Richard Holbrooke, to get to Pakistan and evaluate the situation? Pakistan has a democratically elected government, with its own rule of law. Our actions within their borders must be with their approval and coordination. If they want us to fire missiles from robot aircraft, they should say so clearly. Otherwise we should stop. Mr. President, does the “change” we voted for in November apply to the death of innocents? Call off the drones!

Democracy Works?

It’s Wednesday, January 21, 2009, and it looks like Barack Obama is still president, so I guess this dream will last a while.

Some commentators are calling the speech he gave yesterday a “repudiation” of the failed policies of the last eight years. It was a “muscular,” “stern” and morally uncompromising speech, laying out a vision of society and of government that is quite at odds with that of his predecessors, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

For me, the strongest moments of the speech came when he addressed the world, and simultaneously talked about the Constitutional limits on power that bind any American administration.

    We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity….
    For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus—and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself….
    To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West—know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history…. To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders….

What I take from these words is that Obama believes that Americans are all guaranteed the same liberties, but we are also bound to each other by our responsibilities before the law. This is already a repudiation of the Bush-Cheney doctrine claiming that the president has the power to make his own rules in wartime. But he didn’t stop there; he also bound American power to those same limits when dealing with those outside our borders. Few Americans would have required such words of him on a day set aside to celebrate his long-awaited acession to power. It remains to be seen how these ideals will translate into policy, but to me, these words reaffirm my optimism about the kind of man Obama is.

I think his background has led him to feel lucky that he was born an American, rather than giving him a sense of entitlement simply because he is an American. This simple nuance makes all the difference. He said it himself in these words, “In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned.” In dealing with those outside our borders, those who may share our aspirations but not the blind luck of being born in a nation whose power has mounted steadily for 200 years, will we treat them as partners or adversaries? Will we listen, or pretend they don’t exist? For me, this is the crucial test for any American leader. History will be the judge, but I remain hopeful that Obama will pass this test.

UPDATE: Go here to sign a petition inviting President Obama to speak in Morocco.

Technology and Tradition

Technology shatters tradition; but even though the shattered whole can never be restored, neither do the shards of tradition disappear from the scene; their persistence in music, dress, architecture and habit continues to fire the imagination of the young and provide the distinguishing features of the new, emerging culture; so that in time tradition mutates, merging with and modifying the technology that has invaded it to create a new, synthetic whole.

Mutant Heroes

Perhaps when a society remains stable for a long time, the majority who are obedient to the norm are its anchor and its strength—hence the term “solid citizens”—but when a society is in flux and conditions are changing, the old adaptations are no longer suited and it is likely that those at the fringes, the outcasts and eccentrics, will discover that qualities which had previously been shunned are now eminently useful for the survival of the community, precisely because they are eccentric by the traditional definition, and thus in closer proximity to the emerging reality. Those who had been despised become the new heroes.