Suppose a murderous gang were on the loose in a city. The police, having been unable to prevent the gang’s crimes or apprehend the criminals, decide instead to draw up a secret list of people alleged to be gang members and sympathizers and then to start assassinating the people on the list — and to do so in the most haphazard way possible, bombing and strafing entire neighborhoods in the hope of killing bad guys lurking therein. How long would residents of those neighborhoods put up with that barbaric behavior before rising up against the cops and their supporters? More to the point, how many police supporters would condemn the protesters as gang sympathizers deserving of death — only to realize too late that the police now had their sights trained on their own supporters’ neighborhoods as well?
The preceding is, of course, a thinly disguised version of what has occurred over the last decade in the U.S. government’s “war on terror.” A terrible crime was perpetrated against innocent Americans in 2001, and their surviving countrymen’s response has been to endorse, at least tacitly, worldwide “death squads” commanded by the U.S. government. They have even given the president sole discretion to order the assassination of American citizens — all the while clinging to the absurd notion that those actions, previously considered the province of totalitarian regimes, were both defending freedom at home and spreading it abroad.
That the U.S. government maintains a “hit list” of persons alleged to be terrorists was demonstrated definitively by the July 2010 WikiLeaks revelations. Those documents showed that a secret special-forces unit known as Task Force 373 had a list of more than 2,000 names of suspected “senior figures from the Taliban and al-Qaida,” according to the Guardian. Persons on that roster, known as the Joint Prioritized Effects List, are targeted for capture or assassination. (Capture, by the way, may or may not be preferable to assassination, for it could well mean indefinite internment without charges or trial in one of America’s gulags, such as the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, or at Bagram, Afghanistan.)
“In many cases,” wrote the Guardian, TF 373 “has set out to seize a target for internment, but in others it has simply killed them without attempting to capture. The logs reveal that TF 373 has also killed civilian men, women and children and even Afghan police officers who have strayed into its path.”
In a 2007 TF 373 operation attempting to capture a Taliban commander, someone shone a flashlight on the task-force members as they approached their target at night. A firefight ensued, and TF 373 called in a gunship, which strafed the area. After it was all over, the task force found that they had been battling members of the Afghan police force, killing seven and wounding four. “The coalition put out a press release which referred to the firefight and the air support and then failed entirely to record that they had just killed or wounded 11 police officers,” the Guardian noted.
Just six days later TF 373 targeted the Libyan Abu Laith al-Libi in the village of Nangar Khel, where he was believed to be hiding. To get just one man the task force launched five missiles into the village, missing Libi completely but destroying a school, killing seven children. A press release, while acknowledging the children’s deaths, “suggested that coalition forces had attacked the compound because of ‘nefarious activity’ there, when the reality was that they had gone there to kill or capture Libi,” the newspaper wrote.
It made no mention at all of Libi, nor of the failure of the mission (although that was revealed later by NBC News in the United States). Crucially, it failed to record that TF 373 had fired five rockets, destroying the [school] and other buildings and killing seven children, before anybody had fired on them — that this looked like a mission to kill and not to capture. Indeed, this was clearly deliberately suppressed.
Four months later TF 373 came upon Taliban fighters in Laswanday, a nearby village. “The Taliban appear to have retreated by the time TF 373 called in air support to drop 500-lb. bombs on the house from which the fighters had been firing,” the Guardian reported. As a result, not a single Taliban was killed, wounded, or captured; but twelve Americans, two teenage girls, and a ten-year-old boy were wounded; and one girl, one woman, four civilian men, one dog, and several chickens were killed.
Again the press release lied, saying coalition forces had killed several militants and did not mention the dead civilians. Worse still, officials visiting Laswanday after the event “stressed that the fault of the deaths of the innocent lies on the villagers who did not resist the insurgents and their anti-government activities [and] chastised a villager who condemned the compound shooting,” according to one of the documents released by WikiLeaks — this despite the fact that, says the Guardian, “the dead civilians came from one family, one of whom had been found with his hands tied behind his back, suggesting that the Taliban were unwelcome intruders in their home.”
Needless to say, such actions have not exactly endeared U.S. forces to the Afghan people. The operations, freelance journalist Pratap Chatterjee observed, “regularly make more enemies than friends and undermine any goodwill created by U.S. reconstruction projects.”
“The concept of a shadowy organization with a license to kill, with no oversight or accountability, is sinister and un-American,” averred Matthew J. Nasuti of Kabul Press. Yet Americans, by and large, simply cannot understand why Afghans — and residents of other countries in which U.S. forces operate in a similar manner — keep trying to oust the Americans. Nor can they grasp that such operations — human hit squads as well as the increasingly popular (in Washington) unmanned drone strikes — breed animus toward the United States, which can lead to “blowback” in the form of terrorist attacks. To most Americans, terrorists hate them for their freedom, not for what their government does to the terrorists’ people. (The government, on the other hand, is under no such illusions. Various federal agencies issued bulletins warning Americans about potential retaliation for the United States’s assassinations of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki.)
Americans are just now beginning to learn how it feels to be on the receiving end of such policies. While their government has long claimed the authority to detain Americans indefinitely without due process, as in the Jose Padilla case, only recently has it publicly argued that the president has the authority to order the assassination of American citizens anywhere in the world. Under George W. Bush such assassinations were carried out with a fair amount of secrecy, but under Barack Obama they are carried out openly, and his administration quite candidly admits that it is doing so.
The Washington Post reported in January 2010 that both the Central Intelligence Agency and the Joint Special Operations Command maintain “hit lists” of suspected terrorists; at that time there were only three American citizens known to be on the lists. Five months later the Washington Times revealed that the number of Americans on the lists could run into the “dozens.”
The first American citizen known to have been assassinated on the basis of being on one of these lists was Awlaki, a native-born American who was alleged to have been an al-Qaeda recruiter and planner. On September 30, 2011, a U.S. drone attack in Yemen took Awlaki’s life; two weeks later another drone murdered his sixteen-year-old son, also an American citizen. Neither was killed “on the battlefield,” actively engaging in violence against Americans; but Obama ordered their deaths, and his orders were carried out.
“The very idea of a secret presidential assassination list is creepy in a country committed to democracy and the rule of law,” wrote neoconservative columnist Jonah Goldberg. Nevertheless, the list exists, and while it has thus far been used to target unsympathetic characters, the president could theoretically order the assassination of anyone he chooses for any reason he desires — which suggests that the United States, perhaps, is not very “committed to democracy and the rule of law” after all.
Aside from activist groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights, Americans have been slow to protest the government’s assassination policies, either because they trust the president to use such power wisely or because they fear being put on the hit list for speaking out.
Yet the Obama administration clearly knows that it is on shaky ground. Why else did it dispatch Attorney General Eric Holder to Northwestern University’s law school to make the case for the hit lists — a case that consisted, essentially, of the claim “the president will order the assassination of alleged terrorists, including U.S. citizens, because he can”? The government may not care much about blowback from its assassinations of foreigners, which would very likely harm innocent Americans, not their elected officials; but it most definitely fears blowback from its assassinations of Americans in the form of electoral defeat or violent overthrow.
Americans were wrong to trust their government with the power to kill foreigners on a purely arbitrary, clandestine basis, and they still have not realized that such actions put them in danger of retaliatory attacks. However, they are slowly waking up to the fact that this power is now being turned against them and that maybe, rather than being used to defend freedom, the power to kill at will is being used to destroy it. One hopes they have not arrived at that realization too late.