At some point earlier this month, Barack Obama took a moment out of his busy day to sign an "execute order." That is, he ordered American agents to kill a man without any legal procedure whatsoever: no arrest, no trial, no formal presentation – and disputation – of evidence, no defense...and no warning. They killed him on the open road, in a sneak attack; he was not engaged in combat, he was not posing an imminent threat to anyone at the time, he had not been charged with any crime. This kind of thing is ordinarily regarded as murder. Certainly, if you or I killed someone in this way – or paid someone to do it – then we would find ourselves in the dock, facing life imprisonment or our own execution. But then, you and I are subject to the law; our leaders are not.
Let's say it again, just to let the reality of the situation sink in a bit further: at some point last week, Barack Obama ordered men in his employ to murder another human being. And not a single voice of protest was raised anywhere in the American political and media establishments. Churchmen did not thunder from the pulpits about this lawless action. The self-proclaimed patriots and liberty-lovers on the ever-more militant Right did not denounce this most extreme expression of state tyranny: the leader's arbitrary power to kill anyone he pleases. It is simply an accepted, undisputed fact of American life today that American leaders can and do – and should – murder people, anywhere in the world, if they see fit. When this supreme tyranny is noted at all, it is simply to celebrate the Leader for his toughness -- or perhaps chide him for not killing even more people in this fashion.
I wrote a great deal about this theme when George W. Bush was president. I began back in November 2001, after the Washington Post reported that Bush had signed an executive order giving himself the power to order the killing of anyone he arbitrarily designated a terrorist. Year after year, I wrote of how this murderous edict was put into practice around the world, and of its virulently corrosive effects on American society. Now Barack Obama is availing himself of these same powers. There is not one crumb, one atom, one photon of difference between Obama and Bush on this issue. They both believe that the president of the United States can have people killed outside of any semblance of a judicial process: murdered, in cold blood, in sneak attacks, with any "collateral damage" regarded as an acceptable by-product – just like the terrorists they claim to be fighting with these methods.
Nor does this doctrine of presidential murder make any distinction between American citizens and foreigner. Indeed, one of the first people known to have been killed in this way was an American citizen living in Yemen. So let us put the reality in its plainest terms: if the president of the United States decides to call you a terrorist and kill you, he can. He doesn't have to arrest you, he doesn't have to charge you, he doesn't have to put you on trial, he doesn't have to convict you, he doesn't have to sentence you, he doesn't have to allow you any appeals: he can just kill you. And no one in the American power structure will speak up for you or denounce your murder; they won't even see that it's wrong, they won't even consider it remarkable. It's just business as usual. It's just the way things are done. It's just the way we are now.
These reflections are prompted by the killing of Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a Kenyan man accused of being an al Qaeda operative. We are told – by unnamed American intelligence officials – that Nabhan was suspected of a hotel bombing in Kenya and a failed attempt to shoot down an airliner. We are told, by unnamed American intelligence officials, that Nabhan was suspected of involvement in the bombing of U.S. embassies in Africa. Grievous accusations; they may even be true. But of course, how can we know? For are the unnamed American intelligence officials who tell us these things the same unnamed American intelligence officials who told us that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction? Are these the same unnamed American intelligence officials who told us that Saddam Hussein was involved with al Qaeda? That he had purchased uranium "yellowcake" from Niger? Are these the same unnamed American intelligence officials who used to tell us that the Soviet Union was not collapsing in the 1980s but was in fact developing super-secret weapons to destroy us all? Or that North Vietnamese boats had attacked American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin? Are these the same unnamed American intelligence officials who are always trotted out to justify any action or agenda of the government of the day, without ever producing any evidence whatsoever of their claims?
The truth is that we cannot know what Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan did or did not do – beyond the fact that he had joined the "wrong" side (i.e., one not currently backed by America) in a multi-sided, hydra-headed civil war in Somalia. Nabhan was fighting with a faction of Islamic militants called al-Shabab.
Al-Shabab once belonged to a coalition of Islamic groups which had brought the first measure of stability to Somalia after many years of anarchy and chaos under fractious warlords who had driven American forces from the country in 1993. In late 2006, this coalition was overthrown by an American-assisted invasion of Ethiopian troops – with the aid of some of those same warlords from 1993, now on the CIA payroll and fighting for the Americans. A horrible crucifixion of the Somali people ensued, turning the already ravaged nation into one of the greatest humanitarian disasters on earth. Meanwhile, al-Shabab only grew stronger and more radical during the reign of terror instigated by the American-Ethiopian "regime change" operation.
In the end, after many atrocities, the American-backed Ethiopian forces withdrew – and the Americans helped place the head of the ousted Islamic coalition back into power as the president of the Western-backed "transitional government." Yes, it is as bizarre as it sounds: the Americans paid their former enemies to help oust a leader whom they then put back into power again. The end result of the American intervention in Somalia has been the pointless slaughter of tens of thousands of innocent people; the utter ruin, dispossession and near-starvation of millions of people; the growth of extremism; and ever-greater violence, chaos, and instability. It is a crime of monstrous, mind-boggling proportions.
The result of Nabhan's murder will only be more suffering for Somalis. Al-Shabab will certainly retaliate – but with no way of striking at the United States, they will have to lash out locally. The murder will also serve as lesson for would-be terrorists around the world – the same lesson that the War on Terror has been teaching day after day, year after year, from the day it was launched by George W. Bush to its continuance and expansion by Barack Obama today. That lesson is stark and simple: Murder works. Murder is the way to advance your agenda. Murder is what "serious" players on the world stage do. There is no law but the law of power; there is no way but the way of violence. There is no morality, there is no liberty, we share no common humanity.
This is the example that America now sets for the world. This is what we teach our children – and the children of our victims. This is what Barack Obama affirmed once again when he signed his "execute order."
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This story was published in the Baltimore Chronicle on September 16, 2009.