Adam Lanza, Obama’s Address, and the Culture of Collateral Damage

My lord, the chutzpah of our President is something to behold! Obama’s Newtown speech is now being hailed as his “Gettysburg Address” by Washington Post Associate Editor David Maraniss. The accolades are gushing in at gale-force speeds. Our President-Philosophe is reaching the very zenith of his charismatic powers, and the ever-predictable stable of progressive pundits are no doubt beginning to sense the old, hoary thrill creeping further and further up their inner thighs.

You know, I was planning on writing something today about the very real sympathy that I feel for Obama. The man has been dumped into nearly impossible circumstances: an epochal depression, the looming ecological collapse of our civilization, a utopian, revolutionary, Right-wing movement hell-bent on destroying the middle class and the earth, a pathetic and confused Left, a corrupt intelligentsia, a bought-and-paid for congress, a fascist Supreme Court, bloody revolutions abroad, resource depletion, et cetera, et cetera.

But I will save my Obama apologia for tomorrow. This Newtown speech is one absurdity too far. In order to illustrate why the President’s latest address and the surrounding media hoopla is a surreal and bizarre affair, I want to draw your attention to the fate of two Pakistani children. I know this will be difficult, but bear with me.

Investigative reporter Pratap Chatterjee described the boys in the pages of the Guardian on November 7, 2011:

“Last Friday, I met a boy, just before he was assassinated by the CIA. Tariq Aziz was 16, a quiet young man from North Waziristan, who, like most teenagers, enjoyed soccer. Seventy-two hours later, a Hellfire missile is believed to have killed him as he was travelling in a car to meet his aunt in Miran Shah, to take her home after her wedding. Killed with him was his 12-year-old cousin, Waheed Khan.”

Chatterjee works for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, an organization that is relied on by numerous media organizations across the world. Chatterjee claims that there is no known evidence that the boys were “terrorists.”

“The final order to kill is signed allegedly by Stephen Preston, the general counsel at the CIA headquarters. What evidence, I would like to know, does Mr. Preston have against Tariq and Waheed? What right does he have to act as judge, jury and executioner of two teenage boys neither he nor his staff have ever met, let alone cross-examined, or given the opportunity to present witnesses?

It is not too late to call for a prosecution and trial of whoever pushed the button and the US government officials who gave the order: that is, Mr Preston and his boss, President Barack Obama.”

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports the following statistics on CIA drone strikes in Pakistan since the program began in 2004:

Total US strikes: 354
Obama strikes: 302
Total reported killed: 2,597-3,398
Civilians reported killed: 473-889
Children reported killed: 176
Total reported injured: 1,256-1,414

Now, I checked the Bureau’s methodology, and it is not clear to me whether they accept the Obama administration’s definition of militants when they calculate the civilian death total. Before this definition was reported by the New York Times in April, most media organizations uncritically passed along statistics about dead “militants” from the CIA. According to the Times’ story on Obama’s “Kill List,” the administration counts all “military-age males” that are killed in strike zones—meaning age 16 and above—as “militants.” If you don’t think that anyone above 16 who happens to be killed by a CIA drone strike in North Waziristan is a terrorist, then you may understand there to be a higher civilian death toll.

There have been 302 “Obama strikes,” as the Bureau puts it. We can assume, then, that Obama is directly responsible for the deaths of over 100 children during his first term, though that would be far too conservative. The number is undoubtedly higher, if you include drone strikes in Yemen and Somalia, as well as the unavoidable “collateral damage” incurred by the surge in Afghanistan.

If we trust what is considered to be a reliable source by the world’s media, then, Obama is responsible for the deaths of dozens and dozens of children, far more than were killed by Adam Lanza. While he has almost certainly never killed a child with his own hands, he has signed papers and given orders that have resulted in the death of dozens of children, at the very least.

Perhaps these were all terrible accidents. Unfortunate collateral damage of the war on terror, you may say. Still, even if this were true, we must acknowledge that Obama has an internet connection. Unless he is the most incurious person in the history of the world, he knows that the drone strikes he has ordered have killed children. It is a fact that even the CIA has acknowledged. And yet Obama continues the program.

The drone strikes have “stepped up enormously” under Obama, the Bureau tells us. And the CIA continues to bomb funerals and humanitarian rescue-workers as part of the drone program.

“The CIA’s drone campaign in Pakistan has killed dozens of civilians who had gone to help rescue victims or were attending funerals, an investigation by the Bureau for the Sunday Times has revealed.

The findings are published just days after President Obama claimed that the drone campaign in Pakistan was a ‘targeted, focused effort’ that ‘has not caused a huge number of civilian casualties.’

Speaking publicly for the first time on the controversial CIA drone strikes, Obama claimed last week they are used strictly to target terrorists, rejecting what he called ‘this perception we’re just sending in a whole bunch of strikes willy-nilly’.

‘Drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties’, he told a questioner at an on-line forum. ‘This is a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists trying to go in and harm Americans’.”

It is a documented fact that Obama is directly responsible for a program that bombs funerals and kills children. This should not be disputed.

Let us then move on to Obama’s Gettysburg Address. I’ve typed up a few of the more poignant quotes:

“In the face of indescribable violence, in the face of unconscionable evil, you’ve looked out for each other, and you’ve cared for one another, and you’ve loved one another. This is how Newtown will be remembered, and with time and God’s grace. That love will see you through.”

Obama describes the murder of 27 innocents — mostly tiny, defenseless children — as an act of “unconscionable evil.” I really do wonder what goes through his head when he reads such words on national television. Does he think about the funerals bombed on his orders? The 12-year-old Pakistani boy killed en-route to a wedding? How does he wrap his conscience around that one?

Let us continue with the Newtown speech:

“If there’s even one step we can take to save another child, or another parent, or another town, from the grief that’s visited Tuscon, and Aurora, and Oak Creek, and Newtown, and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that, then surely we have an obligation to try.”

And some more:

“Because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine. Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage? That the politics are too hard. Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year, is somehow the price of our freedom?”

“Our children.” These are the most important words of the speech. It is an eloquent plea for gun control in the name of protecting the most defenseless and innocent members of our society. Yet, what is left unsaid? It is the undeniable fact that we are all completely prepared to sanction violence on young foreigners—young men and infants who don’t happen to be our children. That is the price of the War on Terror. And the War on Terror is the price we pay for our freedom, for our American way of life.

“The only one thing we can be sure of, and that is the love that we have. For our children, for our families, for each other. The warmth of a small child’s embrace. That is true. The memories we have of them. The joy that they bring. The wonder we see through their eyes. That fierce and boundless love we feel for them. A love that takes us out of ourselves and binds us to something larger. We know that’s what matters. We know we’re always doing right when we’re taking care of them. When we’re teaching them well. When we’re showing acts of kindness. We don’t go wrong when we do that. That’s what we can be sure of. And that’s what you, the people of Newtown have reminded us. That’s how you have inspired us. You remind us what matters. And that’s what should drive us forward in everything we do, for as long as God sees fit to keep us on this earth.”

Obama, the technocratic enforcer of our increasingly fragile Pax Americana, sees fit to remove Pakistani mourners, babies, and young men from this Earth.

Yet, it must be acknowledged that Obama spoke eloquently and passionately about the Newtown massacre. He seemed genuinely saddened.

There is only one way in which Obama, in his heart of hearts, could possibly reconcile his moving speech with his actions in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan. He legitimately believes that our children are more holy, more beautiful, more worthy of survival, than their children. These massacres are the unfortunate but necessary collateral damage that is the price of progress.

Some of you are probably bemoaning my hopeless naivete, idealism, anti-Americanism, and so on. Let me then indulge in a little realpolitik — the opiate of the American foreign policy establishment.

Here is the argument for drone strikes: They involve fewer casualties than ground wars. They allow us to bring our troops home. The innocents are often affiliated with dangerous terrorists who seek to destabilize international politics and commerce. It would be impossible to bring these terrorists to justice without killing the innocents in their vicinity. Without the added expense of nation-building abroad, we can do some nation-building at home.

Robert Gibbs, Obama’s former press secretary, illustrates this mentality well. At a press conference, a reporter asked Gibbs to justify the killing of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, a 16-year-old American-born citizen, at the President’s request. The boy’s father, also killed in the drone strike, was Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born charismatic preacher who has urged acts of violence against America in YouTube videos.

ADAMSON: …It’s an American citizen that is being targeted without due process, without trial. And, he’s underage. He’s a minor.

GIBBS: I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the well being of their children. I don’t think becoming an al Qaeda jihadist terrorist is the best way to go about doing your business.

Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki, 16. Courtesy: Fox News

Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki, 16. Courtesy: Fox News

Besides Gibbs’ baldly absurd and authoritarian statement, the realpolitik defense of drones must be considered. The 9/11 attacks were a heinous massacre that destabilized international politics, and led to the murderous Iraq War. Acts of terror threaten international security and must be prevented.

Still, respectable organizations such as the Stanford and NYU Law Schools have found that the drone-strikes are counter-productive—that they stir resentment abroad and inspire further acts of terrorism against the United States and the West. The relatives of the victims are not the only ones who are terrorized by 24/7 drone surveillance.

“US drones hover 24 hours a day over communities in north-west Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning,” the American law schools report says.

“Their presence terrorises men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves.

“These fears have affected behaviour. The US practice of striking one area multiple times, and evidence that it has killed rescuers, makes both community members and humanitarian workers afraid or unwilling to assist injured victims.”

If we are to use drone strikes to ensure our way of life, should not other nations? We have many terrorists within our borders that pose a threat to world security. Henry Kissinger, for example, is a classic state terrorist, responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of innocent Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians. Yet Kissinger continues to be feted by the American foreign policy establishment. He serves on the board of numerous organizations, such as the Council on Foreign Relations, that continue to impact United States contemporary foreign policy. Why shouldn’t Cambodia be able to bomb the next funeral that Kissinger attends? Certainly the inevitable “collateral damage” would be worth the necessary precaution of taking out an influential and living agent of mass terror?

Only time will tell whether the drone strikes have succeeded in dismantling the organized agents of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism. Either way, the fact remains that Obama continues to routinely order strikes that kill innocent children. Because of this, it is galling to see him correctly characterize the killing of innocent children as “unconscionable evil.” That takes some serious brass, as it were.

Again, it should be acknowledged that almost every American president has engaged in some sort of state terror against foreign nations. So Obama is no different than previous presidents, in that respect. In all probability, he has been responsible for far less innocent death than many of his predecessors.

My main point is the following: If we want to change, as Obama asks us to do, we need to come to a more coherent understanding of what is wrong with our society. Now that the horrible events of Newtown have brought us face-to-face with evil incarnate, we must realize the evil within ourselves and our political system. When people abroad look at us, they see the same evil, the same indiscriminate murderousness, that we see in Adam Lanza. They have very real justification to see us in that ugly light.

I’ve only highlighted a tiny slice of America’s sad and heinous record abroad. Perhaps our crimes are numerically inferior to those of the Nazis, Maoists, and Stalinists. But what does it matter? Our country has killed millions and millions of people. Most cultures maintain a strong sense of historical memory. They remember. For the large part, we don’t. To put it simply: The vast majority of us just don’t give a damn about the impact of our lifestyles on the rest of the world.

According to Scottish linguist, Deborah Cameron, the phrase “collateral damage” is a highly useful piece of Orwellian jargon. It is “abstract, agentless and affectless, so that even if people succeed in associating it with a real act or event they will be insulated from any feeling of repulsion and moral outrage.”

Ours is the culture of collateral damage. Our only sacred project worth defending is our materialistic way of life. Beyond that, it’s a free-for-all. The hundreds of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders locked away in riotous, sexually depraved prisons, are the collateral damage of the private-prison industry’s profits. The laid-off workers and the desperate poor pay the price of our “modernized, efficient” financial system. Tariq Aziz and Waheed Khan are evaporated by hellfire missiles so we can continue to invade countries and forcibly open their markets to development, unshackled by the threat of violent terroristic reprisal. The victims of the Newtown Massacre are the collateral damage of our society’s perverse obsession with gun violence. The young, and yet-to-be born will pay the ultimate price for our disastrously polluting, growth-based economy.

At last, we have pierced through the culture of collateral damage, and our moral outrage has reached a frenzied fervor. We have identified the enemy, the gun lobby, and we have set our sights on an admirable policy of reform: gun control.

Can we apply this lesson more broadly? Can we expand our moral horizons beyond our narrow empathy for people who look like us—people who live right nearby, with similar jobs and income levels?

As Hurricane Sandy so starkly demonstrated, the seas are rising. The Great Flood is coming, and most of us will not be welcomed onto Noah’s Ark. Over the coming decades, as we flee for higher and higher ground, will the privileged few open their arms to the swelling ranks of desperate climate refugees? Or will our definitions of collateral damage expand like a mushroom cloud, until we are all consumed by its sterile, cruel embrace?

Will we, too, silently sacrifice ourselves at the altar of unyielding progress? Or will we follow the lead of Victoria Soto, the 27-year-old teacher who threw herself in front of Adam Lanza’s gunfire, and revolt against evil?


6 thoughts on “Adam Lanza, Obama’s Address, and the Culture of Collateral Damage

  1. is it right to classify the actions of someone mentally unstable as evil incarnate (who’s country doesn’t provide free access to mental health coverage) when compared with the deliberately murderous action of sane heads of state throughout the 20th century (and 21st, as you suggest here)?

  2. Fair point, Sigmund. I’m not sure I pinned it all on Adam Lanza. I merely said that we have, for the moment, come face-to-face with evil incarnate. Don’t his evil actions–and their potential basis in our shoddy welfare state and our decrepit moral culture–reflect our society-at-large, not the agency of one “evil” lone wolf killer? Also, I’m not so sure our heads of state are sane. It would be nice to think so, wouldn’t it?

    • Also, see Jim Howard Kunstler’s typically searing take on the episode. He fingers the crisis of American manhood as one of the culprits:

      “For what it’s worth, the Newtown Massacre to me is largely about the failure of men in America, and in particular the failure of men to raise up male children into men. The tragic monster that Mr. Lanza grow up into lived with Mom and ended up parking four bullets in her brain. Imagine the tensions in that monster. It’s not an accident that the commercial fantasies represented in movies and television aimed at boys are populated by legions of super-heroes. This sort of grandiosity — the wish to project supernatural powers — is exactly what you get in boys who have not developed competence in any reality-based, meaningful realm of endeavor — and I wouldn’t necessarily include school, such as it is in our time, as a reality-based, meaningful realm of endeavor, since it is mostly a brutally boring accreditation process. Notice, Mr. Lanza’s chief instrument of death was the “Bushmaster.” His weapon made him a “master” of something, at least, even if it was just the systematic slaughter of six-year-old kids and the women in charge of them.
      History has its own arcs and particular moments in history have their own spirits of the time. This moment for us is the sum of the unintended consequences of countless bad choices we’ve made for many decades against the backdrop of enormous material riches. I’ve inveighed against these manifold fiascos enough for this audience. The net result is a nation that has turned men either into weaklings, fakes, or monsters. I think the greater tragedy is that we are past being able to teach ourselves how to act and now it is up to nature and history to provide the only kind of instruction we can understand.”

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