dotCommonweal

A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors

.

Tony Soprano and the War on Terror

Over at the New York Review of Books' blog, the novelist Francine Prose has a post about the "nominations" process--the Orwellian name for the regular meetings at which President Obama decides which suspected terrorists to target for assassination. These meetings were the subject of a recent article by Jo Beck and Scott Shane in the New York Times, and Prose puts on her literary critic hat in order to offer a close reading of Beck and Shane's devastating reporting: "Asdrama," Prose writes, the President's "Terror on Tuesday" meetings are "reminiscent of great moments in cable TV: Tony Soprano and his colleagues deciding whom to whack, The Wires Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell conferring on which of their child employees must be eliminated." Here's the conclusion to the post:

For [a moral critique of the policy], we need to examine the articles final line, which continues to resonate after we have set aside our papers. Presumably, pages of transcripts must have been sifted through in order to find (and end with) the following quote from Michael Leiter, former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

You can pass a lot of laws, Mr. Leiter said, These laws are not going to get Bin Laden dead.

Get Bin Laden dead? With its execrable grammar, its calculated thuggishness, and, for all that we have been reading about the assumption of personal responsibility, its euphemistic avoidance of what is really at issue (toget dead is not the same as tokill, and its never laws but people who get other people dead), the quote suggests a new dispensation in which our government, at the highest level, has given Tony Soprano license to ignore the rule of law and murder actual human beings, some of them harmless civilians. Shouldnt we feel more frightened than reassured by the knowledge that the leader of our country holds himself accountable for every one of these deaths?

Comments

Commenting Guidelines

In light of President Obama's use of drones to kill people, including noncombatants whose deaths are referred to as "collateral damage," it is very hard to understand why he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Peace.

Brilliant. I couldn't agree more. What is really distressing is the evident lack of moral discernment and conversation among the American people. We cheer assassinations the way we cheer a loss by the Miami Heat.

Suicide bombers should be given fair trials.

I just hated it when the Bush administration did things like this, except it never did things quite as blatantly unconstitutional and ethically ugly as this. For me, this was the post-ultimate straw from the Obama administration, which I had already given up on for all the ways it emulated its predecessor. But even though it's after-the-fact, it is going to be Exhibit A for me when people tell me we need Obama to save us from Romney. Sheesh he could have asked his John Yoo for a nonsense memo so it wouldn't look as ugly as it is.

It seems to me that when a group of terrorists "declare war" on a nation that the nation has a right to defend itself, assuming that the terrorists had no just cause to destroy the threatened and/or injured nation. But how may a targeted nation morally defend itself?There are numerous moral issues here involving what might be called a state of hostilities analogous to what is generally called "war", i.e., the sort of war covered by the "just war" theory. The School of Salamanca, which included such worthies as Francisco Suarez, Tomas Vitoria, znc Luis de Molina, developed much of what is called "just war theory". The specifics of their theories go somewhat further than the justly famous theory of Aquinas. Wikipedia explains some of their thinking, though I don't know how authoritative the article is. Still, accurate or not, I think that some of the principles put forth there are worthy of consideration. For those inclined to reject those theorists out of hand, you should know that they, contrary to the behavior of the Spanish conquorers, defended at least some of the rights of the indigenous people of the Americas, and some members of the School defended peoples, not kings, as rightfully being sovereign. In other words, they were not stuffy defenders of the establishment, but far ahead of their times in some ways. (Some of them also invented the beginnings of economics as a science, but I"ve forgotten their names.) Please keep an open mind in evaluating their new thinking about just wars. From the long Wikipedia article: "Just warGiven that war is one of the worst evils suffered by mankind, the adherents of the School reasoned that it ought to be resorted to only when it was necessary in order to prevent an even greater evil. A diplomatic agreement is preferable, even for the more powerful party, before a war is started. Examples of "just war" are:* In self-defense, as long as there is a reasonable possibility of success. * If failure is a foregone conclusion, then it is just a wasteful spilling of blood.* Preventive war against a tyrant who is about to attack.* War to punish a guilty enemy.A war is not legitimate or illegitimate simply based on its original motivation: it must comply with a series of additional requirements:* It is necessary that the response be commensurate to the evil; use of more violence than is strictly necessary would constitute an unjust war.* Governing authorities declare war, but their decision is not sufficient cause to begin a war. If the people oppose a war, then it is illegitimate. The people have a right to depose a government that is waging, or is about to wage, an unjust war.* Once war has begun, there remain moral limits to action. For example, one may not attack innocents or kill hostages.* It is obligatory to take advantage of all options for dialogue and negotiations before undertaking a war; war is only legitimate as a last resort.Under this doctrine, expansionist wars, wars of pillage, wars to convert infidels or pagans, and wars for glory are all inherently unjust."The most notable point, I think, is that it approves of "preventive war" when attack is about to happen.

Oops -- should be *Francisco* de Vitoria. And perhaps I should add that the School included both theologians ands jurists.

Ann, the right to self defense has to be based on facts. How will we know the next Al Qaeda #2 will really be planning an attack on us? The same way we knew the last several #2 were? And how do we know the #2s are really #2 and not camel drivers on their week off? The answer to all of those questions is,"the President said so." And how will we ever know -- absent congressional oversight and absent judicial determination -- if the president was telling the truth? We won't.This is the Nixon doctrine (if the president does it, it's legal) in action. A president acts in our name, and I don't want my name attached to "I, the Judge, Jury and Executioner" executive. Parse Just War theory any way you wish, what we suddenly have a a president claiming absolute authority in a democracy." No way that can be.

"How will we know the next Al Qaeda #2 will really be planning an attack on us?"I thin it is unrealistic to expect "We," the American public, to be able to meaningfully participate in such discussisions because they are inherently secret. Some things just have to be secret and we elect a Commander in Chief to command just for that reason. I see some potential risks with targeted drone attacks, but those risks to date are only potential. These are not preemptive attacks--we are in a cuurent state of hostilties with an armed organization. The US Commander in Chief has undertaken attacks on such organizations since the US was formed as a country. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Barbary_WarI strongly disgreed with the prior Commander in Chief's warmaking decisions--so I voted against him. So far, I think the current Commander in Chief has got it about right.

"I strongly disgreed with the prior Commander in Chiefs warmaking decisionsso I voted against him. So far, I think the current Commander in Chief has got it about right."Wow, how the world turns. Pres. Obama has not only continued most of Pres. Bush's policies (including a ramp up of the war in Afghanistan), he has pushed some of the policies even further. Pres. Bush, for example, never claimed constitutional authority to assassinate American citizens suspected of terrorism on foreign soil without indictment, trial, and sentencing. That is a remarkable claim, and again one never made by Pres. Bush. And yesterday the UN issues a warning about the growing drone strikes - the silence of the left on this issue is remarkable. And it is completely inconsistent to condemn George Bush's policies, yet support Pres. Obama on those same policies - and to justify it with "well, some things just need to be kept secret"! Wow.

Tom Blackburn --I agree that kings (who are judge, jury, and have the power to execute), are not the best form of government, but that was not the issue I was addressesing.I was addressing the issue of "preventive war". Though it was the despised Dubya who accepted that principle, at the time I had a certain sympathy for him because terrorism is unjust and we have a right to defend ourselves against such injustice. (9/11 is two days away. Remember?) Preventive "war" or some sort of counter-action is required. But which sort? The problems, both moral and practical, are humongous, but I think that we can at least try to solve the moral ones (i.e., discover the moral parameters of our actions) so that dithering and shouting about what we *may* do will not obfuscate the practical problems or give an excuse to those who despise a particular president to distract us all from the terribly real problems.