Careless Words and Callous Deeds

12/13/2010 09:36 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It has lately become usual for right-wing columnists, bloggers, and jingo

lawmakers to call for the assassination of people abroad whom we don't like, or

people who carry out functions that we don't want to see performed. There was

nothing like this in our popular commentary before 2003; but the callousness

has grown more marked in the past year, and especially in the past six months. Why? A major factor was President Obama's order of the assassination of an

American citizen living in Yemen, the terrorist suspect Anwar al-Awlaki. This

gave legal permission to a gangster shortcut Americans historically had been

taught to shun. The cult of Predator-drone warfare generally has also played a

part. But how did such remote-control killings pick up glamor and legitimacy?

Here again, the president did some of the work. On May 1, at the White House

Correspondents dinner, he made an unexpected joke: "Jonas Brothers are here tonight. Sasha and Malia are huge fans. But boys, don't

get any ideas. Two words: predator drones. You will never see it coming." The

line caught a laugh but it should have caused an intake of breath. A joke (it

has been said) is an epigram on the death of a feeling. By turning the killings

he orders into an occasion for stand-up comedy, the new president marked the

death of a feeling that had seemed to differentiate him from George W. Bush. A

change in the mood of a people may occur like a slip of the tongue. A word

becomes a phrase, the phrase a sentence, and when enough speakers fall into the

barbarous dialect, we forget that we ever talked differently.