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David Bromwich Headshot

Careless Words and Callous Deeds

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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.