Dear Mr. President,
I’ve had you on my mind lately, what with the fallout over the drone thing. I thought I’d write you a little note, since it seems I’ve failed you.
In sixth grade I punched Russell Burgess in the mouth. He never saw it coming. Well, I mean, he saw it coming in the sense that he saw my fist coming toward his face. But he didn’t know I was going to do it.
Russell was an easy kid to dislike. He wasn’t necessarily mean; he was just always there, underfoot, at the wrong time, desperately seeking affirmation from prepubescent suburbanites who were socially and biologically engineered to sniff out neediness, for the purposes of withholding approval. We had power we were unafraid of wielding, usually without regard to the consequences experienced by our victims.
The reason I punched him, I suppose, had to do with my own need for approval. Standing in a crowd, I told him to take a hike. He laughed at my presumption. So, I punched him in the mouth.
My outburst caused no small amount of consternation, I can tell you.
“You can’t just go around punching people in the mouth, because you don’t like them. Besides, that’s not like you. You’re not that kind of kid. They think you might have broken his jaw.”
That’s what my mom said.
“Well,” I rationalized, “I told him to go away, and he didn’t. How did I know he wasn’t getting ready to punch me first? He’s sneaky, you know. He’s punched people before. Besides, it’s hard to remember just what happened--fog of war, you know.”
I was wrong. I was a bully that day. (Russell Burgess, wherever you are, I was wrong. I never took the opportunity to tell you, but I’m sorry … for whatever it’s worth now, which, I suppose, isn’t much.)
I got to thinking about Russell Burgess the other day, after we (once again) sent some deadly drones to do our bidding against people, most of whom were helpless in the face of our righteous anger. And we wound up (once again) killing some folks we thought were bad guys, but who turned out to be innocent. In the most recent case, the innocent were two Western hostages, one of whom, Warren Weinstein, was an American citizen.
And when you were speaking about our culpability, Mr. President, you fell back on the “fog of war” excuse--which properly understood is a variant of the whole “If-you-want-to-make-an-omelette-you-have-to-break-a-few-eggs” rationalization of violence. And the whole thing points up the problem of a lack of transparency in the drone program: How are targets decided? How often do we kill folks we didn’t intend to kill? How often are those same folks guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time? As Scott Shane has observed, “When the heavy cloak of secrecy has occasionally been breached, the results of some strikes have often turned out to be deeply troubling.”
There’s a general concern about the fact that we’re accidentally killing American citizens. And as an American, I blanche at the thought of the havoc we sometimes wreak (unintentionally or otherwise) on our own people. It’s galling.
But as a Christian, I just have to tell you, I’m irritated that in most cases the conversation centers on our responsibility to American citizens and our allies, while failing to muster any outrage on behalf of the civilians from other countries who unfortunately just happened to learn the hard way about the deadly earnestness with which we send unmanned drones to less powerful countries to kill people we’re pretty sure we don’t like.
We’ve killed women and children, sir. We’ve killed innocent men. That they didn’t have the good foresight to be born to American parents or on American soil matters not at all to the God who created them and who, Jesus says, still loves them--despite their deplorable lack of curiosity about Western consumer capitalism or their inability to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
And here’s the really painful thing, Mr. President: When all those yahoos were denouncing you as a Kenyan Muslim (not that there’s anything wrong with that, other than, in this case, the fact that it isn’t true), I was defending you as a Christian, somebody who took seriously the claims of Jesus about peace and love. (I actually think Jeremiah Wright got a bad rap, okay?)
But this? Unmanned drones? Push-button warfare? Remote control death? I’m sorry, but I can’t help you out there, brother. You’ve hitched your wagon to the wrong jet-propelled star, as far as I’m concerned.
And here’s why, sir: People who follow Jesus--a man killed preemptively by the state in the name of keeping the peace--can’t but be suspicious when the state starts targeting enemies to dispatch. That we do it from long range only makes us smarter, not better than our Roman forebears.
Oh, I know there are all sorts of reasons given why we need to kill people before they get a chance to kill us. Unfortunately, Mr. President, since you call yourself by the name, “Christian,” I feel the need to point out to you that you can’t justify any of them by reference to the life and ministry of Jesus.
I’ve been working on it; I promise. But I’ve let you down. No matter how many legal wizards you have running this one down, I can’t figure out any way to get Jesus to say it’s okay for you to whack people with a joy stick and a laptop (both those whom you don’t like, as well as those whose only offense includes being in the wrong place eating their Cheerios when our faceless flying death robots come calling). I can’t come up with a way that this doesn’t cast us in the role of bully, at odds with a faith driven by peace and love.
So, Mr. President I’m still pulling for you (because Yay! healthcare and immigration reform, making the wealthiest pay their fair share and same gender marriage!) But on the drone thing you’re wrong. (And I’m pretty sure Jesus and Russell Burgess will back me up on this one.)
Your pal, Derek