This coming Wednesday the House Judiciary Committee plans to hold a hearing on “Drones and the War On Terror: When Can the U.S. Target Alleged American Terrorists Overseas?”
This is odd for a number of reasons.
1. Congressional committees usually don’t do anything at all on such matters.
2. The vast majority of the men, women, and children being killed have not been targeted.
3. The vast majority of the men, women, and children being killed or targeted have not been Americans.
4. The president’s nominee to direct the CIA refuses to deny that the president claims the power to kill Americans when they are not overseas, not to mention non-Americans within the United States and anyone at all overseas.
5. The three Americans we know the president has targeted and killed by drone strike in no way match up with the justifications for theoretical strikes found in the “white paper.”
6. The president is targeting and killing people with a variety of technologies, not just drones.
7. The only remotely legal or moral answer to the question asked by the hearing is “never.”
All such concerns will, of course, be brushed aside. Congress ought to question the administration on its program of drone killing, regardless of what title the hearing is given, right? But this is where things get really odd. The witness list doesn’t include the president or a single person who works for him, no one from the CIA, no one from the White House, no one from the Pentagon, nobody from the Office of Legal Counsel. As far as we know, and it seems extremely likely to be the case, the committee has not subpoenaed any documents. If it invited any government witnesses, it has not subpoenaed them or made any plans to figuratively or literally hold them in contempt. Instead, all the witnesses are outside “experts” who won’t know any more about what’s going on than the rest of us.
A defender of this approach explained it to me thus: Senators and Representatives are often remarkably ignorant. Senator Dianne Feinstein doesn’t even know that all military aged males killed by drone strikes are being declared militants. Congress Members don’t even read newspapers. If some smart experts testify at a public hearing, then elected officials can’t deny as many facts. Plus, inviting government witnesses would just produce stonewalling or lying.
In my view, stonewalling and lying are reasons for subpoenas and contempt, not a complete abdication of the power of oversight. It’s not that I think glorified public newspaper reading is worse than nothing. I just think more is called for.
On the other hand, the notion that Congress needs more information before it should act is ludicrous. What sort of memo could legalize murder? What sort of due process could be applied to murder to make it not be murder? As long as Congress is bringing in experts to talk about what’s already public knowledge, I’d like to propose a different type of witness. If witnesses from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen are not deemed relevant, newspaper interpreters are not going to make them so. I’d like to propose, then, as one of many actually useful witnesses a gentleman by the name of Leo Tolstoy, who had this to say well over a century ago:
“People are astonished that every year there are sixty thousand cases of suicide in Europe, and those only the recognized and recorded cases—and excluding Russia and Turkey; but one ought rather to be surprised that there are so few. Every man of the present day, if we go deep enough into the contradiction between his conscience and his life, is in a state of despair.
“Not to speak of all the other contradictions between modern life and the conscience, the permanently armed condition of Europe together with its profession of Christianity is alone enough to drive any man to despair, to doubt of the sanity of mankind, and to terminate an existence in this senseless and brutal world. This contradiction, which is a quintessence of all the other contradictions, is so terrible that to live and to take part in it is only possible if one does not think of it—if one is able to forget it.
“What! all of us, Christians, not only profess to love one another, but do actually live one common life; we whose social existence beats with one common pulse—we aid one another, learn from one another, draw ever closer to one another to our mutual happiness, and find in this closeness the whole meaning of life!—and to-morrow some crazy ruler will say some stupidity, and another will answer in the same spirit, and then I must go expose myself to being murdered, and murder men—who have done me no harm—and more than that, whom I love. And this is not a remote contingency, but the very thing we are all preparing for, which is not only probable, but an inevitable certainty.
“To recognize this clearly is enough to drive a man out of his senses or to make him shoot himself. And this is just what does happen, and especially often among military men. A man need only come to himself for an instant to be impelled inevitably to such an end.
“And this is the only explanation of the dreadful intensity with which men of modern times strive to stupefy themselves, with spirits, tobacco, opium, cards, reading newspapers, traveling, and all kinds of spectacles and amusements. These pursuits are followed up as an important, serious business. And indeed they are a serious business. If there were no external means of dulling their sensibilities, half of mankind would shoot themselves without delay, for to live in opposition to one’s reason is the most intolerable condition. And that is the condition of all men of the present day. All men of the modern world exist in a state of continual and flagrant antagonism between their conscience and their way of life. This antagonism is apparent in economic as well as political life. But most striking of all is the contradiction between the Christian law of the brotherhood of men existing in the conscience and the necessity under which all men are placed by compulsory military service of being prepared for hatred and murder—of being at the same time a Christian and a gladiator.”
It seems to me that the occasion of publicly discussing the U.S. government’s targeting and killing U.S. citizens presents an opportunity for opening up even the narrowest of bigots to the contradiction between killing and protecting (whether or not one puts the latter in the religious terms of Tolstoy’s day — as I do not but most Congress Members sometimes pretend to). Tolstoy may not be the ideal witness, as he’s dead. But he does have the advantage of having already posed to himself better questions than anyone would ask him if he were alive. (You know they’d be asking about the latest film adaptation of Anna Karenina.)
“‘How can you kill people, when it is written in God’s commandment: “Thou shalt not kill”?’ I have often inquired of different soldiers. And I always drove them to embarrassment and confusion by reminding them of what they did not want to think about. They knew they were bound by the law of God, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ and knew too that they were bound by their duty as soldiers, but had never reflected on the contradiction between these duties. The drift of the timid answers I received to this question was always approximately this: that killing in war and executing criminals by command of the government are not included in the general prohibition of murder. But when I said this distinction was not made in the law of God, and reminded them of the Christian duty of fraternity, forgiveness of injuries, and love, which could not be reconciled with murder, the peasants usually agreed, but in their turn began to ask me questions. ‘How does it happen,’ they inquired, ‘that the government [which according to their ideas cannot do wrong] sends the army to war and orders criminals to be executed.’ When I answered that the government does wrong in giving such orders, the peasants fell into still greater confusion, and either broke off the conversation or else got angry with me.
“‘They must have found a law for it. The archbishops know as much about it as we do, I should hope,’ a Russian soldier once observed to me. And in saying this the soldier obviously set his mind at rest, in the full conviction that his spiritual guides had found a law which authorized his ancestors, and the tzars and their descendants, and millions of men, to serve as he was doing himself, and that the question I had put him was a kind of hoax or conundrum on my part.
“Everyone in our Christian society knows, either by tradition or by revelation or by the voice of conscience, that murder is one of the most fearful crimes a man can commit, as the Gospel tells us, and that the sin of murder cannot be limited to certain persons, that is, murder cannot be a sin for some and not a sin for others. Everyone knows that if murder is a sin, it is always a sin, whoever are the victims murdered, just like the sin of adultery, theft, or any other. At the same time from their childhood up men see that murder is not only permitted, but even sanctioned by the blessing of those whom they are accustomed to regard as their divinely appointed spiritual guides, and see their secular leaders with calm assurance organizing murder, proud to wear murderous arms, and demanding of others in the name of the laws of the country, and even of God, that they should take part in murder. Men see that there is some inconsistency here, but not being able to analyze it, involuntarily assume that this apparent inconsistency is only the result of their ignorance. The very grossness and obviousness of the inconsistency confirms them in this conviction.”
Congress would hear something worth hearing from this witness, I believe. But so might twenty-first century U.S. peasants as well.
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