By Derek Penwell
Dear Mr. President,
I’ve had you on my mind lately, what with the kerfuffle over drones. I thought I’d write you a little note.
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.
“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.”
I was wrong. I was a bully. (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, when discussion of your white paper on drone strikes preemptively killing American citizens got to be such a hot topic. According to the legal folks at the Department of Justice, getting ahead of the game by killing U.S. citizens before they commit violent acts is cool as long they are “senior, operational leader[s] of al-Qa’ida or an associated force of al-Qa’ida” and a few other conditions are met: (1) an “informed, high-level official of the U.S. government” is pretty sure they’re up to no good; (2) “capture is infeasible”; and (3) “the operation is conducted in a manner consistent with the four fundamental principles of the laws of war governing the use of force [i.e., “necessity, distinction, proportionality, and humanity”].”
As you know, Mr. President, since the leaking of this sixteen page memo, the hang-up has been the preemptive killing of U.S. citizens. The general consensus is that you can’t just punch people in the mouth, especially, apparently, if they happen to be your people. Otherwise, you fail to give due process."
As far as I can tell, the response from your folks seems to be, “Due process? Harrumph! If they wanted constitutional considerations, they should have stayed on our good side. (And, after all, as Stephen Colbert has noted, ”due process just means that there is a process that you do.")
“Because really, how were we supposed to know that they weren’t getting ready to hit us first? They’re sneaky, you know. They’ve hit people before.”
As an American, I blanche at the thought that the President (or some other “informed, high-level” muckity-muck) arrogates unto himself the right to decide—without oversight, and offering merely a simple “you’re just going to have to trust me on this that I’ve got everyone’s best interest in mind”—just which citizens get a friendly visit from the unmanned neighborhood knee-breaker, and which citizens get to skate like a bank president in a SEC shakedown. As much as I like you Mr. President, I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the system of checks and balances the founding fathers had in mind (i.e., “As far as you know, I won’t do anything I’m not supposed to do”).
But as a Christian, I just have to tell you that I’m irritated that in most cases the conversation centers on by-passing due process for American citizens, 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. 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 justice and peace. I actually think Jeremiah Wright got a bad rap, o.k.?
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 rocket-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 failed you. 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 o.k. 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 bombs come calling). I can’t come up with a way that this doesn’t cast us in the role of bully.
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 Russell Burgess will back me up on this one.)