Kill Lists and Twisted Logic

Sometimes the “hopeful” part of my hopeful curmudgeon persona gets pushed to its limit.

Last night I watched a documentary on Netflix. It was called Dirty Wars, and it featured journalist Jeremy Scahill, who spent over a decade covering the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the spillover from those wars into other countries, such as Yemen and Somalia. The film is about that spillover.

The documentary begins with Scahill traveling to a remote village in Afghanistan (isn’t every village in Afghanistan remote?) to investigate an alleged night raid by US forces that killed seven or more people, including two pregnant women and some children. The survivors tell him that they had been having a family get-together with music and dancing, when suddenly they heard helicopters and gunfire outside. One of the men ran out to see what was going on and was immediately shot to death. The family members point out plastered-over bullet holes in their interior walls to show how the soldiers fired into the house, killing at least six more and wounding several others. Scahill learns that, apparently to cover up what happened, one of the soldiers used a knife to remove the bullets from the body of one of the men.

In the course of his investigation Scahill becomes aware of a shadowy military unit known as the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC (pronounced Jay-Sock), that conducts “dozens, if not hundreds” of these types of raids in countries on at least three continents. When he tries to get information about JSOC, he gets the runaround from the Pentagon, Congress, the CIA—pretty much everyone he talks to. His Freedom of Information request gets shuffled from office to office at the Pentagon, and finally ends up in the bureaucratic equivalent of the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. After his story about the raid gets published in The Nation, he receives thinly veiled threats and discovers that his computer has been hacked.

During the time that he is pursuing the story and working to uncover details about JSOC, President Obama makes his announcement that a special operations team has killed Osama bin Laden. Suddenly, JSOC is out of the shadows and in the limelight, and its director, Admiral McRaven, is the toast of Capitol Hill and a new American hero. By the way, did I mention that JSOC reports directly to the White House? It reports directly to the White House. It is, in effect, a “paramilitary arm of the administration.” That means that the President has his own personal kill team. And after the bin Laden assassination, his kill team suddenly has “billions upon billions of dollars . . . poured into” it. JSOC’s operations expand from a mere forty countries to as many as seventy-five, “with no thought to future repercussions.” A whistleblower (in disguise and with his voice altered) that Cahill interviews calls JSOC “one hell of a hammer,” and suggests that for the foreseeable future (“for the rest of my lifetime,” he says), “this force will be continually searching for a nail.”

This is chilling stuff, and pretty disheartening, even to a curmudgeon as hopeful as yours truly. Cahill describes the growth of the “kill lists”: from less than ten targets in the months after 9/11, to the “deck of cards” (fifty-five in all) in Iraq, to a virtually endless list now (the documentary was released in 2013). He is not trying to do theology, but he makes a pretty profound theological observation when he talks about the need, once all the names are marked off one kill list, to create another. And another. This accurately describes the pernicious nature of evil, which is never satisfied, but perpetually begets more evil. At one point in the documentary, Cahill describes the strategy of JSOC (and most US foreign policy for the last fourteen years and longer) as trying to “kill our way to freedom.” Evil not only begets more evil, but it suckers us with the lie that what it is begetting is good. War brings peace. Killing brings freedom.

Wipe that smug smile off your face, George Orwell, wherever you are. And don’t you dare say, “I told you so.”

Scahill’s investigation carries him to the logical end of this nefarious process. He describes the transformation of Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American imam, from an influential voice of moderation to an even more influential proponent of violent jihad. In the days after 9/11, the US government had called on Awlaki, who served at a mosque in Falls Church, Virginia, asking for his aid in reaching out to Muslim America. The Washington Post had done a favorable profile of him. But after he started to change his message in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq, they began harassing him. Several times he was detained and questioned at the airport, and at one point he was jailed for a year and a half.

When he got out of jail, he left the country and settled in Yemen, where he became famous/infamous for encouraging Muslims, especially young men, to engage in violent attacks against American forces. His reputation grew, and before long, senior administration officials (Attorney General Eric Holder, for one) could be heard in interviews suggesting that Awlaki needed to be “neutralized” by whatever means necessary.

Here we find the other reason that the kill lists keep growing: because every time a JSOC team conducts a nighttime raid and kills innocent civilians, or a US drone fires missiles into a Yemeni village, indiscriminately blowing to bits men, women, children, and animals, what we are doing is creating more radicals who have good reasons to hate the US and who are willing to take up arms or put on the “suicide vest.” Remember, this film was produced in 2013, before most of us had ever heard of ISIS. If we can take a middle-class American who is patriotic and moderate and turn him into a firebrand jihadist, how easy will it be to do the same to some poor, hapless villager in Syria or Yemen or Somalia who doesn’t really have that much to lose?

The “logical end” I mentioned earlier comes not when a US drone strike kills Awlaki—an American citizen who had not been convicted of or even indicted for a crime, and for whom no hard evidence existed that he had done anything more than speak against the US government, which the last time I checked was protected by nothing short of the First Amendment to the Constitution—the logical, tragic end comes when a second drone strike a week later kills Awlaki’s sixteen-year-old son, Abdul Rahman. As Scahill observes, “Like a tale from Greek mythology, Abdul Rahman was killed not for what he had done, but for who he might one day become. A twisted logic. A logic without end.”

Dirty Wars told me things I already knew, but for some reason they hit me with new force last night. I felt helpless in the face of this seemingly inexorable machine of violence and evil that has been set loose in the world and is killing people in my name. I felt guilty for not having paid as close attention as I should have to these issues, for allowing the murders of these precious children of God to fade into background noise that I can ignore with little effort. I thanked God for people like Jeremy Cahill and Nick Kristof and so many others whose names I don’t know who exercise the courage to seek the truth and tell it, in the hope that some small good may come of the telling.

And I resolved to do more to combat the corrosive evil of the violence-soaked culture in which I live. I want to use my position and my gifts to play whatever role I can on the side of light, peace, justice, and love. As Bruce Cockburn once sang, “I want to raise every voice. / At least I’ve got to try.” This blog post is a start, but I will be looking for more ways to stand on the side of light when it comes to these “dirty wars,” or gun violence, or racism, or domestic abuse, or capital punishment, or whatever. Because in the end I really am hopeful. The name of my hope is the reign of God and the source of my hope is Jesus Christ, who died, was buried, and then was raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit. This Jesus now calls me to join him in making that hope take root and grow until the branches of the great mustard shrub of the reign of God spread wide enough to accommodate all the birds of the air. I resolve to respond to that call in obedient faith.

At least I’ve got to try.