The New York Times used an incendiary phrase to describe the beheading of another American reporter in Syria. It was, the newspaper said, an “apparent murder.” The Times simply repeats the assertion of President Obama, who denounced the event as “the brutal murder of an innocent American journalist.” Perhaps it was. But popular American outrage at the barbaric killing and political voices demanding forceful retaliation reveal profound national hypocrisy.
If killing an individual American the jihadists identify as an enemy is murder, then how should we describe the American drone attacks that single out Islamic leaders for execution? For that matter, how do we differentiate the clandestine raids staged by US Special Forces in foreign lands when those soldiers in black capture and kill human targets secretly selected by American intelligence?
The American definition of “murder” in the midst of war now seems to depend upon the technical methodology for the homicide, not the deliberate intentions of the killers. Beheading is barbaric. High-tech bombing picking off individual “bad guys” is okay. In fact, US leaders claim to be conscientiously selective, though the innocent bystanders killed by drones are dismissed as “collateral damage.”
The distinctions between us and them may satisfy American public opinion—but killing is killing. Either way, “bad guys” end up dead. The Islamic State forces seem to recognize the bloody irony. Indeed, they have taunted the American goliath with the comparison. The masked executioner who killed Stephen Sotloff by cutting off his head delivered his video message in English: “Just as your missiles continue to strike our people, our knife will continue to strike the necks of your people.”
Knives or bombs, either way the people are dead. The Islamist relish for gore is disgusting, of course, but it actually captures the profound contradiction that confronts the awesome military power of the United States. If Americans can clear their heads of American innocence, they might realize that our overwhelming advantages in armed force and technological wizardry has led our country into a trap. We are vulnerable because our presumption of unconquerable superiority leads us deeper and deeper into unwinnable military conflicts. Our adversaries in the Middle East and elsewhere seem to understand this.
Here is the fallacy of Goliath’s power. The singular technological might of US forces remains beyond question but has now been trumped by low-tech adversaries fighting Goliath with deadly persistence. When the Cold War ended two decades ago, American warriors claimed an obligation to police the world in defense of peace and democracy. If it chose, the United States could bomb the bejesus out of any troublemaker anywhere in the world. Usually, the threat alone was sufficient to avoid real conflict.
US military planners even encouraged the notion that we Americans could fight casualty-free wars by simply overwhelming smaller adversaries with relentless bombing campaigns. Remember the one that subdued Serbia in the late 1990s? Remember the “shock and awe” strategy that made for short, quick victory in Iraq? Or the easy conquest of the Taliban in Afghanistan? The armchair warriors are now demanding more of the same in Syria, Iraq or wherever (to his credit, President Obama is trying to tamp down political thirsts for yet another war in the Middle East).