The crowd that gathered in an airplane hangar in the desert roared with excitement when the man on stage vowed to murder women and children.
It was just another Donald Trump campaign event, and the candidate had affirmed his previously made pledge not only to kill terrorists but to “take out” their family members, too. Outrageous as that might sound, it hardly distinguished Trump from most of his Republican rivals, fiercely competing over who will commit the worst war crimes if elected. All the chilling claims about who will preside over more killings of innocents in distant lands—and the thunderous applause that meets such boasts—could easily be taken as evidence that the megalomaniacal billionaire Republican front-runner, his various opponents, and their legions of supporters, are all crazytown.
Yet Trump’s pledge to murder the civilian relatives of terrorists could be considered quite modest—and, in its bluntness, refreshingly candid—when compared with President Obama’s ongoing policy of loosing drones and US Special Operations forces in the Greater Middle East. Those policies, the assassinations that go with them, and the “collateral damage” they regularly cause are based on one premise when it comes to the American public: that we will permanently suspend our capacity for grief and empathy when it comes to the dead (and the living) in distant countries.
Classified documents recently leaked to the Intercept by a whistle-blower describe the “killing campaign” carried out by the CIA and the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command in Yemen and Somalia. (The United States also conducts drone strikes in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Libya; the leaked documents explain how President Obama has institutionalized the practice of striking outside regions of “active hostilities.”) Intelligence personnel build a case against a terror suspect and then develop what’s termed a “baseball card”—a condensed dossier with a portrait of the individual targeted and the nature of the alleged threat he poses to US interests—that gets sent up the chain of command, eventually landing in the Oval Office. The president then meets with more than 100 representatives of his national security team, generally on a weekly basis, to determine just which of those cards will be selected for death. (The New York Times has vividly described this intimate process of choosing assassination targets.)
Orders then make their way down to drone operators somewhere in the United States, thousands of miles from the individuals slated to be killed, who remotely pilot the aircraft to the location and then pull the trigger. But when those drone operators launch missiles on the other side of the world, the terrifying truth is that the United States “is often unsure who will die,” as a New York Times headline put it.