What is wrong with the President sitting in a room, looking at lists and portraits of people—a Somali man, a seventeen-year-old girl, an American citizen—and deciding whom to kill? That, according to long and troubling articles in both the Times and Newsweek, is a job Barack Obama has assigned himself. His aides, notably John Brennan, his counter-terrorism adviser, portray it as a matter of taking responsibility—if we are going to assassinate someone, or call in a drone strike to take out a camp in Yemen, the President should make the call—as if our only alternative were some sort of rogue operation, with generals or C.I.A. agents shooting at will. But responsibility involves accountability, which is something, in this case, that appears to be badly lacking. Obama has not taken on a burden, but instead has given the Presidency a novel power.
The “kill list” story is a reminder of how much language matters, and how dangerous it is when the plain meaning of a word is ignored. Each might include a mini-glossary: “baseball cards,” for the PowerPoint slides with the biographies and faces of targets; “Terror Tuesday,” meetings where targets are sorted out; “nominations” for death-marked finalists; “personality strikes” that aimed to kill a person, and “signature strikes” that went after a group of people whose names one didn’t know because of the way they seemed, from pictures in the sky, to be acting. (From the Times piece, written by Jo Becker and Scott Shane: “The joke was that when the C.I.A. sees ‘three guys doing jumping jacks,’ the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp, said one senior official.”) Signature strikes were also known as TADS, for terrorist-attack-disruption strikes, or just as “crowd kills.” Both articles explore Obama’s halting efforts to confine signature strikes to Pakistan, rather than Yemen and Somalia, and how he ultimately didn’t, really. This is the kind of attack that, in one incident mentioned by Daniel Klaidman in his Newsweek piece, led to “persuasive” reports of dozens of women and children dying. A lawyer who saw that on “Kill TV,” the feed that let the military and lawyers watch strikes, said later, “If I were Catholic, I’d have to go to confession.”
More disturbing than childish names for brutal things are the absurd meanings ascribed to more sober terms. The key ones are “civilians and combatants,” and “due process.”