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Chris Hayes: How America Kills

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Over the last 17 months that we’ve been on air, we’ve talked quite a bit about the Obama administration’s secret program of targeted killing of suspected terrorists. A small number of those targeted and killed have been American citizens, while some unconfirmed number of those killed in Yemen and Pakistan and elsewhere have been innocent civilians: mothers, children, young and old men in the wrong place at the wrong time.

People in the administration have told reporters that they have implemented an extremely rigorous screening process inside the White House to decide who ends up on the list, that the president himself approaches his responsibility to administer the program with solemnity and care, and that the policy has been efficient and effective in decimating al-Qaeda and other affiliated terrorist groups. A senior U.S. official said as early as 2009, ”The enemy is really, really struggling…These attacks have produced the broadest, deepest and most rapid reduction in al-Qaida senior leadership that we’ve seen in several years.”

But before any of the specifics of the program’s merits can be properly and fully debated, it has to be brought out from behind the veil of secrecy which now cloaks it. That process started this week when my colleague Michael Isikoff obtained a heretofore secret Department of Justice memo that outlines the administration’s legal arguments for why it believes it has the authority to use lethal force against ”a U.S. citizen who is a senior operational leader of al-Qa’ida or an associated force” if an “informed high-level official of the U.S. government has determined” it’s appropriate.

At Thursday’s confirmation hearings for his nomination to head up the CIA, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, widely reported to be the chief architect of the kill list policy, faced a series of questions about the memo and the program it helps justify.

No topic that we discuss regularly on the show invites quite the level of backlash on social media as the kill list and drones. Given the constant and often disingenuous criticism and obstruction the president has faced I can understand why liberals, Democrats and others might view with some cynicism some of the outrage and indignation suddenly expressed by conservatives this week, much of which has been more focused on liberals’ hypocrisy rather than the underlying policy.

I had to laugh to myself when Rupert Murdoch tweeted the following this week: ”How do liberals explain complaints about Guatemala with silence on drone killing, civilians and all, without arrests, trials, etc?” He meant, I think Guantanamo, but autocorrect gets the best of all of us from time to time.

But when us lefties here on Up have discussed and criticized the secret kill list program, many viewers who’ve responded online or through email accused me of being naive about the true nature of war, or going out of my way to find things to criticize about the president or stoking controversy where there is none.

And it is true polls show that majorities of Democrats, Republicans and Independents support targeted killing and the drone strikes that carry them out. Partly, I think that’s due to the fact that the public hasn’t been given much information about exactly how the administration has come to the conclusion that it can carry out these killings, even against citizens, and partly because the worst effects of the policy, the collateral damage, or more accurately the children as young as one year old who our weapons kill, are almost entirely invisible to us.

But it also seems possible to me that even with a full accounting of the program, many, perhaps even a majority of Democrats, even self-described liberals might support the targeted killing policy for, I believe, the same reason a blogger named Lou Siegel gave this week. “Though this might sound like a ‘cold war liberal’ defending CIA-led coups and military interventions,” he wrote:

“I support President Obama’s drone attacks. And I admit that I’m a hypocrite. If a republican administration were executing these practices, I’d probably join the chorus to condemn them as unconstitutional, authoritarian or worse. But I trust this president’s judgment that the drones are a legitimate way to take out terrorists who would–if they could–kill thousands of Americans. He’s making a trade-off, knowing that a successful massive terrorist attack against us would result in far greater damage to our democratic institutions.”

I think this is probably the most honest defense of the program you’ll hear from liberals. They trust President Obama to wield broad, lethal executive authority with care and prudence. And besides: it’s war, would you rather, I am often asked by supporters of the kill list, that we have boots on the ground, big expensive, destructive deadly disastrous land invasions of countries like the Iraq war? Isn’t the move from wars like Iraq to “surgical strikes” in Yemen precisely the kind of change we were promised?

This narrow choice between big violence and smaller violence shows, I think, just how fully we have all implicitly adopted the conceptual framework of the War on Terror, how much George W. Bush’s advisers continue to set the terms of our thinking years after they’d been dispatched from office. Because that argument presupposes that we are at war and must continue to be at war until an ill-defined enemy is vanquished.

What, people ask, is the alternative to small war, if not big war? And the answer no one ever seems to even consider is: no war. If the existence of people out in the world who are actively working to kill Americans means we are still at war, then it seems to me we will be at war forever, and will surrender control over whether that is the state we do in fact want to be in. There’s another alternative: we can be a nation that declares its war over, that declares itself at peace and goes about rigorously and energetically using intelligence and diplomacy and well-resourced police work to protect us from future attacks.

The Obama administration quite ostentatiously jettisoned the phrase war on terror from its rhetoric, but it’s preserved and further expanded its fundamental logic and legal architecture. Even after the troops come home from Afghanistan, we will still be a nation at war.

In 1832, German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz declared that “War is an act of force, and there is no logical limit to the application of that force….a clash of forces freely operating and obedient to no law but their own.” Much of the history of war and international law in the last century, particularly after the horror of the second world war, was an attempt to prove Clausewitz wrong. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves. We may find ourselves at some point facing a stark choice between the war we are now fighting and the law which we all at least pretend is the bedrock of our republic.

I say we choose the law.