Killing Through the Centuries: From the Peace of Westphalia to the Drones of Obama

Pete Karman

By Pete KarmanIn Catch 22, General Dreedle, annoyed by Major Danby’s moaning, orders that he be taken out and shot. Dreedle’s son, Colonel Moodus, whispers to him and he replies in surprise: “‘You mean I can’t shoot anyone I want to?’ He pricked up his ears with interest as Colonel Moodus continued whispering. ‘Is that a fact?’ he inquired, his rage tamed by curiosity."The reason General Dreedle couldn’t shoot anyone he wanted to has to do with western civilization. Once upon a time, kings and generals could kill people and start wars at their whim. Over centuries the rule of law and popular consent gradually replaced Caesar’s thumbs up or thumbs down. We in the west became civilized.Nothing lasts forever. Back in June 2002, in a prep rally for the forthcoming Iraq war, President Bush declared that he could attack any country he felt like merely on his assertion that it might do us harm at some future time. This was enshrined in what is now known, and apparently accepted by Obama, as the Bush Doctrine.George’s fiat pissed on the 1648 Peace of Westphalia. Considered one of the basic advances of western civ, it was an agreement by European powers, tuckered out after the Thirty Years War, to establish the principle of sovereignty and quit attacking each other over religion. So much for that notion--at least in the U.S.Four hundred years before Westphalia, King John of England was forced by his barons in 1215 to sign a document stripping him of many of his ‘divine’ powers. Called the Magna Carta, it codified the notion of habeus corpus. It held that the king couldn’t just disappear you in the middle of the night on his say-so. If he thought you had committed some infraction, he had to produce you, bring charges and let a trial decide your guilt or innocence.Barack Obama is currently micturating on that bedrock attribute of western civ. He has announced, more by deed than word, that he can Dreedle by drone anyone anywhere. This didn’t make much news because Bush had been doing the same thing on a lesser scale. It hit the headlines only when the Obama administration publicly targeted a U.S. citizen. Bit of a sticky wicket that.“The notion that the government can, in effect, execute one of its own citizens far from a combat zone, with no judicial process and based on secret intelligence, makes some legal authorities deeply uneasy,” said the NY Times. No doubt those uneasy legal authorities are afraid of losing their jobs. If the ruler can kill at will, courts and lawyers become irrelevent. So does western civ.At the same time, we learned the Obummers have new weapons in the works “capable of reaching any corner of the earth from the U.S. in under an hour…with accuracy capable of picking off Osama bin Laden in a cave.” Or even, I might add, a passel of peaceniks in Berkeley.Progressive Democrats, no less than conventional pundits like Thomas Friedman, are disappointed in Obama for his timidity. They see his promises of change dribbling down the drain of business as usual. Would that it were mere business as usual. Every day it gets to look more like Byzantium as usual.This post originally appeared at the The Karman Turn

Pete Karman began working in journalism in 1957 at the awful New York Daily Mirror, where he wrote the first review of Bob Dylan for a New York paper. He lost that job after illegally traveling to Cuba (the rag failed shortly after he got the boot). Karman has reported and edited for various trade and trade union blats and worked as a copywriter. He was happy being a flack for Air France, but not as happy as being an on-and-off In These Times editor and contributor since 1977.
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