Essay Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt: ‘The Killer-in-Chief’

Historically speaking, killing Afghans or Iraqis or Syrians or Yemenis or Somalis has always been one thing, but Americans? That’s another story entirely, no? As it happens, the answer is indeed no, not in 2020, and once again, in a sense, air power is at the heart of the matter.
Illustration by Mr. Fish

Murder, He Said

By Tom Engelhardt / Reposted with permission from TomDispatch.com

“Be assured of one thing: whichever candidate you choose at the polls in November, you aren’t just electing a president of the United States; you are also electing an assassin-in-chief.” So I wrote back in June 2012, with a presidential election approaching.

I was referring then to the war on terror’s CIA and military drone assassination programs, which first revved up in parts of the Greater Middle East in the years of George W. Bush’s presidency and only spread thereafter. In the process, such “targeted killings” became, as I wrote at the time, “thoroughly institutionalized, normalized, and bureaucratized around the figure of the president.” In Barack Obama’s years in the Oval Office, they were ramped up further as he joined White House “Terror Tuesday” meetings to choose individual targets for those attacks. They often enough turned out to involve “collateral damage”; that is, the deaths of innocent civilians, including children. In other words, “commander-in-chief” had, by then, gained a deadly new meaning, as the president personally took on the role of a global assassin.

I had little doubt eight years ago that this wouldn’t end soon — and on that I wasn’t wrong. Admittedly, our present commander-in-chief probably doesn’t have the time (given how much of his day he’s spent watching Fox Newstweeting his millions of followers, and, until recentlyholding two hour press-briefings-cum-election-rallies on the coronavirus pandemic) or the attention span for “Terror Tuesday” meetings. Still, in his own memorable fashion, he’s managed to make himself America’s assassin-in-chief par excellence.

After all, not only have those drone programs continued to target people in distant lands (including innocent civilians), but they have yet again been ramped up in the Trump years. Meanwhile, still in our pre-Covid-19 American world, President Trump embraced the role of assassin-in-chief in a newly public, deeply enthusiastic way. Previously, such drones had killed non-state actors, but he openly ordered the drone assassination of Major General Qassim Suleimani, the top military figure and number-two man in Iran, as he left Baghdad International Airport for a meeting with the prime minister of Iraq.

Of course, for American presidents such a role was not unknown even before the development of Hellfire-missile-armed drones. Think of John F. Kennedy and the CIA’s (failed) attempts on the life of Cuban leader Fidel Castro or the successful killings of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem, and Dominican Republic head Rafael Trujillo. Or, for a change of pace, consider the Vietnam War-era CIA assassination campaign known as the Phoenix Program in which tens of thousands of supposed “Vietcong” supporters (often enough, civilians swept up in the murderous chaos of the moment) were murdered in that country, a program that was no secret to President Lyndon Johnson.

And it’s true as well that, in this century, our commanders-in-chief have overseen endless conflicts in distant lands from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria to Yemen, Somalia, Niger, and beyond, none of them congressionally declared wars. As a result, they had the ultimate responsibility for the deaths of, at a minimum, tens of thousands of civilians, as well as for the uprooting of millions of their compatriots from settled lives and their flight, as desperate refugees, across significant parts of the planet. It’s a grim record of death and destruction. Until recently, however, it remained a matter of distant deaths, not much noted here.

A New Kind of Drone War on the Pandemic Front

However, the assassin-in-chief may now be coming home, big time, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Little did I imagine that, by 2020, an American president without a lick of empathy for other human beings, even Americans who loved him to death (so to speak), would be targeting not just civilians here in “the homeland” (as it came to become known after the 9/11 attacks), but his most fervent followers. In the age of Donald Trump, the assassin-in-chief now seems to be in the process of transforming himself into a domestic killer-in-chief.

That reality — at least for me — came into focus only recently. True, until then, even beyond those drone strikes, American presidents have had the ultimate responsibility for the deaths of startling numbers of civilians in faraway lands where the U.S. military has been making war (remarkably fruitlessly) for almost 19 years. The devastating use of American air power generally has only increased during the Trump years in, for instance, both Afghanistan and Somalia, where U.S. airstrikes have hit new levels of destructiveness, as Nick Turse reported recently at the Intercept — more of them in the first four pandemic months of 2020 than in all of the Obama years combined.

Still, historically speaking, killing Afghans or Iraqis or Syrians or Yemenis or Somalis has always been one thing, but Americans? That’s another story entirely, no?

As it happens, the answer is indeed no, not in 2020, and once again, in a sense, air power is at the heart of the matter. In this case, though, we’re talking about the spread of Covid-19, in part through respiratory droplets (think of them as microscopic Hellfire missiles). In that new air-powered context, with the equivalent of a drone virus in the hands of one Donald J. Trump, the president is bringing the role of assassin-in-chief home. He is, in fact, in the process of becoming a killer-in-chief for his very own base — anyone, that is, who listens to what he says and believes fervently in him. Set aside for a moment the deaths he’s undoubtedly responsible for because of, as Juan Cole put it recently at his Informed Comment website, “those two months he pissed away calling [Covid-19] a hoax and setting up the country for Vietnam War-level death tolls.” Put aside as well his repeated and dangerous medical advice to find and take anti-malarial drugs. Put aside as well his suggestion that perhaps people fearing they have the coronavirus should try to inject or internally take disinfectants (which, a recent study showed, do kill that virus on surfaces and in the air), an act medical experts assure us could result in death.

Think of each of those potential death sentences for his most fervent believers as a striking combination of grotesque ignorance and narcissism. But what about an actual decision, as commander-in-chief and president, to kill off members of his base?

Until a couple of weeks ago, that would have been harder to imagine — until, that is, President Trump noticed the first demonstrations against state shutdowns focused on preventing the deadly Covid-19 virus from spreading. Those protests against “stay-at-home” orders, organized or encouraged by what the New York Times describes as “an informal coalition of influential conservative leaders and groups, some with close connections to the White House,” have continued to bring out demonstrators in Trump-election-like rallies by the dozens, hundreds, or even (in a few cases) thousands.

Often, the demonstrators are not wearing the very masks that the president has recommended for other people (but not himself); nor are they keeping the social distance he has also officially backed (but continues to find it impossible to keep). They sport bizarre signs (“Don’t cancel my golf season,” “My body/my choice, Trump 2020” [with an image of a face mask crossed out], “Give me liberty or give me Covid-19,” “We demand haircuts”), carry American flags and occasional Confederate ones, and are sometimes armed to the teeth (not exactly surprising, given that the protests have been supported by conservative pro-gun or armed militia groups).

The Donald was clearly pleased with the earliest of those demonstrations, being so eager himself to “reopen” America and “the greatest economy in the history of our country” (then headed for the pandemic subbasement). It mattered little that, despite the grim pressures of the moment, polling showed significant numbers of Americans, including Republicans, preferred to keep the U.S. largely shut down for now. In response, he tweeted: “LIBERATE MINNESOTA,” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” and then “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!” All were states run by Democratic governors. And his focus on supporting such demonstrations quickly got the media’s attention, as they began to spread elsewhere.

At one of his nightly coronavirus briefings, the president then said this of the demonstrators: “These are people expressing their views. I see where they are and I see the way they’re working. They seem to be very responsible people to me, but they’ve been treated a little bit rough.”

With his future election campaign undoubtedly in his sightlines and his base in the forefront of his brain, he then began to encourage more of the same from both protesters and governors — and the Republican governor of Georgia broke the ice, so to speak, by attempting to reopen everything down to nail salons and movie theaters (something even the president would later criticize), while the Republican governor of Florida reopenedthat state’s beaches.

Targeting His Base

Now, here’s the obvious thing in this pandemic moment: if you’re the president of the United States (no less the governor of Georgia, Florida, or other Republican administrations or legislatures in a hurry to reopen the country), you’re encouraging people to sicken and die. To support citizens turning out to protest without either protection or any sense of social distancing is to support people potentially giving each other Covid-19, a disease which clearly spreads best in close quarters like nursing homesprisons, crowded housing of any sort, or assumedly protests of this very kind. As one epidemiologist put it in response to a gathering of perhaps 2,500 protesters in Seattle, Washington, “I predict a new epidemic surge (incubation time — 5-7 days before onset [of] symptoms, if any, and transmission to associates around that time, even among asymptomatics)… so increase in 2-4 weeks from now.”

At this point, in a country leading the world by a long shot in known cases of, and deaths from, Covid-19, none of this should exactly be rocket science. It’s beyond obvious that if you encourage such demonstrations, you’re increasing the odds that the protesters will both catch and pass on a disease that’s already killed 60,000 Americans, more than U.S. fatalities from 20 years of war in Vietnam.

And that, of course, makes the president of the United States a killer, too. Or thought of another way, the assassin-in-chief in distant lands has just transformed himself into an assassin-in-chief right here at home, a man who might as well have fired Hellfire missiles into such crowds or put a gun to the head of some of those protesters and their wives or husbands or lovers or parents or children (to whom the disease will undoubtedly be spread once they go home) and pulled the trigger.

The act of encouraging members of his base to court death is clearly that of a man without an ounce of empathy, even for those who love and admire him most — and so of a stone-cold killer. You couldn’t ask for more proof that the only sense of empathy he has lies overwhelmingly in his deep and abiding pity for himself (which matches his staggering sense of self-aggrandizement) and perhaps for his children, other billionaires, and fossil-fuel executives. Them, he would save; the rest of us, his base included, are expendable. He’d sacrifice any of us without a second thought if he imagined that it would benefit him or his reelection in any way.

But there’s no point in leaving it at that. After all, as he pushes for a too-swiftly reopened country, he’s declaring open season on Americans of all sorts. And every one of us who will die too soon should be considered another Covidfire missile death and chalked up to a president who, by the time this is over, will truly have given a new meaning to the phrase assassin-in-chief.

You could say, I suppose, that he’s just been putting his stamp of approval on the recent statement of Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, another politician in a rush to reopen his state not to business, but to the business of pandemics. Patrick classically summed up the president’s position (and those of the protesters as well) in this fashion: “there are more important things than living.” Indeed, how true, though not, of course, for Donald Trump, or the Trump Organization, or that hotel of his in Washington, or his other presently sinking properties, or for his reelection in November 2020.

As for the rest of us, in Covid-19 America, we are all now potential Suleimanis.

Copyright 2020 Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt
Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs TomDispatch.com and is a fellow of the Type Media Center. His sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

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