“Getting Them Dead” (Francine Prose on Obama’s “kill list”)

Getting Them Dead
Francine Prose

Villagers from Waziristan protesting before the Pakistani parliament with pictures of family members allegedly killed in US drone strikes, Islamabad, Pakistan, February 25, 2012.

After reading the article that appeared under the headline “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will” in the May 29 New York Times, I couldn’t talk about much else. I found myself wanting to analyze it, as one might dissect a literary text, to better understand how it produced its effect on the reader: in my case, shock and awe, tempered by consolatory flickers of disbelief. Like literature, the story resists summarization, partly because the Times reporters, Jo Becker and Scott Shane, employ detail, word choice, diction, and tone to direct and influence the reader’s response without, on the surface, appearing to do so—and to make a familiar narrative seem new.

The article begins with dramatic immediacy. “This was the enemy, served up in the latest charts from the intelligence agencies: 15 Qaeda suspects in Yemen with Western ties.” That gustatory “served up” is striking, since what is on the conference table are documents. So the people whose mug shots and capsule biographies are laid out on charts resembling a “high school yearbook” must logically be the items “served up” on the menu. “Several were Americans. Two were teenagers, including a girl who looked even younger than her 17 years.” Given what we soon learn—that this meeting has been convened to decide which people on the charts should be killed—we may well wonder about the fate of the young girl. Though we discover nothing more about her, her presence (a wake-up call to those who may have pitied terrified children at airport security checkpoints) hovers over the text, which will go on to consider the problem of accidentally killing children during a drone attack.

As drama, the scene is reminiscent of great moments in cable TV: Tony Soprano and his colleagues deciding whom to whack, The Wire’s Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell conferring on which of their child employees must be eliminated. But it’s one thing to see murders planned on television and quite another to read that this planning session is occurring in the White House Situation Room in January, 2010, and that President Obama has assumed the grim responsibility of casting the final vote on every death sentence that this jury (so obviously outside traditional legal channels) is handing down.

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