NEW YORK – As a society degenerates, life cheapens. The rhetoric that follows death coarsens. Respect paid to fallen rivals is replaced by triumphalism.
Historians observed this trend in ancient Rome. As republic turned to empire and domain expanded and so also arrogance and hubris, vanquished chieftains who previously might have been allowed to keep their thrones as the head of a vassal state were gruesomely executed at public triumphs. Early Christians got tossed to the lions. Gladiatorial combat became all the rage.
The assassination of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi by U.S. special forces operating under orders from President Donald Trump reminds us that ours is a nation in moral decline — bloodthirsty and crass, functioning more like a vengeful crime family sending a message to its rivals than a nation of laws, a hell pit so devoid of basic ethics that it doesn’t even occur to its ruling party’s adversaries to raise the question of legality.
Nor does it cross the minds of journalists to mention the United States’ responsibility for the rise of IS. Rather than defend the secular socialist government of Syrian President Bashar Assad or staying out of it, the Obama administration armed and funded the Free Syria Army, parts of which allied with IS. This began the civil war. By most accounts al-Baghdadi was radicalized by his time in a hellish prison in U.S.-occupied Iraq — that’s on President George W. Bush.
Inserting the caveat that IS committed many terrible crimes under al-Baghdadi ought not to be necessary here. Alas, such is the depth of our depravity that to omit such a mention is to risk being accused of approving of IS, its religious extremism, its kidnapping, enslavement, torturing and beheading because one suggests, as I do here, that a culture that had not lost its moral moorings would not tolerate what Trump did, what the media fails to question and what even those on what passes for the “left” not only tolerate but cheer.
So here: IS sucks. Moving on:
“Thank you and congratulations to our special operations forces and others involved in tracking and getting rid of ISIS/Daesh leader Baghdadi,” tweeted Tulsi Gabbard.
Getting rid of.
Gabbard is, by far, the least militaristic candidate for president.
“In tone and substance,” Vox noted, “the announcements of the deaths of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Osama bin Laden couldn’t have been more different.” In 2011, President Barack Obama used “nearly clinical tones” in his taped statement; Trump made fun of the dead jihadi, dubiously claiming that he left this world “whimpering and crying and screaming all the way” before detonating a suicide vest. He “died like a dog, died like a coward,” Trump told a news conference. Perhaps Caesar had something similarly classy to say about Vercingetorix.
If IS had been defeated as the president previously stated, the death of al-Baghdadi wasn’t a military victory. Worse than the BS was the undiluted repulsiveness of the president’s statement. Trump’s degeneracy did not spring out of thin air; rather, it was the culmination of his predecessors’ increasingly shameless contempt for the human lives we have given them the power to snuff out, and their discovery that holding up a severed head as a trophy can get you votes.
Obama played it cool. He put his surrogates in charge of his death-gloating. “If you are looking for a bumper sticker to sum up how President Obama has handled what we inherited, it’s pretty simple: Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive,” Vice President Joe Biden bragged as he stumped for Obama in 2012. No one in the media questioned the White House about the lack of legal justification for the operation.
“We came, we saw, he died,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cackled in 2011 after she watched on TV as a U.S. drone missile hit Moammar Ghadhafi’s car, driving him into the hands of American-armed radical Islamists who sodomized the Libyan leader with a bayonet. Running for president in 2016, she reminded audiences that she’d been in the Situation Room watching bin Laden being whacked.
“Good riddance,” Bush said after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was hung and decapitated. Bush invaded Iraq on the pretext that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. In fact, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell admitted to associates that the evidence he presented in a ballyhooed speech to the United Nations was “bull——.” Saddam never threatened the U.S. Impeaching Bush for conning America into war, Rep. Nancy Pelosi said in 2006, was “off the table.”
We have come a long way since 1981, when President Ronald Reagan, a conservative Republican, signed Executive Order 12333, which states: “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.”
E.O. 12333 — which remains in force — was part of the aftermath of the Church Committee hearings of the 1970s, which exposed assassinations and other illegal acts committed by the CIA in Latin America and elsewhere at the height of the Cold War. American spooks conspired to murder political adversaries and heads of state, mainly on the left, all over the world. Back then, the political class had the grace to pretend to be ashamed.
When asked whether they had ordered extrajudicial assassinations, presidents of that era issued what came to be known as the Glomar response: they refused to confirm or deny. They would never have admitted, much less boasted about, murdering people. The media would never have looked the other way. If they had, the American people would not have tolerated either the politicians or the journalists.
Ted Rall is a political cartoonist and writer.