On Monday, President Obama will talk about protecting children during his speech. But he knows that over the next four years he will be asked to make decisions that will result in the killing of the children
not because he is an evil man but rather because he has readily and rationally accommodated himself to the necessity of evil. In the days following the massacre in Newtown, CT, there was a genuine sense of moral panic in the United States — the sense that we had lost the ability to protect our children from evil. At the same time, there were stirrings of a moral confidence verging on triumphalism, a sense that the relativism said to beset modern America might at last give way to clarity. At Sandy Hook Elementary, evil had done us the favor of staring us in the face. We could no longer deny either its existence or its nature. We could resist it only by embracing the idea of it. We could even define it without provoking the usual partisan disagreements:
What is evil? Evil is what murders children.
It is a handy definition because it is an unequivocal one, and it has framed the argument that has arisen in Newtown’s wake. The NRA has used it to promote its idea that the only answer to a bad man with a gun is a good man with a gun; President Obama has used it to lend urgency to his Administration’s attempt to differentiate between the guns used by good men and the killing machines used by bad ones. Before the President introduced his gun-control proposals last week, his spokesman Jay Carney said that ‘if even one child’s life can be saved by actions taken in Washington, we must take these actions”; indeed, before the President introduced his gun-control proposals last week, he introduced four children who had written letters imploring him to protect them and their kind and whom he had invited to be on hand for his speech. It was a feat of political stagecraft meant to deliver the implicit but unmistakable message that at stake in the President’s call for meaningful legislation was nothing less than their very lives, and it made clear that children, too often the victims of gun violence, would now occupy the moral battleground in the gun-control debate:
“This is our first task as a society, keeping our children safe,” the President said. “This is how we will be judged. …Because while there is no law or set of laws that can prevent every senseless act of violence completely, no piece of legislation that will prevent every tragedy, every act of evil, if there is even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if there is even one life that can be saved, then we’ve got an obligation to try.”
And so Monday, on the day set aside for the remembrance of Martin Luther King’s birthday, the man who will be inaugurated for his second term as President of the United States will be a man who accepts — and has been energized by — the idea that evil can be identified as that which kills even one innocent child. He will also be man who has killed innocent children himself, by the dozens and perhaps by the hundreds, as a direct consequence of his orders.
Now, this post is not the first to remark on the difference between President Obama’s words and actions — his words regarding the lives of children in America and his actions regarding the lives of children in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere. In the immediate aftermath of Newtown, a few bloggers and tweeters pointed out that the President seemed to care a lot more about children dying by Bushmaster in Connecticut than he did about children dying by drone in Wurzistan, but most Americans not only forgave that kind of contradiction; they appreciated it, because they understood that caring more about American kids than Pakistani ones is the President’s job. He is, after all, our Commander-In-Chief, and he is, after all, prosecuting a war against a stateless enemy in Al-Qaeda, and children, after all, have died in war since the beginning of time. Barack Obama cannot be compared to Adam Lanza because no matter how many children Barack Obama has killed he has not tried to kill them, he has not made killing them an end in itself, he has not killed them for killing’s sake, he has not killed them to expunge his own demons or, God help us, for pleasure. He has killed Pakistani kids — and Afghani kids and Yemeni kids and even one American kid — because he is living up to his sworn obligation to protect American kids, even if kids from other parts of the world have to die in the process. He is absolved by intention, even if his intention ends inevitably in accidents and the accidents end up inevitably in line with the President’s own idea of evil.
The rub, of course, is that there are no accidental drone strikes. The Lethal President has built the Lethal Presidency from his own moral pedigree, from the notion that the Lethal Presidency exists not to kill but to end the killing. We have heard from this White House that it does not take killing lightly, and that the President himself takes the ultimate responsibility for the exercise of ultimate power. We have heard that each killing is carried out with precision technology, and is the result of intense and even agonized deliberation. The problem is that whenever the White House describes the process by which the killings are undertaken, it seems to be talking about a process that has killed dozens or maybe even hundreds of people, when in fact it has killed thousands, including children. By the White House’s own terms — its own advertising — the killing of children can’t be entirely accidental. There must be a calculation for it when the President’s advisors produce their disposition matrices; there must be room for it in the President’s own deliberations. War has always killed children, as part of its madness; what distinguishes the Lethal Presidency is that when it kills children it does so from the madness of reason.
Humankind has changed the definition of evil in the course of its existence. It once measured evil in terms of madness; now madness, duly medicalized, has become exculpatory. We know nothing of Adam Lanza, except that he was “troubled,” and perhaps on the autism spectrum; what intensified the initial apprehension of his evil was not the suspicion that he was in the grip of psychosis during the murders but rather the suspicion that he was not. It is evil that exists as a byproduct of reason that we find unforgivable now — evil advanced with cool calculation, for a cause, towards an end, with no feeling or regret — and it is reason rather than madness that hangs its shadow over the children killed by Barack Obama.
On Monday, he will talk about children during his speech. He will talk about protecting them, educating them, encouraging them, and inspiring them, and he will talk about working hard to make sure that the future is theirs. He will talk about children, in other words, in the same way as he talked about them four years ago, with the difference that he knows now how hard it is to protect them, not just from people like Adam Lanza but from people like him. He knows that he will be asked to make decisions that will result in the killing of the children, and that he will do so, that he can do so, not because he is an evil man but rather because he has readily and rationally accommodated himself to the necessity of evil. Four years ago, we did not know this about him. We know now, and although many Americans will applaud him for being able to do what needs to be done, there are others, I among them, who will never get over it.