Imperial Prerogatives

The attention devoted to the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy this past November was remarkable. Americans are not a people who look back much, but for a month we looked back at a president who captivated us with his youth, wit and style. On television, radio and in print, the media covered every phase of President Kennedy’s life in what seemed both retrospective and requiem. Tuning in to it, I felt Americans were participating in a kind of national liturgy. By the end of the month, it occurred to me I’d been having a Lenten experience—but with J.F.K. instead of Jesus.

One of the programs I watched in November was a panel of historians talking about President Kennedy on the “Charlie Rose” show. “There was a culture of assassination in the Kennedy administration, especially with Mr. Castro,” the biographer Richard Reeves said. He noted that J.F.K.’s most significant legacy was that he did not wait his turn for the presidency, and now no one does. Since 1960, the chief qualification for the presidency has become simply wanting it.


The parallels with Barack Obama are obvious, but it’s the phrase “a culture of assassination” that lingers in my mind. If that was true of the presidency in the early 1960s (and the ’50s too), how much truer it is today, no longer covert but obvious and explicit, with unmanned drones striking around the globe and President Obama poring over kill lists.

Since 2002, U.S. drone attacks abroad on suspected militants have expanded to six countries and include U.S. citizens as well. In February, it was reported that the government has on its kill list another American. If assassinated, Abdullah al-Shami will be the fifth citizen killed by drones. That citizens are not afforded the protection of the U.S. Constitution seems astonishing, but since 9/11 our Constitution has become a document selectively observed.

The Pentagon’s announcement last month that it would shrink the military to the smallest size force since World War II is based on the thinking that lacking any real threats to it today, the United States will no longer be fighting major wars against other states. Instead, the military plans to rely more on cyberwarfare and on drones and special forces that will operate against nameless foes in a nameless war. Focusing on smaller and smaller targets, the United States now claims the right to attack anyone anywhere deemed to be a threat to national security.

How will this vague, amorphous war against insurgents in different trouble spots end? Will it ever end? The American people, told these killings are ensuring their security, don’t seem to care. The perceived affronts to liberty of the Affordable Care Act exercise voters far more than U.S. unmanned drones or special forces executing people in foreign lands without charge or trial.

President Obama has refused to disclose the legal basis for the targeted killings being carried out by the United States. Thus we have the paradox of a president who seems almost powerless at home yet possesses sweeping, unchecked authority abroad. The imperial presidency has never seemed more imperious or imperial. Our democracy has never seemed flimsier, flabbier or more gutless.

Assassinations are nothing new in history, nor is a culture of assassination. One thinks of ancient Rome or the cult of assassination in the Balkans that helped trigger World War I. The United States’ own first assassination plots against foreign leaders date to 1949, with the advent of the Cold War and the emergence of the United States as a superpower. Empire and assassination seem to go hand in hand. In retrospect, few if any of the covert plots hatched by the United States against foreign leaders seem justifiable. Will our targeted killings be different?

Practically as well as morally, huge questions about them go unexamined. What are the costs and consequences? How many of those we kill are confirmed terrorists? How many new terrorists are created?

The legacy of John F. Kennedy and the continuing mystique 50 years after his death absorbed me in November. Our politics today are not so different from ancient Rome’s, I realized. Though we are separated from Jesus’ time by 2,000 years, we’re closer than we think. He was executed on suspicion of being a threat to state security by a government that found him easier to kill than not. So our own nation operates today.

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Robert O'Connell
3 years 11 months ago
Perhaps the demise of America started in November of 1963 with the assassination of the other Roman Catholic president, Ngo Dinh Diem. Whatever happened to "Thou shalt not kill"? Does the idea of "Love thy enemies" have any currency?
Stanley Kopacz
3 years 11 months ago
Ms. Patterson, your last paragraph conjures up an image in my mind, the image of Jesus in the targeting box of a drone's fire control display. I just watched Jeremy Scahill's documentary "Dirty Wars", putting your essay in sharper perspective.


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