Glenn Greenwald’s ongoing crusade against anyone who dares to see nuance in the debate over targeted killings and the war on terrorism has risen to a not-so-surprising new level. Namely, Americans who oppose targeted killings of American citizens on American soil today, but who once supported the targeted killing of Anwar Al-Awlaki, are racists. Furthermore, Greenwald made it perfectly clear yesterday that if anyone sees civil liberties and war powers as dual priorities in this area, and drone hysteria as a secondary distraction, they’re simply drone apologists.
Now, if you’ve read any of my articles over the years, you’d know that I have a fairly well-tuned racism radar. I’m not afraid to point it out when I see it, and I think I have the education and expertise to recognize it, even when it’s insidiously covert. But it’s a huge stretch to call the disparity between support for the killing of Al-Awlaki in 2011 and the less enthusiastic support for drone strikes in 2013 as racism. Greenwald is over-reaching times a thousand — taking an extreme posture (again) as a means of scolding and shaming anyone who doesn’t exist within his conspiratorial neo-left/libertarian clique. I’ll get into the ultimate in Greenwald shaming at the end of this post.
First, let’s look at the polling. Greenwald began by citing new Gallup numbers showing that Americans, by a margin of 52-41, oppose the targeted killing of U.S. citizens who are suspected terrorists. He compared these numbers with a totally different poll from a different pollster taken immediately following the targeted killing of Al-Awlaki with the following results: “69 per cent of respondents think the action taken by the US Government to kill Anwar al-Awlaki was justified.”
Can you spot the two major issues here? The sources and the dates.
It’s a Gallup poll, and if you happened to have followed Gallup’s recent track record, especially during the election, it’s hardly the gold standard for polling any more. Specifically, Gallup was the least accurate of all 23 top level polling outfits, showing Romney with a 7.2 percent average lead among likely voters, according to Nate Silver. Not only that, but it was the third election in a row in which Gallup has been wildly off the mark. Maybe Gallup isn’t the best poll to be citing here.
Meanwhile, the Al-Awlaki poll Greenwald cited was from October, 2011, just after Al-Awlaki was killed, and, oddly, it was a poll from Angus-Reid Public Opinion. Does it ring a bell? No? Me neither. I did some further digging around on polling numbers from that period of time and discovered a YouGov poll (more accurate than Gallup on the election, by the way) that showed support for targeted killings of U.S.-born enemy combatants at 43 percent — just two points higher than the support for the policy in yesterday’s Gallup poll. In other words, support for targeted killings of U.S. born enemy combatants has remained about the same since Al-Awlaki was taken out in Yemen.
What we’ve discovered from polls over the years is that whenever questions are more specific, we tend to learn more about what people are thinking. Duh. For example, when pollsters asked voters whether they supported the broad and often overwhelming concept known as “Obamacare,” 56 percent of voters said they opposed it. But when asked about specific provisions in the law, voters generally supported it — some by supermajority margins. Furthermore, polling results tend to shift wildly based on the whimsy of our townsfolk-from-The-Simpsons attention spans. We just change our minds a lot. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes it sucks.
The reality is that it’s a huge stretch to define causality in polling, especially polling taken from two different polling outfits at two different periods of time and with two different methodologies. This leaves a huge and deliberate gap through which Greenwald was able to comfortably drive his agenda. Namely, the discrepancy must either be due to Rand Paul’s super-amazing (but confused and opportunistic) filibuster calling attention to the issue, or that the name “Al-Awlaki” must have stirred up anti-Muslim racism on behalf of enough voters to form the apparent gap between support in 2011 and opposition in 2013.
As for Al-Awlaki himself, Greenwald goes on to defend the al-Qaida operative’s American citizenship as an impenetrable safeguard against being killed. While I believe the war on terrorism has gone on for too long and the president’s war powers must be rescinded by an act of Congress and signed by the president himself, I can also understand the historical and legal wartime justification for killing Al-Awlaki. This doesn’t make me a drone apologist or a war on terrorism apologist. It simply makes me a realist who’s pointing out the nuance in the situation. The president was given war powers by Congress to take out al-Qaida terrorists regardless of national affiliation. As a clear member of al-Qaida, Al-Awlaki, regardless of where he was born, plotted to kill Americans via the Christmas Day “underpants” bombing, among other instances, and his citizenship history is spotty at best. According to the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force against terrorism, Al-Awlaki fits within the legal framework of the law as an al-Qaida operative and is therefore fair game.
Greenwald, however, thinks in absolutes and defines Al-Awlaki as undeniably American, writing, “From a legal and constitutional perspective, there was not a single person “more American” than he. That’s because those gradations of citizenship do not exist.”
But it’s not that simple, especially in the context of a war (regardless of whether you support it, the AUMF-authorized war has to be the context of the debate). We only need to repeat the often-cited example of Confederate soldiers, as well as contemporaneous wartime citizen operatives, who were killed by the American government in the hundreds of thousands even though they were all natural-born citizens of the United States. Not to belabor the point, but there were also American-born Germans who enlisted in the Nazi army at the outset of World War II who were subsequently killed in combat. Take away the war context, and the government-sanctioned targeted killing of U.S. citizens without due process is extraordinarily illegal and, needless to say, immoral to the extreme. But in the war context, it’s legal, however you might peg its morality.
Of course I absolutely agree that there’s anti-Muslim extremism, hatred and racism in America. It’s very much alive. But defining it as the cause of the polling gap, given the awkwardness of Greenwald’s numbers, cheapens and randomizes the racism claim. It’d be like claiming that the difference in the aforementioned Obamacare polling was purely driven by racism when it’s obvious that it was more a matter of specificity than racial bias.
Besides, generally speaking, the most vocal anti-Muslim racists also believe President Obama himself is a secret Muslim jihadist who’s quietly replacing the Constitution with Sharia Law while engaging in a Benghazi conspiracy to cover up the fact that Chris Stevens was allegedly trafficking Libyan arms to pro-al-Qaida Syrian rebels. Incidentally, Saint Rand Paul believes in this conspiracy theory so much so that he grilled Hillary Clinton about in a Senate hearing — shamelessly on the record. It’s difficult to believe that the hard core racists in America also support the policies of a president who they believe is one of the “evildoers.”
Greenwald continues by employing the If The Evildoers Were White Swedes fallacy, suggesting that if we were using drones to terrorize and kill white babies, drone apologists would be more outraged. Maybe so, unless those Swedes had sworn a religious oath to kill Americans and Israelis at any cost, and had killed 3,000 Americans in lower Manhattan. Racism against Muslims surely exists and has fueled support for war on terrorism, but I don’t see it as a broad systemic catalyst — at least not within the numbers Greenwald cited. (By the way, this argument eerily reminds me of the far-right gibberish about how liberals are clearly racist because if African-American Barack Obama had instead been white Anglo “Barry Smith,” he never would’ve been elected.)
What ultimately discredits Greenwald’s entire article, though, is when he accuses “Democratic partisans” of anti-Muslim racism based on the socioeconomic privilege of those so-called partisans.
Greenwald concluded, “The people who insist that these abuses are insignificant and get too much attention are not the ones affected by them, because they’re not Muslim, and thus do not care.”
Put another way: drone apologists, in his view, don’t care about brown Muslims so kill ‘em all. This is where the motivation for his post becomes clear. His intention is obviously to smear anyone who doesn’t megaditto his dogma as being motivated by privilege and thus racism against Muslims. Whereas Greenwald’s assertion that the polling gap is driven by racism is a stretch, this is total flailing. It can’t be because some of these so-called “partisans” see nuance in the issue or because some commentators are trying to set priorities and insert some rationality into the debate — it’s obviously because they hate Muslims and don’t really care if they’re indiscriminately killed. Speaking for myself, I’d prefer to see the war on terrorism end today. However, I don’t see how screaming “baby killer!” will expedite the cause given what I know about the president and his administration. I also don’t mind calling out massive inaccuracies and nonsensical smears because such behavior only discredits the broader goals and priorities of the movement to wrap things up.
But I guess that makes me a racist drone apologist. Even though I’m, you know, not.