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Death by Imperial Profile


Franz Kafka’s book “The Trial” begins “Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.” There follow many thousands of words describing the ordeal of someone denied the right to know the charges against him, to face his accusers, to be given a fair and speedy trial by a jury of his peers, and so forth. We have read thousands of stories of such “Kafkaesque” experiences since the advent of the Global War of Terror. But we need a different kind of story now.

What if the beginning read like this: “Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was killed one fine morning.” With that kind of beginning, there can be no second sentence, unless the story jumps backward in time. With assassinations and drone strikes, night raids, and check point shootings replacing disappearances, imprisonments, renditions, and torture as tools of the imperial trade, we need stories that begin a lot earlier and end the moment the abuse starts. We need people’s childhoods, adolescences, friends, loved-ones, hobbies, and careers. We need to know what they were doing that week, the previous evening, and the moments before they were annihilated. We need to know their last words, the last letter they wrote, the last person they kissed, the last child they cared for (or were they a child?). We need to understand who they were as that obvious and tautological but so elusive and all-decisive thing: human beings, fellow creatures whom we could imagine as parts of our own lives. We need to be able to picture that person in the instant that the explosion rips their flesh apart.

Because there are no more instants in the story. There is no Kafkan tale to relate, no way to elicit moral outrage at the denial of civil rights; no civil rights have been denied except in the sense that murder deprives someone of every conceivable right. So when the Director of National Intelligence informs Congress that it will henceforth be legal to kill Americans, what examples can we offer of why this is morally revolting? We need new stories.

These thoughts came to mind as I was reading an excellent collection of our current diet of stories, Asim Qureshi’s new book “Rules of the Game.” Roughly half of this book is Kafkan stories in the voices of their protagonists. While this limits the analysis, it provides powerful accounts of what the Global War of Terror has been. And this book, more than others I’ve read, emphasizes the global nature of the new abuses. Here we see crimes committed not just by the United States, but by countries around the world under pressure from the United States and/or inspired by the U.S. example. In some cases, these are crimes that these nations have engaged in for decades, but they are given a new justification by reference to the new openness in U.S. brutality.

The variety in these stories is illuminating. Not so much the variety in abusive actions, but the variety in chosen legalisms to attempt to excuse them while retaining self-respect. I’m struck by how often nations have tried to deprive citizens of citizenship in order to then abuse them or ship them elsewhere for abuse. As if human rights are dependent on citizenship in one country or another. This stands in sharp contrast to the new U.S. policy of murdering U.S. citizens. Clearly depriving a U.S. citizen of citizenship would be greeted with a greater outcry from civil liberties organizations than murdering the person. Rather than dealing with all the headaches that come from leaving people alive to tell their stories, of injustices of any sort, our government has determined that it will be far cleaner and simpler and more acceptable to kill them. This must be countered by humanizing the victims of what is, of course, the worst crime possible.

Qureshi’s book also takes up the recent history of fear mongering and profiling of Muslims. This is, of course, at the root of most of the cases of someone “telling lies about Joseph K.” But it’s also the great hurdle we have to overcome in building resistance to assassinations, drone strikes, and the illegal wars that are the foundation of all the retail abuses. The time it would take to rid the world of religions and all the pain they cause is probably not available to us. So, we must make Muslims human to Americans. In some ways this seems like an easier challenge than making solar and wind energy seem macho to Americans, which might be a way to persuade our country to just leave Muslim nations alone. But it will be far from easy, and it will require the skill of great story tellers.

DAVID SWANSON is the author of Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union by Seven Stories Press. He can be reached at:


David Swanson wants you to declare peace at  His new book isWar No More: The Case for Abolition.

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