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I just read Salman Rushdie’s memoir, Joseph Anton, describing his nine years in hiding from Ayatollah Khomenei’s death sentence (fatwa), imposed for his “heretical” novel Satanic Verses. The entire world deplored this murderous threat on the writer’s life.
I could not help but compare Rushdie’s dire plight with that suffered by the many civilians targeted by President Obama’s “kill list” for their alleged “terrorist” activities. There are few differences between these two forms of murderous decree – the fatwa and the kill list. Yet the world stands largely silent about the latter.
One difference is that those people whose names are added to the Obama kill list, unlike Rushdie, rarely know their fate beforehand, since names and criteria for inclusion are top secret. But the relentless buzzing of drones overhead in places like Waziristan, threatening death at any moment, terrorizes those potential victims as surely as the fatwa terrorized Rushdie.
In one rare instance, suspected terrorist Anwar Al-Awlaqi knew his fate beforehand. Because he was a U.S. citizen, his inclusion on the kill list was approved by the National Security Council, which The New York Times then reported. His father desperately proclaimed his son’s innocence, saying: “I am now afraid of what they will do with my son. There are missiles raining down… He has to hide.” But even an ACLU lawsuit could not protect him from his fate.
A second, major difference between a rare fatwa death sentence and the Administration’s kill list was revealed in an October 23 Washington Post article by Greg Miller. He wrote that “targeted killing is now so routine that the Obama administration has spent much of the past year codifying and streamlining” an approach it considers “so bureaucratically, legally and morally sound that future administrations will follow suit.” Miller describes the institutionalization of a new “dispositional matrix,” a database of terrorism suspects “designed to go beyond existing kill lists, mapping plans for the ‘disposition’ of suspects,” i.e, ways to dispose of them. This killing program is not a single, rare decree but instead a repeated systematic, sanctioned program of murder.
Administration officials claim, of course, that drone assassinations and the kill list are justified by targeting militants and terrorists who pose imminent danger to the US. But these same officials concede that most of the hundreds of victims are-low level operatives, denied any semblance of due process, or else innocent bystanders, posing no threat at all.
A third difference between the fatwa against Rushdie and the kill list against suspected militants is this: Rushdie was afforded maximum protection by UK police throughout his ordeal, while targeted individuals on the Obama kill list have little or no protection from sudden death by drone attack.
Meanwhile, the perpetrators of drone attacks themselves get undue protection. In a recent instance of astonishing irony, a commander of the Hancock Air National Guard Base near Syracuse, which remotely pilots killer drones over Afghanistan, won a court order of protection against the nonviolent peace activists demonstrating outside. Apparently the largest military in the world warrants greater protection from the threat of nonviolence than the victims of its killing machine deserve from the horror it rains down from the sky.
Such irony would be a worthy subject for a Rushdie novel, now that he’s free from the terror of the fatwa. It’s up to the rest of us to determine when, and how, those unfortunates targeted by Obama’s kill list will ever be set free from their own horror.
Doug Noble is an activist with Occupy Rochester NY and Rochester Against War.