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The purpose of labeling people is not to discover their reality but to distort and deny it—and thus defend against it. Labels stifle rather than stimulate our capacity to think about other people as they really are. If they can be labeled, we are less likely to listen to them. Labels are destructive not descriptive. Labels keep people faceless, voiceless, loveless, tearless, rendering them easy to be dehumanized and demonized as “terrorists” and “Islamist militants” and thus fair game for lawless state violence. The labeling permits the imposition of a self-serving political and corporate agenda, unfettered by any responsibility to understand the grievances and rights and humanness of government-identified “terrorists.” If people can be classified as “terrorists” and “militants,” they can be crucified—assassinated in the name of protecting our “freedom” and “national security.”
A classic example of labeling that kills is The New York Times’ front-page story on the assassination of American citizen and clergyman, Imam Anwar al-Awlaki. The story is entitled, “C.I.A. STRIKE KILLS U.S.-BORN MILITANT . . .” The sub-title: “Fiery Al Qaeda Leader Hit by Drones. . .” The story: “The search for Mr. Awlaki, the American-born cleric whose fiery sermons made him a larger-than-life figure in the shadowy world of jihad, finally ended on Friday. . . . It also represented the latest killing of a senior terrorist figure in an escalated campaign by the Obama administration. . . . American officials say he inspired militants around the world, and helped plan a number of terrorists plots.” (by Mark Mazzetti, Eric Schmitt and Robert F. Worthy, Oct. 1, 2011) To make sure Imam Awlaki was really dead in readers’ minds, The Times buried him in overkill labels in the page-long caption that continued the story from page 1: “Fiery American-Born Qaeda Militant Is Killed in Yemen by C.I.A. Strike.” (Ibid.)
“Fiery American-Born Qaeda Militant,” whose “English-language sermons became even more stridently anti-American.” (Ibid.) The New York Times does not quote any of Imam Awlaki’s “fiery . . . anti-American” sermons—but gives the reader a very negative, emotion-spewing, image of the American clergyman.
The New York Times’ role as a guardian of America’s political status quo is also seen in an accompanying front-page ‘NEWS ANALYSIS’ story that states, “The American-educated son of an American-educated Yemeni technocrat, Mr. Awlaki embodied the puzzle of radicalization: How could an American citizen reach the point of calling in eloquent English, via the megaphone of the Internet, for the mass murder of his fellow citizens?” (“Judging a Long, Deadly Reach,” by Scott Shane, Oct. 1, 2011) Here, again, The Times does not cite any of Imam Awlaki’s “eerily calm religious justifications for violence.” (Ibid) The death warrant-like labeling of Awlaki reveals the newspaper’s political/corporate-serving role of portraying him as a “puzzle of radicalization,” rather than connect his “radicalization” and “fiery sermons” to American foreign policy.
It is not “the puzzle of radicalization.” It is America’s foreign policy! Imam Awlaki makes that cause and effect connection abundantly clear in the following “fiery sermon”:
To the American people, I say, do you remember the good old days . . . when you were oblivious to any threats? . . . But America thought it could threaten the lives of others, kill and invade, occupy and plunder, and conspire without bearing the consequences of its actions. 9/11 was the answer of millions of people who suffer from American aggression. And since then America has not been safe. . . . You transgress against others, and yet expect to be spared of retribution. . . .
Your decision-makers, the politicians, the lobbyists and the major corporations are the ones gaining from your foreign policy, and you are the ones paying the price for it. . . . How many more body bags are American families willing to receive? How much more can the US Treasury handle? . . . The war in Afghanistan and then in Iraq . . .[are] draining the US Treasury of billions of dollars in order to give Americans a false sense of security. . . (“Full speech of Imam Anwar al-Awlaki,” www.liveleak.com, Mar. 20, 2010)
It is not “the puzzlement of radicalization.” It is American foreign policy! Imam Awlaki continues:
We are not against Americans for just being Americans. We are against evil. And America as a whole has turned into a nation of evil. What we see from America is the invasion of two Muslim countries. We see Abu Ghraib, Bagram and Guantanamo Bay. We see cruise missiles and cluster bombs. And we have just seen in Yemen the deaths of 23 children and 17 women. We cannot stand idly in the face of such aggression, and we will fight back and invite others to do the same. (Ibid)
It is not “the puzzle of radicalization.” The “fiery cleric” continued to commit the unpardonable sin of blaspheming American foreign policy:
[Major] Nidal Hasan was not recruited by al-Qaeda. Nidal Hasan was recruited by American crimes. [Italics added] And this is what America refuses to admit. America refuses to admit that its foreign policies are the reasons behind a man like Nidal Hasan, born and raised in the United States, turning his gun against American soldiers. And the more crimes America commits, the more mujahidin will be recruited to fight against it. (Ibid)
It is not “the puzzlement of radicalization.” The Obama administration killed the messenger because he dared to say,
Victory is on our side because there’s a difference between us and you. . . . We are fighting for justice because we are defending ourselves and our families. And you are fighting for imperialistic goals. We are fighting for truth and justice, and you are fighting for oppression. . . . Americans need to stop looking at themselves from their own lens but look at themselves from the lens of the world. They will then see the ugly face of America. America is not despised only by Muslims but by many millions of people around the world and in America itself. (Ibid)
The real threat to American now is not Imam Awlaki but the Obama administration. Without providing any evidence of his guilt, President Obama ordered the extra-judicial murder of Awlaki, and then lauded his assassination with, “The death of Awlaki is a major blow to al Qaeda’s most active operational affiliate.” (Obama: Awlaki’s death ‘major blow’ to terror,” CBS News, Sept. 30, 2011) On the contrary, Awlaki’s assassination will produce a major blowback against America, with more Muslims initiating attacks against America, and untold numbers joining armed insurgent struggles in their countries against invasive US troops.
President Obama set a frightening precedent in ordering Imam Awlaki’s assassination in violation of his fundamental constitutional right to due process as an American citizen. He leveled the unproven charges that Awlaki was a key al Qaeda operative, and that he “took the lead in planning and directing efforts to murder innocent Americans”(Ibid) —a crime US foreign policy- makers have committed, with impunity, on such an overwhelmingly massive scale in Iraq and Afghanistan and in other Muslim countries. Obama became Awlaki’s judge and executioner, rather than having him captured and brought to trial under American’s democratic judicial system.
Frightening also is President Obama’s use of Imam Awlaki’s assassination to say, “But make no mistake: This is further proof that al Qaeda and its affiliate will find no safe haven in the world.” (Ibid) Think of such a powerful precedent in the hands of the candidate you would most dread to see become president of the United States. Think of “no safe have in the world.” That includes the United States, and could apply to any American individual or domestic group that becomes a threat to the status quo and thus a candidate for labeling and fair game.
President Obama’s violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of due process is the latest sign that America is losing its democratic soul. Surely this is a crucial time for American religious leaders of all faiths to let their voices be heard and their bodies seen in protest against oppressive foreign—and domestic– policies that are contrary to every religion’s Golden Rule. Religious leaders especially also need to condemn and confront President Obama for playing God in the extra-judicial murder of an American citizen.
Labels kill. Label poison not people. Drugs not dreams. Illness not ideas.
Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is a diplomate in the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy. Both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister, he has written research reports, essays and articles on racism, war, politics, religion and pastoral care. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.