the presidential campaign, when he was still battling an array of
Republican heavyweights for the party’s nomination, Donald
Trump indulged in a bit of hubris that would have buried a more
could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I
wouldn’t lose voters,” Trump said
at a campaign rally
in Iowa in January 2016.
was praising, in an off-kilter way, the steadfastness of his
supporters. He was also subtly emphasizing his disdain for gun
control. Perhaps most ingeniously, he was playing on the rivalry
between the heartland and the Big Apple, putting some distance
between himself and the cosmopolitans of his hometown.
no East Coast snob,” Trump was dog-whistling to his fans. “I’d
be happy to prove it by taking out a few of those snotty New
Yorkers.” No doubt some in the adoring crowd would have stood
shoulder to shoulder with Trump, locked and loaded and ready to bag
likes to be the king of the hill in everything. But he’s been
outdone in this particular category. Before the year was out, the
leader of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, admitted that he not only
directed a bloody campaign against suspected drug dealers when he was
mayor of the city of Davao, he’d actually killed people
Davao I used to do it personally. Just to show to the guys [police]
that if I can do it why can’t you,” Duterte told
in December at the presidential palace in Manila. “And I’d
go around in Davao with a motorcycle, with a big bike around, and I
would just patrol the streets, looking for trouble also. I was really
looking for a confrontation so I could kill.”
president, Duterte has gone national with his violent anti-drug
campaign, with more than 6,000
suspected drug dealers and users killed in his first six months
in office. He hasn’t indicated, however, whether he’s
still leading his forces into battle. Even after his
self-incriminating remarks, Duterte’s popularity remains
around 83 percent
in the Philippines.
bar has officially been raised. To prove that you’re a tough
guy in the dog-eat-dog world of politics, shooting a mean round of
golf is no longer sufficient. Nor is simply ordering the murder of an
opponent or two. Perhaps it’s just a matter of time before
Vladimir Putin confesses that he has used his black belt judo skills
for more than just tossing people around the mat.
leaders have been known in the past to notch a few kills. Andrew
Jackson, one of Trump’s heroes, killed
a man in a duel
after himself taking a shot near the heart. Teddy Roosevelt boasted
of killing at least one enemy combatant in the battle of San Juan
Hill. Former Mexican President Carlos Salinas, however, gets the
littlest assassin award. He was only three years old when he very
well may have killed
the family’s 12-year-old maid
as part of a “game” with his older brother and a friend.
recently, killing people in battle or by accident has generally
fallen off the list of qualifications for modern leadership. Today,
presidents and prime ministers are still responsible for the deaths
of others, but they generally delegate the actual task to third
parties. Indeed, one of the definitions of the modern state is its
bureaucratic method of dispatching opponents both domestic and
foreign. Even the barbaric Hunger Games, after all, followed certain
procedures in setting up the annual battles royal among selected
Trump and Duterte, leading the new crop of populist leaders, are
reviving a tried and true method of demonstrating leadership that
goes all the way back to the Stone Age. Our leaders are setting an
example for the rest of society. The loosening of gun control
regulations and the ever increasing proliferation of arms exports
will allow all of us to be leaders in our community — the
introduction of drones into modern warfare in the 1990s made
state-directed assassination a great deal easier. Drones also helped
to further concentrate killing power in the executive branch. In
previous eras, analyst Tom Engelhardt points
either stayed above the assassination fray or practiced a kind of
plausible deniability about the acts. We are surely at a new stage in
the history of the imperial presidency when a president (or his
election team) assembles his aides, advisers, and associates to
foster a story that’s meant to broadcast the group’s
collective pride in the new position of assassin-in-chief.
Obama, the constitutional scholar turned president, ushered in this
new stage in history.
Jo Becker and Scott Shane wrote
back in 2012
New York Times,
Obama decided to take on the task of determining whether to order
drone strikes that might also kill civilians. The strikes largely
obviated the need for the controversial extraordinary rendition
program that whisked suspects off to secret sites for interrogation
was just one problem. The president, with his “kill list,”
was acting as judge and jury. However much the United States was
committed to the rule of law, counterterrorism trumped all other
They acknowledged the uses of a drone program but worried about what
would happen when a constitutional lawyer no longer presided over the
kill list. No one imagined that the White House would fall into the
hands of someone with the ethical profile of Donald Trump.
bad enough that Trump has the nuclear football. But raging
narcissists with properties all over the planet will think twice
about blowing up their holdings and possibly themselves. The kill
list, on the other hand, is just the kind of lethal accoutrement that
goes with the Trump presidential brand. During the campaign, he
talked about his faith
He liked the idea of resurrecting the CIA
where torture took place. He recommended killing
of terrorist suspects. Hypothetically mowing down people on Fifth
Avenue was just another way of demonstrating this ruthlessness.
has never had much interest in rule of law. Worse, he also possesses
an almost pathological revenge streak. Little prevents him from
pushing a much broader definition of terrorism. He already has plans
the Iranian Revolutionary Guards
a terrorist organization. Then, thanks to Congress, it will be the
After that, a few more steps down the slippery slope, come Arnold
Schwarzenegger, Meryl Streep, anyone who wears a pink hat, and all
those who refuse to buy Ivanka’s merch.
has excelled at character assassination. Why stop at Twitter when you
have drones at your disposal?
detouring around the rule of law, Trump seems to be quite taken by
the example of Duterte. He reportedly
the Philippine leader back in December that he was addressing the
country’s drug problem “the right way.”
a two-part series in The
New York Review of Books,
James Fenton describes
the two ways that Duterte’s regime has transformed itself into
a killing machine. In the first, the “buy-and-bust,”
undercover cops pretend to buy drugs from a pusher and end up killing
him. One-third of the killings, about 2,000 people, have happened
other method is extra-judicial killings (EJK) — essentially,
we hear, and what we can extract from the president’s
monotonously droning speeches, sounds like (and is meant to sound
like) scraps of confidential instructions to the police: if the
victim doesn’t have a gun, give him one; don’t waste the
effort on torturing him—just kill him. But as soon as the
president is taken up on such remarks, there is either an aide on
hand to say that he was exaggerating when he said that, that his
words are to be taken seriously but not literally, or the president
himself is denouncing his critics in another speech, calling them any
name that comes into his head. Meanwhile the message to the public at
large is: whatever happens, Duterte’s hand is in it; and there
is no real distinction between a buy-bust and an EJK.
is the “right way” that Trump admires. No doubt, the U.S.
president is also fond of how Duterte and his aides make outrageous
statements, dial them back, and then issue fresh outrage the next
day. The media is flummoxed by this audacity and manipulation.
Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer are taking notes.
everyone in the Philippines is taken in by Duterte. According
to former Philippine Congressman Walden Bello,
is not the demiurgic sort like Hitler’s, nor does it derive so
much from an emotional personal identification with a “nation.”
Duterte’s charisma would probably be best described as carino
a Filipino-Spanish term that denotes a volatile mix of will to power,
a commanding personality, and gangster charm that fulfills his
followers’ deep-seated yearning for a father figure who will
finally end what they see as the “national chaos.”
description of the American landscape as “carnage” in his
inaugural address was the first sign. His three executive orders on
“crime reduction” — and their failure to address
the epidemic of police brutality — are the second sign.
far with Trump go to emulate the Philippine leader? I don’t
quite see the U.S. president riding around on a motorcycle dispensing
justice Duterte-style. He likes the Mar-a-Largo lifestyle too much to
get his little hands dirty. The corrupt and violent criminal justice
system, unshackled from federal oversight, will do the job for him.
there’s still EJK outside the United States.
is all the rage these days.
Jong Nam, the half-brother of and potential rival to North Korean
leader Kim Jong Un, died in Kuala Lumpur this week after a Vietnamese
Russian oppositionist Vladimir Kara-Murza has slipped into a
mysterious coma after what seems to be a second attempt by forces
unknown to put him out of commission. A lawyer and adviser to Aung
San Suu Kyi was
in Burma at the end of January. An off-duty policeman shot and killed
Russia’s ambassador to Turkey in Ankara in mid-December.
these are still the killings of the ancient regime. They were done
with conventional methods, at close range, and by specific assassins.
future of assassination is drones, and Donald Trump has already taken
up the mantle.
the first three days of his administration, he authorized strikes in
Yemen that killed five
suspected al-Qaeda members.
The overall death toll was 30, including 10 women and children. Among
was the eight-year-old daughter of an American citizen, Anwar
al-Awlaki, who’d been killed by a previous drone strike under
the Obama administration. Trump has now fulfilled one of his campaign
promises: to kill the families of terrorism suspects.
notion that Donald Trump will be in charge of the kill list is of
course deeply troubling. Equally troubling is the possibility that
authority for launching drone strikes will not
be in his hands.
Micah Zenko in Foreign
nobody can know how carefully Trump — who has promised to both
“eradicate radical Islamic terrorism” and avoid overseas
commitments — intends to weigh evidence for proposed strikes,
you might be able to guess. And this would mean there would be less
apparent accountability at lower levels in the chain of command
because it’s not clear who is weighing the evidence, if the
buck doesn’t stop with the president. Indeed, commanders for
Yemen are reportedly preparing to ask the White House for more direct
authority over lethal counterterrorism operations, in a sign that
they believe they should be empowered to conduct drone strikes and
raids without sign-off from Washington.
it’s not who’s in control of the kill list that’s
the problem. It’s the existence of a kill list in the first
the United States takes the lead in developing global restrictions on
drone use — and gives up its controversial kill list in the
process — it’s just a matter of time before North Korea,
Russia, and other countries eliminate their enemies by this most
modern of means. I’m not optimistic in the short run. The same
president who pooh-poohed
new rules in football
to reduce injuries to the players is probably not going to do
anything to hamper Washington’s ability to play fast and dirty
best we can do at this point is throw sand in the gears of the
mechanisms of the state. By wrapping the administration in scandals
that take down top officials, we might have a fighting chance at
blunting the amount of damage our latest killer president can do.