To me, it felt like this epic crossing of a line because you have the Constitutional law professor, Nobel Peace Prize-winning Democratic president who is asserting the right to kill an American citizen without even charging him with a crime. So, I delved into the world of who is this guy. And I think al-Awlaki was a product of American foreign policy. He was radicalized because of the U.S. wars. and we certainly say that in the film. America was out trying to kill someone they had a huge role in creating with their foreign policy. But for me, the question is not so much about who is Anwar al-Awaki. He might be guilty of everything they said about him in the press. He said things I find despicable and reprehensible. And if he was involved with any plotting, then I think he should have been brought to justice.
But to me, I think it was about who are we as a society. If we’re going to start killing even our own citizens without trial when they’re not on a battlefield shooting at U.S. soldiers, that’s a very serious crossing of a line because how we treat the most reprehensible of our citizens is really how we should judge ourselves as a society. I’m deeply concerned about the implications of this—particularly when a Republican comes into office next time. Because, you know, Cheney and Rumsfeld and Bush, I think if they were openly doing this stuff, there would have been a lot of outrage. You would not see 70 percent of self-identifying liberals answering yes in a poll that asks, "Do you support these strikes?"
One of the most ironic things is that liberals kept complaining during the Bush years that we were going to create more terrorists than we were able to kill—and now, here we are, during the Obama years, actually doing it.
You’re right. You could be giving one of my speeches for me because that’s one of the points that I make. It’s like, look, it’s not like there aren’t vicious, criminal individuals plotting to attack American airlines and trying to kill American civilians. Those policies are real and we need some kind of policy to address it. My point is, in pursuit of a relatively small group of people who present a relatively minor threat—it’s a real threat, but it’s relatively minor compared to other threats facing our country—we are making more enemies than we are killing actual terrorists. Since we’ve gotten to that point, I think we need to step back and say, Who do we need to kill in these drone strikes? Yes, we can name some terrorists, but who are we actually killing in Yemen when we do these things called signature strikes, where we target people based on the fact that they’re military age males in a certain region, who may or may not have been in contact with someone we think it a terrorists. The idea that we’re just pre-emptively killing people, it’s like pre-crime—like Minority Report. And I think that’s going to come back and hit us. You know the term blowback. I think it’s going to boomerang back around to us and hit us.
That was probably the biggest thing I took from the film, when you talk about al-Awlaki’s son being murdered.
Yeah. The thing about the kid, too, is like, what happened there? No one from the White House will provide any on-the-record explanation. They just say, oh, it was a mistake or he was sitting next to a terrorist or collateral damage or no one has to explain that. And I find it impossible to believe that that’s a coincidence, and if it is, please, share the information with us so it doesn’t appear as it appears: Which is that they killed a kid because of who his father was. That’s just unconscionable if that’s true. I want an answer to that. And that’s one of the things I hope this film inspires people to ask their representatives: for the Obama administration to explain why this 15-year-old American citizen was killed.
I actually thought that, recently, when Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey joined Rand Paul to filibuster the Obama administration, that something may have come from that that would have gotten to the bottom of this question—but, of course, it didn’t.
I give Rand Paul and Toomey and those guys who did this credit for doing something I wish Democrats had done a long time ago, which is ask serious questions about this policy. I think it’s unfortunate that it’s left to someone like Rand Paul. I don’t agree with almost anything that Rand Paul stands for, and I don’t Stand with Rand, that whole Twitter thing. And I wouldn’t dare say I stand with Rand, but I think what he did was a step forward because he entered onto the record—it was the first time that Abdulrahman al-Awlaki’s name has been mentioned in the U.S. Congress, and it was by Rand Paul.
I just wish that—and it’s the same thing with the Benghazi stuff—I think there is a real scandal with this Benghazi thing, but the people that are banging the pots and pans the loudest over this are crazy people. And they’re adding in conspiracy wacko stuff instead of actually examining the facts of it. I feel the same way about Rand Paul. I reluctantly celebrate that Rand Paul did this, but I wish that someone credible who was able to mount a credible campaign to force the White House to come clean on this stuff was behind it. But, you dance with the girl you brought to the party, I guess. And Rand Paul was the one who showed up at the Ask Tough Questions party that day.
With regard to this, especially the Benghazi stuff, the conspiracy theories, you’ve been reporting for a while now. Why do you think that has become such a big thing especially recently: Getting out of the way of the actual issue and going toward the conspiracy?
We live in this—well, first of all, I think a lot of liberals are in this awful, awkward position. I think everybody with eyes can see and knows that Obama is continuing some of the bad policies of the Bush era, and people are either silent about it or look the other way. But at the same time, there’s all this racism directed at the president. You know, questioning his citizenship and is he really an anti-colonialist Kenyan, and all of this sort of dingbattery that populates what passes as political discussion in this country. It’s highly polarizing; it’s racist towards the president because he’s a black man, and I think that these wackos don’t like the fact that there’s an African-American as president of the United States, so they’re looking for a left wing socialist conspiracy lurking in every corner of the White House. And it really is unfortunately on a number of levels. One of which is we can’t have an actual, sane discussion about what happened at Benghazi because they’ve added in all this insanity.
So, I think it’s a sign of a highly-polarized, partisan time we’re living in right now, and a lot of it boils down to the fact that the Republicans can’t stand Barack Obama. They just can’t stand him. It’s cult of personality stuff.
And the opposite is also true. A lot of liberals—there’s a sort of cultish devotion to Obama that’s really sort of incredible—I get more hate mail from liberals than I ever got from right wingers during the Bush era. And I’m reporting the same kinds of things. And I get called names all the time for criticizing the Obama administration.
It’s like everything that was criticized during the Bush years, no one even thinks about anymore. No one on the left, that is. You seem to be independent of most other people when you’re on TV—on MSNBC. But MSNBC has almost become a mouthpiece for the administration instead of being a left-leaning TV station. They’re almost more of a Democratic-leaning station.
I’ve said once before, on their own airwaves, and I thought this was the last time they’d ever have me on, but I said that their coverage of the Democratic National Convention at the time looked like an Obama For America meeet-up. And I think that’s true with some of the shows and some of the hosts. At the same time, what I believe is that the best show on corporate television right now is Chris Hayes’ show. I think Chris Hayes is the smartest guy on television. He puts together a great show. He has diverse voices. He tries to have representation of traditionally marginalized voices in this country. He has a very great ability to get great discussions going that don’t happen on corporate television, but that’s the exception, not the rule—and that’s kind of tragic.
That’s why we need independent media, too, that’s not corporate controlled, and why we need independent weeklies and shows like Democracy Now! That’s where I cast my lot. I’ve had offers to go work in other places. I cast my lot in the world of independent media because I believe in building community and independent media.
So, based on what you’ve seen and reported over the last 15 years, what, if anything, can the U.S. do differently to fix this huge problem?
I think we need to de-militarize our response to terrorism. I think we should treat it as the crime that it is, and we should seek to bring those who are plotting against us to justice and have the actual moral high ground and do it in a way that is in sync with our own laws and traditions. I mean, it shouldn’t be; there’s a lot of talk about the Constitution from the Tea Party people and on Capitol Hill.
But I think we need to look at how far away we’ve come from offering due process to the most reprehensible of our citizens. That’s one of the lynchpins of American democracy. You have a right, particularly if you’re a U.S. citizen, to respond to your accusers, to face the evidence against you. It’s one thing if you’re shooting at U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s another thing if you may or may not be involved in plotting an attack that may or may not happen. There are ways to deal with people that don’t have to be military in their origin.
The other thing I would say is I think we should have a moratorium on drone strikes, not because I don’t think the U.S. has a right to defend itself. When George Ryan, the governor of Illinois at the time, issued a moratorium on the death penalty, it was because the U.S. had exonerated a number of people who were on death row, and Ryan said we need to look at the whole system again. It’s not that he was a flaming member of Amnesty International. I think we’ve gotten to the point where we don’t know who we’re killing in these countries. And we need to have an actual review: Who has been killed? Who has been involved in terrorism?
And at the end of the day, we need to ask ourselves, has this made us less safe or more safe as a country to be doing this? And I believe, with all facts on the table, we will find this has made us less safe. So, then that puts us in a position where we have to have an actual national discussion about security policy. How can we truly re-engage the Muslim world and make an approach where the military solution is not the first one on the table?