A retrospective glance

The New Yorker, as you may have heard, has redesigned its website, and is making all articles published since 2007 free, for the summer, in hopes of addicting you as a reader. Once you’re hooked, they’ll winch up the drawbridge, and you’ll have to pay, pay, pay. But for the moment let’s not think about either the metaphor I just mixed or its consequences, shall we?

A self-publicist’s work is never done, and it seemed to behoove me to take advantage of the occasion. So I googled myself. It turns out that I’ve been writing for the New Yorker since 2005 and that ten articles of mine have appeared in the print magazine over the years. All seem to be on the free side of the paywall as of this writing (though a glitch appears to have put several of the early articles almost entirely into italics). Enjoy!

“Rail-Splitting,” 7 November 2005: Was Lincoln depressed? Was he a team player?
“The Terror Last Time,” 13 March 2006: How much evidence did you need to hang a terrorist in 1887?
“Surveillance Society,” 11 September 2006: In the 1930s, a group of British intellectuals tried to record the texture of everyday life
“Bad Precedent,” 29 January 2007: Andrew Jackson declares martial law
“There She Blew,” 23 July 2007: The history of whaling
“Twilight of the Books,” 24 December 2007: This is your brain on reading
“There Was Blood,” 19 January 2009: A fossil-fueled massacre
“Bootylicious,” 7 September 2009: The economics of piracy
“It Happened One Decade,” 21 September 2009: The books and movies that buoyed America during the Great Depression
“Tea and Antipathy,” 20 December 2010: Was the Tea Party such a good idea the first time around?
Unfortunate Events, 22 October 2012: What was the War of 1812 even about?
“Four Legs Good,” 28 October 2013: Jack London goes to the dogs
“The Red and the Scarlet,” 30 June 2014: Where the pursuit of experience took Stephen Crane


President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011
The American government has released a photograph taken on Sunday of President Obama, Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Clinton, Defense Secretary Gates, and other high-ranking officials sitting in the White House’s Situation Room. According to the government-authored caption, the officials are shown receiving “an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden.” The fixity of their attention, however, suggests that the word “update” is an understatement. Almost certainly they were watching moving images on a screen. The New York Times has reported that “The president and his advisers watched Leon E. Panetta, the C.I.A. director, on a video screen, narrating from his agency’s headquarters across the Potomac River what was happening in faraway Pakistan.” An early report, however, claimed that Obama was able to watch a live video feed of the attack, and there has been speculation, without evidence, that such a feed might have come from a camera mounted on the helmet of one of the Navy Seals involved. When PBS asked Panetta himself what the people in the Situation Room were seeing, he gave an equivocal answer, denying that Obama and his team were able to see the shots fired at Bin Laden, but admitting that “I think they were viewing some of the real-time aspects of this as well in terms of the intelligence that we were getting.” Since so many details of the killing have been revised by the government in the past forty-eight hours, and since there are as yet no sources other than the government itself, the safest thing to say is we don’t know what was on the screen, except through what we can see reflected in the watchers’ faces.

At a minimum, then, the people in the Situation Room were watching Panetta describe in real time how three men and one woman were shot. “This was a kill operation,” an official has told Reuters. In its newly released “Narrative of Events,” the Department of Defense now admits that Bin Laden was unarmed and that Bin Laden did not use a woman as a human shield, despite earlier government claims to the contrary. The shootings were probably at close range. “The encounter with bin Laden,” Politico reports, “ended with a kill shot to his face,” and White House spokesperson Jay Carney says that the photograph of Bin Laden taken by the Seals is so “gruesome” that the White House is hesitating to release it. ABC News writes of the photograph that “The insides of his head are visible.”

Photography of the killed seems to be standard operating procedure these days for American special forces. (When the American Raymond A. Davis was arrested in Lahore in February for having shot two Pakistanis, he claimed to be a consular official defending himself against a robbery attempt. A consular official who, after shooting two men through his windshield, got out of his car and photographed the corpses with his digital camera? Davis turned out, of course, to be a CIA security officer.) Perhaps such a photograph of Bin Laden was being displayed on the screen in the Situation Room at the moment that the picture was taken.

Gates A book could probably be written about the expressions in the photograph. It’s possible to download a 1.6-megabyte version; the ambivalences of its revelations become even finer upon magnification. At first, for example, I thought that the look on Gates’s face was one of pride and satisfaction, maybe even smugness. Heh heh, Gates seemed to be saying; this is going well. But in an enlargement of the photo, it is possible to see fear in the outer, lower corners of his eyes, anxiety in the set of his chin, and sorrow in the sagging corner of his mouth. What I at first mistook for smugness turns out, on a closer look, to be a mask of confidence. He’s a warrior; he’s not supposed to mind what he’s looking at; he’s supposed to convey to his subordinates that the violence of war is necessary and lawful. But even he doesn’t like to look at such an image, whatever it is, despite having seen images like it before.

Biden Biden’s face has a similar ambiguity. His left eyelid droops; he’s tired. He has widened his eyes in compensation, making an effort to look alert. Probably in order to reassure others, he’s also making an effort to look as if he’s equal to what he’s seeing—as if it’s all right that the leaders of America are watching a killing in which they are complicit. It is probably legal, he may be telling himself. By any definition, Osama Bin Laden is an enemy of the United States, actively plotting its harm. Perhaps Biden is reminding himself that Harold Koh, a legal adviser to the Obama administration, has justified America’s program of targeted killings abroad as acts of national self-defense. Even the ACLU approves of targeted killings if they take place in a theater of war against an imminent threat. The United States is not at war with Pakistan, but it is at war next door in Afghanistan, and Bin Laden certainly posed an ongoing danger. What’s happening is reasonable, is the thought that Biden seems to be projecting; reason led us here, at any rate.

Obama Two faces in the picture do not seem composed for view by others. The first is Obama’s. After a glance at it, there can be no question that it is his will driving the mission: the grim mouth, the hungry eyes. There’s an uncanny stillness to Obama’s features. One senses that he has been holding himself in one pose for some time, like a hunter. There is no acceptance in his face. What he is watching is awful to him, too, but he has chosen it. He’s not going to let himself out of any of it. He has to see all of it.

Clinton The other naïve face, of course, is that of Hillary Clinton. Her eyes are widened; she has unconsciously covered her mouth with her hand. Her grandmotherly hand. Her expression is one of pure horror. When I first saw this photograph, I thought, Thank God, there was at least one human being in the room. I find the image of her strangely beautiful, even though I’ve never been drawn to her as a politician. It makes me want to cry.

Why shouldn’t I? What else should I do when I see my country’s leaders watching a killing that they have ordered? It is legal for the United States to kill its enemies in war; maybe it’s also legal for us to kill those enemies far from any battlefield, unarmed, in the middle of the night. But America didn’t use to think of itself as the sort of nation that did things that way. Now it is proud of such actions? In his speech on Sunday night, Obama compared the killing of Bin Laden to other triumphs by America:

Tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history, whether it’s the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens; our commitment to stand up for our values abroad, and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place.

Let us remember that we can do these things not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are.

These words are false. A killing is not comparable to the Apollo space program or the War on Poverty. It is not a moral achievement, let alone a technological one. If the Navy Seals had brought Bin Laden to the United States and we had then put him on trial, that would have been a moral achievement. But a nation need not be a democracy in order to kill its enemies. Revenge is not special. We can take it no matter who we are, and no matter who we become.

Notebook: Jackson and habeas corpus

Andrew Jackson

"Bad Precedent," my essay on Andrew Jackson and habeas corpus, appears in The New Yorker on 29 January 2007. As with earlier articles, I'm posting here a few outtakes and tips of the hat.

As ever, I owe the most to the book under review, Matthew Warshauer's Andrew Jackson and the Politics of Martial Law: Nationalism, Civil Liberties, and Partisanship (available from Amazon and, for the same price, directly from the University of Tennessee Press).

I also learned much from three recent biographies of Jackson, very different in style and perspective. Jackson provokes feelings of surprising intensity, considering that he's a long-dead historical figure, and a great virtue of H. W. Brands's Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times is that it explains the sturm and drang around him in a calm, careful tone. Brands relies for the most part on published sources and doesn't offer new archival discoveries, but he places Jackson in context with impressive clarity, and his narrative is well constructed. (My only quibble is with his reliance, in a few places, on anecdotes about Jackson's early life from an early-twentieth-century account by Augustus C. Buell; Buell's stories were probably fiction, the scholar Milton W. Hamilton asserted in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography in 1956. Of course it's possible that Brands has found reason to dissent from Hamilton's athetization. . . .)

Brands offers a generous but highly readable 600-plus pages. Sean Wilentz's Andrew Jackson, by contrast, is as lean and sinewy as Jackson himself. It also shares with Jackson an appetite for controversy: at 195 pages, Wilentz's book is designed for the reader who wants an introduction to Jackson in the course of an afternoon, but Wilentz manages nonetheless to find room to mount a sophisticated defense of Jackson from attacks by other historians—attacks which, he argues, fail to take account of the political realities of Jackson's day. Among others, Wilentz critiques Andrew Burstein, who, in The Passions of Andrew Jackson, condemns Jackson harshly, as a person and as a leader. Burstein's isn't a straight biography, but rather a study from a perspective that's a little hard to describe—a mixture of social history, psychology, and cultural studies. Burstein scants the political context, which is a rather large piece of the puzzle to leave out. Still, Burstein seems to have immersed himself in the primary sources, and presents evidence, often highly colorful, that is not easy to find elsewhere.

The big books on Jackson are two three-volume biographies: James Parton's, issued in 1859 and 1860, and Robert Remini's, issued in 1977, 1981, and 1984. Parton seems to have had most of the important sources available to him, and he's a beautiful stylist. Here he is setting the scene of New Orleans: "The Mississippi is apparently the most irresolute of rivers; the bed upon which it lies cannot long hold it in its soft embrace." And here he is on the impossibility of recovering the truth about Jackson's duel with legislator Thomas Hart Benton:

Neither the eyes nor the memory of one of these fiery spirits can be trusted. Long ago, in the early days of these inquiries, I ceased to believe any thing they may have uttered, when their pride or their passions were interested; unless their story was supported by other evidence or by strong probability. It is the nature of such men to forget what they wish had never occurred; to remember vividly the occurrences which flatter their ruling passion; and unconsciously to magnify their own part in the events of the past.

All three volumes of Parton's biography of Jackson are in Google Books: volume 1, volume 2, and volume 3. (The image above is the frontispiece to volume 2.) Though Parton sees Jackson's merits, he is not a fan, as Remini sometimes is. Remini is a researcher of great energy and diligence, and I would guess that he's the only person who has discovered more about Jackson than Parton did. I found myself disagreeing with some of his analyses, however. For example, Remini argues that Jackson's New Orleans victory did affect the territorial outcome of the War of 1812, despite the prior signing of the Treaty of Ghent. That seems unlikely to me, on the face of it; moreover, in 1979, in the journal Diplomatic History, the scholar James A. Carr turned to British military correspondence and internal diplomatic memoranda to show that by the end of the War of 1812, the British wanted nothing more than to wash their hands of America and conflict with Americans.

The article by Abraham D. Sofaer that I refer to at the end of the article is "Emergency Power and the Hero of New Orleans," Cardozo Law Review 2 (1980): 233 ff. Also useful, as I was thinking through the legal issues, was Ingrid Brunk Wuerth's "The President's Right to Detain 'Enemy Combatants': Modern Lessons from Mr. Madison's Forgotten War," Northwestern University Law Review 98 (2004):1567 ff. Unfortunately, neither of these is available online for free, though they're easy to find in for-profit databases. In fact, I turned up remarkably few Internet-enhanced multimedia supplemental whirligigs during my tours of Web procrastination this time out, but no Andrew Jackson blog post would be complete without a reference to the large White House cheese, and someone has digitized all of Benson J. Lossing's Pictorial Field Book of the War of 1812, which has some of the best battle diagrams going, if you plan to read a blow-by-blow account and want some visual guidance. Of course, the Hamdan v. Rumsfeld decision is online, as is the Military Commissions Act of 2006, and they may be profitably read side by side.