Magazine | November 25, 2013, Issue

Killer Elite

Double Down, an insider view of the 2012 campaign, reportedly quotes President Obama saying he’s “really good at killing people” when it comes to picking targets for drone strikes. So he probably misspoke when he told al-Qaeda leaders, “If you like your life, you can keep it. Period.” Without full context for the remark, you can imagine all sorts of meanings.

1. Surrounded by military men in uniforms with gleaming medals awarded for killing people hither and yon when the mood struck, the president felt the need for small talk, the idle manly chatter you find in a barbershop or a car garage. A fellow’s under your Buick getting oily and dirty, and there you are in your work suit with shiny shoes and a dimple in your tie. “You know, I used to fix my old Chevy in high school. I’d get right in there and find the hole where the windshield-wiper juice goes, pour that sauce in, and top it off. Kinda miss the old days.”

In this sense, “I’m good at killing people” is bonding banter, intended to form a more lasting relationship with his military. Later the generals will leave the room and go to their secret clubhouse — he knows they have one and they never invite him — and say, “You know, he may be a brilliant constitutional scholar and the defining orator of our generation, but there’s steel in that lad’s mettle. When you get down to it, he is good at killing people. We ought to leak a story to the Post about the forceful way he crosses out names with that special Sharpie he uses.”

2. After a busy day of not meeting with Republican leaders to forestall a budget crisis and reminding himself he’s a pretty good negotiator, and reading a document that said needed more work on the front end and the back end and adding, “What about the middle end? Is that an end per se?” and reminding himself he’s a pretty good computer programmer, and finishing off a pastrami sandwich with wedgie fries, recalling how his wife would disapprove, and reminding himself that marrying someone who wanted him to eat more vegetables showed he was a pretty good dietician, he paged through the list of targets for the upcoming week, chose the ones who had the bushiest beards, and said, “You know, I’m pretty good at killing people.” Then he gazed out the window at a cherry tree and reminded himself he was probably better at horticulture than George Washington, who just cut them down. As he understood the matter you had to prune them.

The only skill where he felt he could stand some improvement was golf. He picked up the phone and told them to bring the helicopter over.

3. The president paused while looking at the weekly target reports and noted that one of the generals was sniffling. His eyes were red. Obama mused again how the simplest alteration in the genetic code of the common cold could harden it against environmental degradation, allowing for a more effective aerosol dispersion. Simply isolate the gene that makes the virus unable to withstand a temperature below 68 degrees and change the numbers so it’s 55 degrees. But of course that would be wrong. Still, it was an interesting mental experiment. You know, I’m pretty good at imagining the lethal viruses I could make if I hadn’t gone into community-organizing. Shoot, they’re looking at me odd; did I say that out loud?   

#page#4. His aides stood at attention, not saying a word; they knew this was a difficult time. Sometimes the president seemed irritated that he had to choose, when it was obvious that selections had already been made. He was merely acquiescing to a dismal reality far removed from the idealism that had swept him into office. He had provided the world with a sterling example on how to reorder human events, and these lunatics kept fighting as if the old ways of thinking still applied.

He made the selections and threw the dossier on the table. “I’m pretty good at killing people,” he said, “for a Peace Prize winner. In fact I think I have that honor all to myself.”

The last option seems the most likely, because the only guys who brag that they’re good at killing people wear orange all the time, have tattoos on their neck, and are usually described as “convicted of two murders, suspected of dozens more.” But it also seems the least likely, in a way. The president does not seem like a fellow capable of ironical self-contempt. Even if there was a note of auto-disparagement, it would be underlined with confidence. This isn’t the thing a man like me should have to do. That said, I rock at it.

But he doesn’t even do it. He has someone else handle the wet work. There’s not much he seems particularly good at, these days; all of the things his acolytes ascribed to His Most Awesomeness have fallen away. Post-partisan? He conflates opposition to his programs with a desire for poor people to die at the door of the emergency room. Great oratory? Endless expanses of ums and ahhs, stutter-stop harangues that thud like lead cymbals. He will leave ruins in his wake, congratulate himself for showing the nation that they deserved him, admit a few failings to a trusted biographer — the coal industry still exists, and I take personal responsibility for that — then hoover up a few hundred million on the speaking circuit, just by showing up and being Obama.

He’ll make a killing. He’s really good at that.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at

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