How does the war against al-Qaeda end?

A few days after NBC News uncovered the Obama administration's legal justifications for killing American citizens, I was sitting in Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

The infamous "white paper" lays out in tortured English the lengths to which the president will go in his war against al-Qaeda. Americans who renounce their country and pledge themselves to an organization willing to slaughter the innocent do not (and should not) rank among the most sympathetic of characters. When thinking of the particular evil of al-Qaeda, we should not limit ourselves to the tragedy of 9/11, but think of the everyday citizens killed in Bali or Nairobi far from the heart of the "empire." Given how little concern al-Qaeda showed for their lives, it is very easy to show no thought for the lives of al-Qaeda fighters -- American citizen or not.

Except that when you read the language of the white paper, you don't find confident defense so much as hedging and hair-splitting. Last year, Attorney General Eric Holder claimed that a lethal strike against an American citizen can only be made if to protect against "an imminent threat of violent attack." But the white paper states that imminence "does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons or interests will take place in the significant future." Effectively, the word "imminence" has no meaning beyond "we think you're a bad guy."

The white paper further claims that the U.S. can carry out operations "with the consent of the host nation's government," and then declares that such operations would still be lawful "after a determination that the host nation is unwilling or unable to suppress the threat posed by the individual targeted." In other words, we will ask your consent, but we don't really need it.

I was taking all of this in while going through the absurd rituals of American flight. Going through security, I refused the full-body scanner and asked for the pat-down. That is my rule. The wait was longer than usual, about 20 minutes or so, but my flight was delayed an hour anyway. Still, standing there watching people go through, and thinking about drone warfare, its justifications and this decade-plus war with al-Qaeda and its affiliates, something came to me -- I can't see how this war ends.

We have set as our goal the destruction of al-Qaeda and its affiliates, and the safeguarding of every single American life against murder at their hands. That strikes me as a reasonable undertaking, and one that any state acting in its own interests might undertake. One problem with this is that America prides itself on a kind of moral exceptionalism. We do not, in fact, view ourselves as merely acting in our own interests, but as being a force for good in the world. But the more vexing problem is that it means a kind of perpetual war.

Do we really have it in our power to guarantee that no group of young men ever again organize themselves under the banner of Islamism and set the destruction of America as their goal? And why should we restrict our concerns to Islamism? Surely there will be (and are) other protean fighters who claim no country and who will swear themselves to our destruction. Why should we not also wage war against them?

Among Obama's allies, the response has been split, but it's fairly clear that if George W. Bush were doing what Obama is doing, there would be almost no divide. Looking back on the bad old days of "mushroom clouds" and "greeted as liberators" it's now clear that there were those of us who were bothered by the fact of war, and others who were just bothered by the fact of George W. Bush. If this is the case, and if we -- liberals and conservatives -- are not so much bothered by war as we are by incompetent war, what is the motive for war to ever end? The motive for not seeing American soldiers shot is clear. But in the age of drones, we are quickly approaching a point where war no longer requires this.

Here is what I would like to know: Can any of us actually imagine the end?

Can any of us imagine a time when we are not firing weapons into foreign countries; when we are not stripping down to our socks for travel; when we are not sending agents into mosques to foment plots; when we are not spying on Muslim students? What reason is there to view this moment when we do not torture as anything more than a brief interlude? Is this who we are now? More likely, I fear, this is who we've always been.

(Ta-Nehisi Coates is a writer and senior editor for The Atlantic and its website. His blog can be found at http://www.theatlantic.com/ta-nehisi-coates.)

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