It was the grisliest of stories: a decade and a half ago a former KGB man, Alexander Litvinenko, defected to England and turned on the powers-that-be in his own country, accusing its leader of both acts of assassination and, among other things, pedophilia. Litvinenko died in 2006 thanks to a highly toxic radioactive isotope, Polonium 120, evidently slipped into his tea at a meeting with two Russian agents in a ritzy London bar. That Polonium left a “trail” traced by British investigators from airplane seats to hotel rooms to that bar and finally pinned on the two Russians, one of whom was later elected to parliament and awarded a medal by the very man suspected of ordering the hit: Russian President Vladimir Putin. So says a long-awaited British official inquiry into the death by a respected retired judge.
In other words, it’s quite a tale of state-sponsored horror, the kind of morally dark act you’d expect from an autocrat with Putin’s reputation and, when the report came out recently, it was significant news here. The New York Times editorial page concluded: “Mr. Putin has built a sordid record on justice and human rights, which naturally reinforces suspicions that he could easily have been involved in the murder. At the very least, the London inquiry, however much it is denied at the Kremlin, should serve as a caution to the Russian leader to repair his reputation for notorious intrigues abroad.”
If Putin actually did such a thing, and it remains only a supposition, those comments are on the mark indeed. A state-sponsored, extrajudicial act of assassination should appall us all and it’s the sort of subject that you can expect to be discussed in future election 2016 debates here — as long as the president in question is Russian. (When, last December, Donald Trump suggested in passing some possible equivalency between Putin’s reputed killings and Obama administration ones, he was roundly taken to task.) Let me guarantee you one thing, no mainstream columnist, pundit, or reporter questioning presidential candidates will ever put Putin’s putative act in the same context as the extrajudicial, state-sponsored assassinations regularly ordered by another well-known president. I’m speaking, of course, of the White House campaign of drone killings of “terror suspects,” including American citizens, across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa that began in 2002 and has never ended. This despite the fact that, whatever doubt there may be about Putin’s order, there is none when it comes to those presidentially approved drone killings.
In fact, President Obama took on the role of assassin-in-chief with evident enthusiasm years ago (as will whoever enters the Oval Office in 2017). He has overseen a years-long drone assassination spree based on a White House “kill list” of candidates chosen in what are called “terror Tuesday” meetings. Keep in mind that that government-planned assassinations were officially banned in 1976. Keep in mind as well that Putin’s order, if true, was directed at a single figure and only he died (though the Russian president is sometimes accused of being behind the deaths of Russian journalists and opposition figures, too). Notoriously enough, however, the American assassination program regularly knocks off not only its intended targets but also a range of “collateral” figures, including in one case much of a wedding party in Yemen.
The likelihood that the role of the president in the drone campaigns will be seriously discussed in any future debate in campaign 2016 is essential nil. And that’s just one of a myriad of subjects that, as TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich, author of the much-anticipated book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History (due this April), points out today, are out of bounds for media questioners and candidates alike in an election in which so many words are being spoken and so little is truly being spoken about.