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“Can I ask you something?”

“Anything, mom.” We had driven over to Forest Trace to visit my nearly 105-year-old mother.

“Have you been watching?”

“Watching what?”

“TV. CNN.” She was having a good day, actually quite a good week, and for some time had been eager to talk about things in the news from gun control to the elections in Israel.

“You mean the confirmation hearing for the newly proposed CIA director?”

“Yes, him. I forget his name. But he’s from New Jersey.

“He’s John Brennan and he is from Jersey. So what do you think about him?”

“He has a nice family.”

“That’s it? That’s all you have to say about him?”

“I don’t know what to say about him because he was talking about nothing.”

“I’m not sure I agree. I watched some of his testimony and thought he did talk, or at least try to talk about the role of the CIA and, for that matter, of the administration in fighting terrorism.”

“I did try to follow that but became confused. Maybe because of the senators.”

“The ones questioning him?”

“Those. How before the hearing, on CNN, when Wolf interviewed them, they had all sorts of serious questions they said they would ask.”


“Like how to fight a war when the enemies aren’t wearing uniforms and how they even use women to carry suicide bombs. But then at the hearing all they wanted to do was make speeches or talk about torturing. The speeches I could do without and since Obama stopped torturing I think it would have been better to ask Brenner the same questions they spoke to Wolf about.”

I didn’t correct her. “Such as?”

“About the groans.”

“You’re losing me, mom.”

“The groans they use to kill people in Pakistan and other countries.”

“Now I’m following you. You mean drones.”

“That’s why I wanted to talk about this. I always learn these things from you.”

“And I from you,” I hastened, with sincerity, to add. “But what about them? The drones?”

“This is all very complicated for me and I am not sure I understand all the issues. You have to remember how old I am.”

“I do. I try to. But go on because I’m not sure I understand all the issues either.”

“Are we at war with terrorists? And is this war, if it is war, forever?”

“I think so. Congress thought so too and voted to give the president permission to go after them. Years ago. And to kill them when he is sure they pose a threat to us.”

“Isn’t that the complicated part? To know when they threaten us? When it inanimate.”

“That’s immanent.”

“And then,” ignoring me, she continued, “is it right for the president to have that much power? Over life and death.”

“Isn’t it the president’s first responsibility,” I tried to say, “as commander in chief, to do what’s necessary to protect us from our enemies? To keep us safe? I think that’s not only in the Constitution but isn’t it a part of the oath presidents swear when they are inaugurated?”

“Well, maybe we can trust this president—Obama—to do this responsibly and according to the Constitution, he is a professor after all, but what about the next president (it should only be Hillary) and the one after her? Should we be willing to trust them in advance?”

“Good question, but don’t we trust our presidents in advance when we elect them, with at times the confirmation of Congress, to, as you put it, make wars against our enemies by using bombs dropped from airplanes or by having soldiers use conventional weapons? Aren’t the drones just a new form of weapon for wars against terrorists who don’t fight us or attack us in conventional ways? Like the people who hijacked airplanes to attack us on 9/11? If we knew in advance what they were up to what should we have done to them while they were living in this country while waiting to attack us?”

“As they were saying on TV, first, try to capture them; and then . . .”

“Kill them? Just because we suspected they were up to no good?”

“This’s what I was hoping to hear about from the senators. But, as I said, they made speeches or talked tough to Wolf but not to I-forgot-his name.”

“Brennan. John Brennan.”

“As if they were afraid of him.”

“It seemed that way to me too. The senators talked about asking tough questions when they were being interviewed but then didn’t ask any when they faced him.”

“Most of the girls here are very liberal. Even members of the American Liberties Union.”

“The ACLU?”

“Yes. And they believe that we shouldn’t be using groans at all. That they kill women and children. Not just terrorists. But, I ask them, don’t tanks and machine guns and hand grenades do that too? Kill innocent people. Maybe even more. War is terrible but if we have to fight, and don’t we . . .?”  She trailed off in thought. "In my lifetime I've seen so many wars. The First World War, the Second, then Korea, then Vietnam, and now in the Middle East. Everywhere."

“I don’t know how to think about all of this,” I confessed. “Fighting now is so different. It isn’t army against army. Terrorists blend in and live with their families in villages and towns. If we have to go after them—and don’t we often have to?—how should we do that? I don’t know.”

“And neither do the girls. And neither do I. That’s why I was hoping that the senators would ask about these kinds of things. But once they’re on TV they love to hear themselves talk or when they are facing someone as tough as Brenda they back off. If it were me, I wouldn’t be intimidated even by someone from New Jersey.” She smiled at that thought. “After Poland I grew up in Brooklyn.”

“And then there is the even more complicated question about what to do if a terrorist is an American citizen.”

“About that one,” my mother said, “I am less confused. I would prefer to see them found guilty in absence . . .”

“In abstentia.”

“Yes, in absence, and then we could do what we need to do.”

“Even kill them?”

“Yes. I hate to see anyone die or especially be killed, but sometimes it’s necessary to . . .” In spite of what she said about being less confused, she clearly was struggling with this one, “It’s necessary to take their lives,” she preferred to put it euphemistically, “But after some sort of review. Shouldn’t there be one? Even for someone like Obama who we think we can trust?”

“You’re right. It is a struggle to figure out what’s right to do in a legally very messy and dangerous situation.”

“That’s what I was hoping for.”

“What’s that?”

“A real discussion. Not just with Wolf.”

“Agreed. So now,” I suggested, “how about some tea?” I felt she was beginning to tire. Or at least I was.

“And we didn’t even get to talk about the Superbowl. I tried to stay awake for the whole thing, but I did see Bouncy.”


“Yes, her. Do you think she was sinking with her lips?”

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