President Obama: Pitch Perfect on Trayvon, yet Silent on Abdulrahman

Do Americans care as much about justice and individual rights when Muslim Americans are killed?
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Few things divide us as quickly and powerfully as criminal trials that contain or spark racial controversy. Think of the police officers who beat Rodney King; the murder case against O.J. Simpson; the rape charges filed against members of Duke's lacrosse team; and the recently concluded trial of George Zimmerman, who was acquitted after killing Trayvon Martin on the streets of a Florida subdivision. In many ways, the cases could hardly be more different. But all stand out as polarizing cultural moments, when trials came to stand for more than the incident under review, and divisions in the way different Americans experience their country were exposed.

President Obama took a risk last week by speaking about Trayvon and race in America, even as a polarized debate raged about racial profiling, Stand Your Ground, and whether any of it mattered in the death of the 17-year-old. Obama spoke when emotions were at their most raw and people were in the streets protesting. It's easy to see how he could have made matters worse, for himself or the country. Yet he delivered remarks so pitch perfect that, for 15 minutes, I wasn't just glad he was president; I wished America could've benefited from his calming, unifying rhetoric during bygone controversies. Labeling him the "Defuser-in-Chief," Andrew Sullivan wrote, "He tried to explain -- in a simple, uncondescending way -- one shared communal experience to another," adding that "in a polarized America, this mixed-race president is doing what he can to foster mutual understanding and respect -- by lowering the temperature." That captures the tone and substance of Obama's remarks. Do read them if you haven't already.

***

Many observers thought that Obama's remarks were at their most powerful when he said:

You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there's a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it's important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away.

There are very few African-American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.  There are very few African-American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me -- at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often. And I don't want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida.  And it's inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.

I felt the power of those words. But as I re-read that part of the speech, as well as the passage where the president said, "I want to make sure that, once again, I send my thoughts and prayers, as well as Michelle's, to the family of Trayvon Martin, and to remark on the incredible grace and dignity with which they've dealt with the entire situation," I can't help but harbor complicated feelings about Obama and the American people generally. You see, right around the same time that Obama gave his speech, the grandfather of a 16-year-old American, killed in an apparent incident of profiling, wrote in the New York Times, "They showed me the grave where they buried his remains. I stood over it, asking why my grandchild was dead. Nearly two years later, I still have no answers." As he put it, "the United States government has refused to explain."

The 16-year-old "lived in America until he was 7, then came to live with me in Yemen. He was a typical teenager -- he watched 'The Simpsons,' listened to Snoop Dogg, read 'Harry Potter' and had a Facebook page with many friends. He had a mop of curly hair, glasses like me and a wide, goofy smile." In the autumn of 2011, Abdulrahman set out from his grandfather's home in search of his father, who he hadn't seen in years. He was still hundreds of miles away when the U.S. government killed his father, Anwar al-Awlaki, in a drone strike due to his affiliation with al-Qaeda. "Abdulrahman called us and said he was going to return home," his grandfather wrote. "That was the last time I heard his voice. He was killed just two weeks after his father."

The U.S. government was behind the killing. "The missile killed him, his teenage cousin and at least five other civilians on Oct. 14, 2011, while the boys were eating dinner at an open-air restaurant in southern Yemen." I've written about the boy's case before, though I hadn't thought about it for awhile.

But Obama's speech brought it to mind. There are, of course, many differences between the killing of Trayvon Martin and the killing of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. But they were just a year apart in age when killed. When I heard Obama muse about how 35 years ago, he could've been Trayvon Martin, I started to think about a young Barack Hussein Obama, having not seen his father in years; and it didn't seem so far-fetched to think that he could've been Abdulrahman too -- not someone whose father was an international terrorist, necessarily, but a young American citizen venturing off to a volatile foreign country in search of an absent father, and getting killed in the course of his search, despite not having done anything wrong himself. If a mixed race 16-year-old named Barack Hussein Obama had been killed overseas circa 1978, how many Americans would have cared? Would the U.S. government have investigated? Had a George W. Bush or a Bill Clinton been killed abroad at that age would it have been different? Experience would lead African Americans and Muslim Americans to think so.

I'd never fault Obama for failing to identify with Abdulrahman in the personal way that he has with Trayvon. But comparing and contrasting the two deaths, as I've been doing in my head all weekend, ought to make anyone deeply uncomfortable. The Florida case sparked a nationwide protest movement because of the widespread belief that local police hadn't properly investigated a 17-year-old's death. Millions of Americans felt that absent an independent investigation of the facts, an arrest and a trial, justice wouldn't even have a chance of being served. Obama even addressed the case himself and consoled the boy's grieving family.

Abdulrahman's death still hasn't been investigated.

The Obama Administration took many months just to acknowledge that it was responsible for firing the missile that killed Abdulrahman, but still gave no explanation, saying only that the 16-year-old wasn't targeted intentionally. There was no popular outcry for the facts to be established and possible wrongdoing to be adjudicated, even after reports surfaced that John Brennan suspected that Abdulrahman was killed intentionally. Obama hasn't addressed the 16-year-old's death.

He hasn't consoled the boy's family.

But Robert Gibbs, his former press secretary, did say, asked in his capacity as an Obama 2012 staffer how Obama justified the 16-year-old's death, "I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the well being of their children. I don't think becoming an al-Qaeda jihadist terrorist is the best way to go about doing your business." Imagine how that statement made Abdulrahman's surviving relatives -- none of them al-Qaeda members -- feel. Imagine how it feels for them to still not know why the boy was killed.

***

Is it sufficient to say, as Obama Administration defenders do, that Abdulrahman's killing  happened in war, and national security requires that the details be kept secret? Is it unfair to compare this case with a domestic incident in Florida where state secrets were not implicated at all? 

Certainly the incidents are different.

But I don't think all comparisons are unfair. It should be said that the U.S. isn't, in fact, at war with Yemen, and wasn't at war with any group to which the 16-year-old belonged. But set that aside.

When an American citizen is wrongfully killed by the government, "we didn't mean to do it but we can't explain why we did" doesn't cut it. Is there no other information that can be released without jeopardizing national security? Even if it was a terrible accident that everyone in the national-security establishment regrets, isn't the next of kin owed an explanation and an apology?

Shouldn't what went wrong be established?

Don't the press and the public have a responsibility to see if anyone erred in a way for which they should be held accountable, and that safeguards are in place to make sure other innocents don't die in this terrible way? That's how we reacted when Pat Tillman died on the battlefield. As in that case, the notion that the government is obviously telling us the truth, and has additionally told us all that it possibly can without jeopardizing national security, seems farcical. 

One needn't suspect murder to demand answers.

And when I think about the contrasts in the ways that the government and the public have treated Trayvon and Abdulrahman, I must say that I discern uncomfortable truths that are bigger than the facts of the individual cases, as perilous as extrapolating in these circumstances can be. In a nod to the inevitable uncertainty involved in these judgments, I'll conclude by talking not about what I know or can prove, but about what I fear and want desperately to prevent.

***

Whatever the truth is about the killing of Abdulrahman, the way that it's been handled -- by the president and the public -- makes me fear that it would be easy for the United States government to wrongfully kill an innocent American teenager, so long as he is a Muslim American traveling in a Muslim country. I fear that having a name like Abdulrahman is itself enough to make the American public more comfortable with your unexplained death than if you have a name like Trayvon or John. I fear that no public figure with the cultural resonance of a Barack Obama, or even Jessie Jackson or Al Sharpton, reliably speaks up on behalf of wronged Muslim Americans, because there is no constituency to make a figure of that sort popular. I fear that this makes Muslim Americans the most vulnerable minority group in America today.

I fear that a healthy majority of Americans, including Americans who would be outraged were it proved that Trayvon Martin was racially profiled, are perfectly comfortable with killing young men of unknown identity in Yemen, so long as drone pilots conclude that they fit the profile of terrorists. (Few object to the fact that the Obama Administration has treated all dead males of military age as "militants" when it calculates how many innocent civilians are being killed by its ongoing drone war). I fear that the logic of the drone war -- that terrorists are determined to kill us, and that very real threat justifies drone strikes in Yemen, even though some innocents will be killed -- is uncomfortably similar, though not equivalent, to the logic of Zimmerman, who noted that his fearful neighbors were targeted by real criminals to justify his aggressive pursuit of Trayvon.

I fear that the thousands of family members of innocent civilians killed in drone strikes feel toward the United States something like what Trayvon Martin's family feels toward George Zimmerman, and that when Muslim Americans hear Obama talk about understanding what it's like to be part of a minority group subject to profiling, they nevertheless feel vulnerable to being profiled. Indeed, they know that Obama has recently praised a man who ethnically profiled them.

When it came to Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, Americans on all sides of the controversy, however wrongheaded their understanding of the facts or their arguments, generally wanted what they saw as justice to be done. I fear that, in the case of Abdulrahman, my fellow citizens don't particularly care whether justice is done, because deep down they know we're doing some unjust things in the War on Terrorism, but they have a hazy idea that those things make us safer, so they don't want to look into them too deeply, lest we have to stop, or even to fully confront what's being done in our names. I want to believe that being an American citizen at least means that when you're killed, the facts around your death will be investigated and wrongdoing will be punished, even if you have a Muslim name and a radical for a father.

I fear I'll never be able to believe it again.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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