Obama: “I’m really good at killing people”

Consider this article as a postscript to my earlier psychological portrait of Barack Obama as “The Ultimate Status-Seeker” (Dissident Voice, May 5, 2012).  Many unanswered questions remain about Obama: the nature of his emotional life and attachments, his primary motivations for becoming president, and his ultimate values and principles (if any). Here was a man who planned, decades ahead of time, his ascent to the pinnacle of power – and hewed single-mindedly to that single-track goal until he attained it. As president, he was at once a compulsive compromiser – even with the most extreme positions and pathetically unworthy opponents – and a clandestine State-terrorist, using the lawless, criminal army known as the CIA. (“What the CIA wants,” he admitted in a moment of candor, “the CIA gets.”)

The case of Obama is especially disconcerting because of his carefully measured words and mastery of equivocation and double-speak. By contrast, of course, the crudely aggressive Bush and the fast-talking con-artist Trump were “primitives,” their brazen lies and cruel rhetoric out-in-the-open and identifiable for all who cared to look closely. Obama, fairly skilled actor and p.r. man, displayed a far more sophisticated persona (mask). His invariably articulate, uncannily calm demeanor seemed indicative of entirely rational motivations behind his decisions. But true rationality and defensive rationalization are worlds apart.

Psychoanalysts have distinguished motivations as both manifest and latent. For instance, Trump’s CIA director Gina Haspel might say that she rose through the ranks of the CIA in order to “serve the national security interests of her country.” But what were her latent motivations when she ran the most notorious of the secret black-sites (Thailand), producing no useful “intelligence” but letting loose a veritable frenzy of endless torture. “She tortured,” observed CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou, “just for the sake of torture” (Democracy Now, 3/14/2018).  And hiding evidence of her crimes, she made sure that the 90-plus videotapes were destroyed. (Manifest vs. latent: had operatives at the facility repeatedly watched the tapes for analytical “study” — or for “pleasure”?).

Classical psychoanalytic theory also emphasized the formative consequences, often devastating for a lifetime, of early trauma (cf. John Bowlby, Attachment and Loss). As we know, when still an infant Obama was abandoned by his father, who abruptly returned to Kenya after having studied in the U.S. and sired a baby boy. When Barack Sr. finally did return for a brief visit, some 10 years later, he immediately imposed his pig-headed authority, forbidding the boy from staying up late to watch the TV special, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. At that moment, as Obama recounted in his memoir, his father-idealization collapsed. And, of course, after the short visit, his father left – abandoning him yet again. To her credit – as Obama acknowledged – his mother made great efforts, with the help of her own parents, to be a good mother. But she had her career ambitions as well, which focused on long-term absences doing fieldwork in Indonesia for a doctorate in anthropology. Obama wrote thoughtfully about all this in what appeared to be a mature, if somewhat detached, manner. Significantly, Obama did write with affection about his maternal grandmother, who no doubt provided some compensation for his feelings of being under-valued and rejected. But the reality was that the boy was, for long and/or intermittent periods, abandoned by both parents.

From whence came Obama’s inordinate, burning ambition for supreme political power? My point here, hardly path-breaking, is that unhealed wounds from early childhood may linger throughout a lifetime. In re-making his observable personality, substituting feelings of weakness and vulnerability with an imperturbable, Olympian calm, Obama could hide behind a facade of self-assured equanimity, a compensation for actual emotional neediness from a relatively loveless childhood. With ultimate power-and-status, he was no longer the weak, vulnerable one – subject to the arbitrary fiats and sudden abandonments of his parents – but rather, the calm, emotionally detached person “in charge.” Interestingly, he seemed to have transcended, or even renounced, any vestigial longing for “love” – unlike the applause-addicted Bill Clinton and the (relentlessly) attention-craving Trump.

How did rising politician Obama partially work through his “father-complex” (characterized more by bitter resentment than by the usual ambivalence)? Vis-a-vis substitute father-figures: one may engineer a role-reversal–the “father” is diminished as the son ascends to power. As a freshman U.S Senator from Illinois, the inexperienced Obama sought the guidance and mentorship of veteran Senator Joe Biden (as well as the awful Joe Lieberman, Senator from MIC). It must therefore have been deliciously satisfying when, only a few years later, Obama made Biden his dependent (the office of vice-president being experienced as both powerless and humiliating by all its holders – with the glaring exception of Cheney). (I can’t help being reminded also of Marlon Brando, who complained throughout his life of the humiliations his father had inflicted on him as a boy. But when he became a big-time movie star, he was able to turn his father into little more than an assistant.)

President Obama’s trademark emotional detachment, seemingly indicative of mature resolution of earlier conflicts, at times verged on a strange dissociation. For instance, why would President Obama not only make the notorious CIA director John Brennan a kind of mentor (and pal), but eagerly collaborate with him in innumerable grisly assassinations by drone? The president also allowed Brennan’s CIA to relentlessly harass and hack the investigations into the agency’s misconduct – i.e., the Senate committee investigation headed up by a leader of his own Democratic party (Feinstein). With his campaign for re-election gearing up in 2011, Obama not only cleverly timed his ordered execution of bin Laden (which, again tellingly, he, Brennan and Secretary Clinton chose to watch live), but he compiled a “kill list” which he then deliberately leaked to the New York Times. In a militarized society, prospective voters will indeed tend to prefer a “tough” candidate who brags – as the sadistic Bush did (gangster-style) – of criminally “taking out” whatever “enemies” or “terror-suspects” he chooses.

But that is not the full story. Obama desired to kill–to kill victims, including women and children – in a faraway land, far away from any direct threat of reprisal. To kill, with impunity (one of the most attractive perks of being president). But whyDisplaced vengeance: wounded and rejected as he still felt in the deepest recesses of his self, Obama as president was now enabled — by his office of supreme power – to invert the power-dynamics. Once again: from “the hurt/rejected one” to ”the hurter” — from the “vulnerable” to the “implacable.”

But to wish to directly participate in such targeted-killing? If you doubt the element of naked sadistic satisfaction involved, I refer you to two things: 1) Youtube video footages which graphically show the aptly-named Hellfire missiles in action; and 2) Obama’s casual remark to some aides (and reported in the press with only a little disquiet): “Turns out I’m really good at killing people.” I.e., crushing and incinerating houses with people inside (maybe eating dinner). By the way, his comment, though far less well-known, almost rivals, in malign implication, Stalin’s murderous quip: “The death of a man is a tragedy.  The death of millions is a statistic.” (Of course, either quote might have been made by Bush.)

Obama’s nonchalant and strangely offhand boast(!) exemplifies in an extreme way the kind of “ironic,” malicious humor increasingly found among clever, moderately narcissistic people who seem to feel little, if any, genuine sympathy for the suffering of others.   Such a “cold joke” is noticeably smug and even gleefully self-satisfied in its more-than-evident contempt for “inferiors.”  Shocking – and his choice to direct participate in the murders unmistakably reveals the sadistic pleasure he gained from the experience. Thinking of killer-elites who act out their desire to inflict pain and then mock the worth of their screaming victims, one is reminded of a certain torture facility at Guantanamo, a nightmarish hell-hole which CIA analysts “jokingly” called “Strawberry Fields.”

President Obama’s all-too-evident indifference to the mass suffering caused by the U.S. military occupying Afghanistan–maybe “a dumb war” — also speaks volumes. At least President Biden, culpable in many ways for U.S. warmaking, was willing to accept some temporary political damage in order to end the murderous–but too expensive! — bloodbath.  Moreover, Obama clearly cared little about the horrors, and illegality, of Guantanamo (truly bizarre, for this former constitutional law professor).

How many wounded, vindictive persons deliberately seek power in order to “pay back with interest” the harm that was once done to them?  Of course, psychoanalysts would put Hitler and Stalin at the top of the list, but there are (tragically) plenty of more recent figures to include.  Stalin, whose brutal, drunken father beat him almost daily, to the very end had only one treatment for imagined traitors: “Beat, beat, and beat again!”

Intellectual historian and psychoanalytic anthropologist, William Manson (Ph.D., Columbia) has published numerous scholarly books and papers, and is a longtime contributor to Dissident Voice. Read other articles by William.