(Does everyone remember, a few years back, the episode of the Afghan soldier who killed two American soldiers over the incineration of Qur'ans that had been used to pass messages among terrorist prisoners? We didn't have a President Sumner in office back then. Here's what he might have done.]
President Stephen Graham Sumner looked up from the incident report to find Secretary of State Ernest Tyszczenko and Secretary of Defense Isaac Guillory staring down at him expectantly.
“I wouldn’t have believed it if it had been any less blatant or less well documented,” Sumner said.
Guillory nodded. “It was witnessed by more than thirty people, most of them First Division troops.”
“Where’s the murderer now?”
“The Afghan foreign minister claims he’s in custody awaiting trial,” Tyszczenko murmured.
“Oh? Really?” Sumner rose and stood with arms akimbo. “Awaiting trial? We’ll see about that.” He stabbed at the intercom button on his desk phone. “Sally?”
“Yes, Mr. President?”
“Get General Maclaurin over here, pronto.” Sumner released the button and turned back to his guests. “There will be no trial, gentlemen.”
“Mr. President—“ Tyszczenko said. Sumner silenced him with a slashing hand.
“You know better, Ernest. If the Afghans keep him, he’ll neither be tried nor punished. So I mean to have him.” An ice-glazed smile spread over his face. “And he still won’t receive a trial.”
“Sir, the diplomatic implications—“
“Enough, Ernest.” Sumner’s smile gave way to a murderous glare. “I’m sick and tired of pretending that we can conduct civilized relations with savages. There will be no diplomatic exchanges. No notes. No letters of protest. No representations before the General Assembly of the United Nations.” He closed his eyes, breathed deeply and released it slowly. “There will be justice. For the whole world to see.” The attention light on his desk phone lit, and his arctic smile returned. “Now if you gentlemen will excuse me, I have another visitor to confer with.”
* * *
Though the simultaneous strikes by American forces on targets deep in Afghanistan had world media agog, the Sumner Administration remained absolutely silent about them throughout. Thus it came as a global surprise when, three days after the first of the strikes, President Sumner himself took to the airwaves to comment on them.
The setting for the broadcast was equally surprising: a large, featureless room with glossy walls, a smooth concrete floor, and no furniture. The camera panned the room to reveal twenty-two uniformed American soldiers, each with his battle weapons, and a swarthy, bearded, tightly trussed man struggling not to fall to the floor. At the front of the room, in his habitual two piece navy blue suit, stood a stone-faced Stephen Graham Sumner.
“My fellow Americans,” Sumner said, “no doubt you’ve all seen or read news reports about the massive strikes our forces have just conducted against a set of targets in the supposedly pacified nation of Afghanistan. I ordered those strikes personally, after learning of the murder of two American soldiers by a member of the Afghan Army. The perpetrator of those murders was apparently enraged over the burning of a few copies of the Qur’an.
“Afghanistan has reaped many benefits from our actions there. It’s been freed from Taliban tyranny. It’s acquired a somewhat democratically elected government. Its armed forces have received weapons and training, paid for by you, my friends. You would think the Afghan government, if not the whole people of the nation, would be grateful for such beneficence. You would think that government would fall all over itself to honor a polite request from the United States for the custody of a man who had murdered two Americans. You would think the commission of those crimes on an American military base would hardly need to be mentioned.
“Well, my friends, if you thought any of those things, you’d be sadly mistaken. Apparently, the Afghan government, whatever public position it might take, regards the murder of a couple of infidels as a far less serious matter than the burning of a few Qur’ans. You see, we offended the Afghan people by burning their holy book. Islam isn’t to be mocked or criticized by us lowly Americans, even to the extent of burning a few copies of the Qur’an that had been used to pass messages among al-Qaeda detainees held at an American-operated detention camp. For daring to do so, our lives are forfeit to Islamic justice—and so the man who murdered two Americans was put into custody, not in expectation of justice of the sort you and I hold dear, but to protect him from us.”
Sumner smiled gently. “But he who protects a murderer from justice is an accomplice in the murders, regardless of the rationale. He who defends such protection rhetorically has made himself an advocate for evil. He who has been entrusted with executive powers over a nation, and rejects an American demand for the murderer’s living body on such grounds, has ruled himself unfit for the respect of any civilized man, much less for any amount of authority over others.
“So I sent our forces forth for redress. They undertook three missions:
“To smash the protections of the murderer and bring him here alive.
“To encircle the Afghan Army, compel its surrender, and seize or destroy every weapon in its possession, all the way down to officers’ sidearms.
“To topple the government of Afghanistan and transport its former rulers, completely without resources of any sort, to Rudolf Island in the Franz Josef Land archipelago, where they will be immured for the remainder of their lives.
“Our forces responded in their usual magnificent fashion. They were completely successful on all three counts. I have formally extended my thanks to the government of the Russian Republic for selling us a ninety-nine-year lease on Rudolf Island. I have no doubt it will prove useful in the future.
“America’s forces will soon be leaving Afghanistan. They might return—but if so, it will be in response to another atrocity, to punish that country so severely that only the memory of it will remain. I intend that if that becomes necessary, the event will stand alongside the great retributions of history. I intend that all other Islamic states draw the lesson. Indeed, I will take whatever steps are required to ensure that they do.”
Sumner gestured to the camera crew to turn its attention to the heavily shackled man.
“This is the man who murdered two Americans over a couple of charred books. He was witnessed in the act of doing so by twenty-two American soldiers of the First Infantry Division. Those twenty-two men are here as well. Gentlemen,” Sumner said as the camera cut to focus on the American troops, “do any of you have any doubt at all that the man before you is he who murdered your fellow soldiers?”
The troopers looked at one another, each one shaking his head and watching the reactions of his fellows. Finally one of them stepped forward and stood at attention. “None at all, Mr. President.”
Sumner nodded. “Then would you be kind enough to lend me your weapon, Corporal?”
The soldier looked mildly puzzled, but handed his rifle to Sumner without hesitation. Sumner took it, studied it briefly, and turned back to the camera.
“This is an M4 carbine. It fires 5.56 millimeter rounds at a muzzle velocity of about thirty-five hundred feet per second. It’s the standard weapon provided to American infantry...and it’s the sort of weapon the prisoner used to kill his victims.”
Sumner waved to someone standing off camera, and a Secret Serviceman stepped forward bearing a canned ham.
“Open it, please.”
The Secret Serviceman pulled a key loose from the underside of the can, opened the can with it, and displayed the contents to the cameras.
“Among Islam’s teachings,” Sumner said, “is that for a Muslim to experience contact with a pig’s flesh or the products thereof, if he is not immediately and most elaborately purified, dooms him to Hell. Agent McCloskey, would you care to do the honors?”
The Secret Serviceman grinned. “With pleasure, Mr. President.” He strode to the shackled prisoner, poured the fluid from the can over the frantically spasming form, then took a fistful of meat from the can and rubbed it on the man’s face, getting as much as possible into his beard.
“Step back, Agent,” Sumner said. The Secret Serviceman did so. Sumner flicked off the safety on the rifle, leveled it at the prisoner, and fired a three-round burst into his chest. The man dropped where he’d stood. The room went completely silent. Sumner handed the rifle back to the trooper and turned to face the cameras once more.
“That, my friends, is my response to the protestations of Muslims everywhere about the blasphemy committed by burning a few Qur’ans, and the justice of reaping a few American lives as payment. Muslims of the world, feel free to do as you please about it. But remember the forces at my command. I will not hesitate to use them.
“To my fellow Americans: Thank you all, and good night.”
* * *
Sumner leaned forward and pressed the intercom button on his phone. “Yes, Sally, what is it?”
“Mr. Chisholm is here to see you.”
Sumner smiled. “Send him in, please.”
Sumner rose as the Oval Office door opened to admit Ethan Chisholm, the White House chief of staff. Chisholm was among the oldest of Sumner’s appointees: white-haired and erect, patrician in bearing, and perpetually scornful of nearly everything he saw or heard. Sumner seldom saw him smile or heard him compliment anything, including the president who had named him to his post. On that occasion, he wore a look of bafflement, the sort of expression that spoke of having turned a wholly new page in the book of time.
“Mr. President, how did you know?”
Sumner waved Chisholm into a guest chair and resumed his own seat. “Know what, Ethan?”
“That the country would approve! That operation must have cost ten billion, to say nothing of ten thousand Afghans killed.”
“And the country approves?”
Chisholm nodded and shook his head at the same time. “The entire staff was certain you’d take a bath over it. A few of us thought you might even be impeached. But the morning polls have you at ninety-three percent approval and only two percent disapproval. No president in a century has had ratings that good. How did you know?”
“The short answer is that I didn’t. The long answer is that I thought about the possible popular reaction for about a second and a half before I realized that I was going to do it anyway, come hell or high water. My job is to protect America, American citizens, and American interests, Ethan. Whatever that job seems to require, I will do it. The political consequences are for other people to worry about.” Sumner smiled. “People like you.”
Chisholm shook his head again. “You had no fear of the possibility of impeachment?”
“It didn’t even occur to me.”
“Mr. President...Steve...” Chisholm stared at his knees in obvious confusion. “Why do you have political advisors if you’re not going to seek their opinions and listen to them?”
“Oh, I listen to them.” Sumner sat back in his chair and steepled his fingers. “About things such as campaign slogans and tactics. About whom in the various caucuses on the Hill I can trust, and who I should never turn my back on. Not about policy. I resolved on my policies a long time ago.”
Chisholm gaped at him. Sumner snorted gently and rocked a bit in his chair.
“Do you know why everyone allows himself opinions about politics, Ethan? Because politics is supposed to be simple. It’s supposed to be about justice. Right and wrong. Things every schoolchild learns at his mother’s knee. Politics isn’t supposed to be the property of a bunch of specialists running simulations on high-powered computers. It’s supposed to be about the defense of the nation and peace in the streets.
“I never expected to land here, until I actually did. But when the final tallies were in, I knew what would happen immediately afterward. And did it ever! I was practically overrun by would-be advisors, each of them toting some grand scheme to create a Utopia by federal action. Have you ever read about the Coolidge Administration, Ethan?”
The chief of staff shook his head.
“I gave them the Coolidge treatment. I invited them to pitch their cases, listened in total silence, and showed them out. Every one of them hoped to become a part of my administration, awarded power and prestige. None of them did, of course.
“Politics is supposed to be the pursuit of justice. That and nothing else. From what you’ve told me, the public agrees with my understanding of justice, in this instance at least. But if it were the other way around, it wouldn’t have changed a thing. I will do as I think justice requires, regardless of anyone’s opinion before, during, or after the fact.”
Sumner’s gaze moved to the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington over the Oval Office fireplace.
“I may not be here long, Ethan. Perhaps only one term. Perhaps less than that, if Congress should ever become really incensed at me. But no matter how long I hold this office, I intend to go to my rest each night with a quiet heart. I learned what that requires long ago.”
Ethan Chisholm’s eyes had filled with awe.
“Knowing that I did my job.”