03 October 2011

Judge, Jury, Executioner

Salon | Glenn Greenwald | The due-process-free assassination of U.S. citizens is now reality
What’s most striking about this is not that the U.S. Government has seized and exercised exactly the power the Fifth Amendment was designed to bar (“No person shall be deprived of life without due process of law”), and did so in a way that almost certainly violates core First Amendment protections (questions that will now never be decided in a court of law). What’s most amazing is that its citizens will not merely refrain from objecting, but will stand and cheer the U.S. Government’s new power to assassinate their fellow citizens, far from any battlefield, literally without a shred of due process from the U.S. Government. [...]

So for you good progressives out there justifying this, I would ask this: how would the power to assassinate U.S. citizens without due process look to you in the hands of, say, Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann?
Jesus wept. I don't have words for this. The President of the United States of America unilaterally claimed the power to execute his fellow citizens based on nothing but his own say-so. That actually happened in real life. How are people not seething with anger about this? Has the whole world gone crazy? Am I the only one that gives a shit about the rules? MARK IT ZERO!

The only people who seem likely to be upset by this are either (a) satisfied because the deceased has a funny sounding foreign name and/or didn't love Jesus; (b) trust that he must have had it coming because the POTUS says so and that this is a good enough reason for everything even though they thought it was a terrible reason for anything prior to Jan 20, 2009; (c) charmed out of their wits by a glamorous, smooth-talking tall man with a nice smile and can't even consider his actual policies and decisions; or, (d) busy seeing and being seen by all the hip people who are out protesting small-change chickenshit grievances like Goldman's executive compensation levels.

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What you whispered should be screamed

If US soldiers were fighting for our freedom, they’d be fighting in the White House.
Our CinC has declared himself judge, jury and executioner of American citizens. I would imagine this would concern some of our servicemen, especially the ones he has appointed to be his own personal Jack Ketches.

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LA Times: Opinion | Jonathan Turley | Obama: A disaster for civil liberties
But perhaps the biggest blow to civil liberties is what he has done to the movement itself. It has quieted to a whisper, muted by the power of Obama's personality and his symbolic importance as the first black president as well as the liberal who replaced Bush. Indeed, only a few days after he took office, the Nobel committee awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize without his having a single accomplishment to his credit beyond being elected. Many Democrats were, and remain, enraptured.
I find it really, really amusing that there's a big ad in the middle of this article directing me to the Obama 2012 campaign website. Someone needs to review their keyword buys a little more closely.

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The Daily Beast: The Dish | Andrew Sullivan | The Un-Bush

Why does Sullivan label Obama the "Un-Bush"? Because he's "winning" and Bush was "losing."* I can not recall ever seeing a more nakedly consequentialist position staked out my a commentator.

(* Also, no one is being tortured. Let's accept that as factual, for the sake of argument. Is that really something to be happy about? "Sure, the POTUS gets to unilaterally execute people, but at least he's not water-boarding them." That's supposed to be an improvement?)

My own position is that we are at war, and that avowed enemies and traitors in active warfare against the US cannot suddenly invoke legal protections from a society they have decided to help destroy.
I see where's he's coming from, but that's a flimsy position. It's similar to how I feel about execution: I'm okay with killing criminals in the abstract, but in the here-and-now I don't trust the government to decide who gets killed and who doesn't. I'm okay with denying traitors the comforts and protections of the society they violently reject, but I don't trust the government to decide who's a traitor and who isn't. Lots of regimes have tried that in the past, and it NEVER ends well.
The Onion | Historians Politely Remind Nation To Check What's Happened In Past Before Making Any Big Decisions

"In the coming weeks and months, people will have to make some really important decisions about some really important issues," Columbia University historian Douglas R. Collins said during a press conference, speaking very slowly and clearly so the nation could follow his words. "And one thing we can do, before making a choice that has permanent consequences for our entire civilization, is check real quick first to see if human beings have ever done anything like it previously, and see if turned out to be a good idea or not."

"It's actually pretty simple: We just have to ask ourselves if people doing the same thing in the past caused something bad to happen," Collins continued. "Did the thing we're thinking of doing make people upset? Did it start a war? If it did, then we might want to think about not doing it."
PS Here's Sullivan again:
And since Cairo, we have witnessed the real flowering of democratic forces in the Middle East - unseen during the Bush-Cheney years.
Is Sullivan actually claiming some kind of causation flowing from Oabam here? Someone tell that to all the dead Syrians.


  1. I think there are two ways to look at it and I reference Matt Yglesias' post on the subject. One is your way, which I mostly agree with. The other is Matt's legalistic way. Al-Awlaki was really "a citizen" by virtue of a technicality that joining al-Qaeda doesn't warrant a de jur "defection" that joining an enemy combatant state would, but it's at least arguable that it should.

    Such a legalist frame doesn't really help the "maybe the president shouldn't be assassinating _anyone_" argument, but it does get around the "the president shouldn't be executing citizens without a trial" one.

    And for the record, Yglesias' post does have an air of apologia about it which is why I favor your argument more. The laws, as they are, makes this killing a violation and a travesty.

  2. I see what Yglesias is saying. He's a "defector" or "traitor" now, not a "citizen," so he doesn't deserve the same protections and rights. I'm fine with that. But who gets to decide his treasonousness? The President? Unilaterally?

    This only pushes the problem back one level. Before I was angry and scared that the POTUS got to unilaterally decide to kill someone. Accepting Yglesias' position (as I understand it) means that now I'm angry and scared that the POTUS gets to decide who's a traitor.

    If the administration wants to go into a court, and tell a judge "this guy is a citizen, but he has defected, taken up arms against the nation, etc. etc. etc. and I would now like to treat him like I would a foreign enemy, and here is my evidence, blah blah blah" I would be much more comfortable. It would still be a little creepy, but I can see the logic in that.

    As is all I've got is "He's a traitor; just trust us." That doesn't end well.

  3. "As is all I've got is 'He's a traitor; just trust us.' That doesn't end well."

    Completely agree.

  4. I don't believe Al-Awlaki's citizenship status should matter. Killing someone in such a fashion is neither more nor less wrong if the person happens to have been born overseas rather than on U.S. soil.

    Note that we've been killing people in exactly this fashion for quite a while. It suddenly became newsworthy because the target is a citizen - but I don't see how that changes the moral calculus of the act.

    And about that calculus: I'm all in favor of assassinating the leadership of our enemies in war. If we're going to be at war, that's a much better way to wage it, for everyone. My concerns in the present instance involve questions such as: Are we at war? Was it declared by Congress? Declared or not, is it just or prudent? Was this man one of the enemy? How can we know? How can we be sure that we will only ever target those who we know to be our enemies?

    My gravest concern is that both Congress and the Executive are acting as if the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force is a declaration of war (which it is) against anyone that the Executive thinks we should be at war against (which it should not be and should never be allowed to be).

  5. I agree that rights shouldn't have anything to do with citizenship, ideally. They flow from your humanity, not your place of birth or that of your parents. But as long as we have nation-states, that's not how things are going to work, so in the time being I'm willing to accept citizenship as relevant for purely practical reasons. There are some rights I wish we extended to everyone in the world, but ultimately we can't.

    I think citizenship also matters from a historical perspective. A government which can kill any foreigners it deems dangerous is troublesome. But no good has ever come of a government getting able to declare any of its own people too dangerous to live at its own whim. I really don't think I'm exaggerating to say that has NEVER ended well.

    So I don't think the citizenship distinction is moral, but I think it's important anyway.

    I think we worry about roughly the same thing though. An executive that can point to someone and say "he's dangerous, kill him, trust us" is bad news.