Barack Obama’s License to Kill

droneLet’s imagine for a moment that the Liberty Professor embarks on an extended study trip to an Islamic nation.  Since my area of expertise includes interreligious dialogue, it’s not an impossibility.  Perhaps a university in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, or the peaceful regions of Afghanistan would give me a grant to spend a semester learning about the nation’s Islamic history and culture.  While visiting, it would not be unusual to make friends with some of the locals.  I might even become a regular at a busy coffee shop.

What if, unknown to me, members of a terrorist organization also frequent the shop?  If I visit the shop everyday, such terrorists might often be present at the same time that I am sipping tea.  Who knows?  I might even have regular conversations with them. After all, I’m an extrovert interested in learning about the culture and religious views of those who differ from me. I’ll talk to just about anybody who will talk to me … it’s an honest trait that I inherited from my mother!

Now let’s go one step further. What if my frequent visits and cordial relations with these people come to the attention of an informed, high-level official of the United States who believes that my coffee-shop acquaintances are actively promoting attacks against the United States? That official might wrongly come to the conclusion that I am an ally of these terrorists, even though I don’t even know they are terrorists. Then what happens?

Well, if the official believes it’s better to terminate me than to attempt my capture, Barack Obama and his Justice Department say that this is an acceptable action and that my rights–guaranteed under the United States Constitution–no longer apply. That’s right. This past Tuesday, a Justice Department “white paper” came to light laying out the administration’s case for killing an American overseas as long as the operation is “conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principles.”

In other words, if the government decides to go to war against an American citizen who is abroad, it can kill that citizen.

According to analysis by Jameel Jaffer at the American Civil Liberties Union, “this sweeping authority is said to exist even if the threat presented isn’t imminent in any ordinary sense of that word, even if the target has never been charged with a crime or informed of the allegations against him, and even if the target is not located anywhere near an actual battlefield.” If the government’s rights to do this are limited, those limitations are so vague in the paper as to be nearly non-existent. “Even more problematic,” says Jaffer of the ACLU, “the paper contends that the limits on the government’s claimed authority are not enforceable in any court.”  In other words, there is no appeal.

This should chill the blood of every American. It essentially means that if a US citizen overseas is deemed a threat, that citizen can be the target of lethal action by his own government without any warning and without due process of law. No judicial review is required, either before or after the killing. In fact, the government claims the right to carry out the entire affair in total secrecy. The preferred method of termination, of course, is a drone strike.

According to Fox News, “the US drone program has been ramped up dramatically” under Barack Obama’s leadership. “It has become one of the most important tools of the administration’s counterterrorism campaign.”  Those who believe that innocent lives can’t be extinguished by this policy should think again. In 2011, 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki (a US citizen) was killed in a drone strike two weeks after his father was killed in a previous attack.  His father was terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki, who had renounced his citizenship. There is no evidence that his son ever did so, but there is strong evidence that he had not even seen his father for two years.

When confronted with questions about the matter a year later, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the boy “should have [had] a far more responsible father.”

What a frightening disregard for the life of a citizen by a spokesman for the highest office in the land! Our Constitution demands that the rights of American citizens cannot be so summarily dismissed. It is nothing short of approval for assassination. One might even imagine that a government official would wait to act against a citizen until that citizen went abroad. Knowing that the law had been construed to allow that citizen’s termination while overseas, and that there is no judicial oversight or appeal, what would prevent such a devious plan from being enacted?

When did we decide that a few powerful people in government should have such authority? Was it not for reasons such as this that the Constitution put constraints on government power? Those who think the US Constitution is out of date are dangerously mistaken. Questions like these demonstrate that it remains as vital and as relevant as it ever was.

I realize how improbable my fears may sound, but let’s be honest. When we allow such sweeping power to government, we cannot prevent the abuse of that power. This has always been the foundational insight for those of us who argue for tight limits on governmental power. You see, once power is taken by the government or given up by the people, it is normally very difficult to take it back. It usually takes a revolution.

It seems these days that our political landscape looks much like a badminton game. The Republicans get control for a while and so-called “conservatives” put in place the big-government policies they prefer, favoring those who assist them to remain in office. Then the birdie bounces into the other side of the court and the Democrats get control for awhile. Their radical “liberals” put in place the big-government policies of their preference, favoring those who keep them in office. Both sides squeeze the life out of the electorate, play voters against one another, and consolidate tremendous–frightening–amounts of power. The problem certainly didn’t start with Barack Obama, but he has used it (and abused it) to his full advantage and to the advantage of the federal government.

Section II.A of the white paper (page 5) specifically brings up the constitutional guarantee of due process for an offending citizen.  It is dismissed entirely:  “The Due Process Clause would not prohibit a lethal operation of the sort contemplated here.”

If you have tended to see this blog as an overreaction, or if you have not yet understood the destruction of our human liberties that is well underway in the United States of America, then read this white paper for yourself. If you are an American citizen, read it carefully. This is the US Justice Department explaining to a court and to the entire world why it can kill you, why it can do it secretly, and why it needs no oversight or court approval to do so. A few highly-placed government officials can reduce you, a person who pays their salaries, to ground meat.

This is the executive branch of our government at work “protecting us” by inventing the right to kill us without due process of trial and legal defense. As US district court Judge Colleen McMahon wrote, the federal government has created “a thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the executive branch of our government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws.” Here is a judge who is awake to the danger falling upon us all.

Of course, some readers will scoff at my concerns. They will argue that I’m an alarmist. After all, the government insists that this move is designed to save American lives and defend the homeland. One must ask where this reasoning will take us next. If the threat is that bad, perhaps a day will soon come when strip searches in airports are not enough.

One must also ask why any level of government in the US needs increasing numbers of drones in our homeland skies. Who are they watching? What privacy is being taken away, and from whom? It is one thing to arrest a lawbreaker. It’s another thing entirely to participate in wholesale spying on citizens just because someone might be breaking the law.

Is a day coming soon when the feds will use attack machinery in our own cities? It appears that such plans are already being developed. As reported by CBS News, Black Hawk helicopters were deployed in Miami on January 25 as part of a military “training exercise.”  Such urban-assault exercises have been taking place in other large cities across the US recently, such as Houston and  St. Louis.

If we combine these preparations for “our safety” with the government’s insistence that it can kill us overseas for the nation’s survival, how long will it be before that same government decides it can kill us at home without due process–if it’s best for the country?

It’s probably a ridiculous question.

On the other hand … power, once it is seized by government, is rarely returned to the people voluntarily.

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9 comments on “Barack Obama’s License to Kill

  1. Doc Kimble says:

    Under Bush 43 the “War on Terror” was Ex Ordered to be “Global.” Now, the US is on the globe, so the War on Terror is here, now….has been since Bush 43 Ordered it to be so. “Lawyers” have grouped returning vets as potential terrorists… Pro Lifers…same-same. Abortion is legal…legal execution of an innocent person….on American soil. Abortion, like drone attacks, are executed “to save the lives of Americans (the mother).” Everything Hitler did was “legal,” too.

  2. John Switzer says:

    Of course, for an entirely different opinion, we can see that the Brookings Institute says this is “no big deal.” I tend to disagree.
    http://www.brookings.edu/research/opinions/2013/02/05-drone-white-paper-wittes

  3. William Swansen says:

    John, i just discovered your blog yesterday and have enjoyed reading the entries. I’m a new follower.

  4. John Switzer says:

    William, a hearty welcome to you! Thanks for being here and for joining in the conversation!

  5. William Swansen says:

    John, I haven’t formed a point of view on this, but my first reaction is where to draw the line. For example, I assume that if a U.S. citizen was actively engaged in armed conflict against our military overseas, then you would have no trouble with lethal force. Is there a line short of that circumstance where lethal force is justifiable? At first I thought perhaps we should apply the same standards that apply domestically. But, that is impractical in some circumstances because we do not always have the same law enforcement resources or jurisdiction. So I am drawn to ask what standards or principles should be applied when someone is outside of our normal reach. By the way, I do not disagree with your point that the line should not be drawn where the president has drawn it, and that there is dangerous oportunity to abuse it.

  6. I have read this post and the follow up on Feb. 11. You are asking the same questions I have been asking of my friends & family since the Killing of Al Alwaki. As I understand it as a layman, essentially with the Patriot Act, and the ‘precedents that have have followed, our gov’t has slipped it’s chain.

    Funny thing is that Solzhenitsyn warned us in brief with “Warning to the West” and in devastating detail in the Gulag Archipelago, Ayn Rand warned us, Milton Friedman warned us, Hayek warned us. But as so often happens we humans tend to ignore our prophets until it’s far too late.

    The really big question is; will we ever get it fixed. In my lifetime, at 55? Frankly, I doubt it. We have embarked upon a long and devastating period of economic and political trouble. Only when the majority of the people get really good and sick of big gov’t will they gather the energy to change it. I fear that our children will live through times we, at their age, only imagined in our post Vietnam era nightmares. The only currents that give me any hope are the Tea Party and Libertarian movements.

    Maybe you can see an easier road ahead.

  7. anon because the FBI was just granted the right to my google profile! says:

    This reminds me of the Lettres de cachet that the French monarchy were able to issue outside of the law. However, these people were normally imprisoned and not executed. America is a nation of laws intended to hold everyone to an equal standard. What gives some bureaucrat the right to decide on life or death for another citizen?

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