A memo justifying the Obama administration’s policy of killing U.S. citizens without due process was leaked earlier this month. If this policy is allowed to continue because of the American public’s indifference or powerlessness, this will be a culture failure on par with some of the greatest such failures in US history: the Japanese internment camps, the Tuskegee experiments, our sanctioning of torture during the Bush years.
The crux of the sixteen-page memo hinges on the statement that assassinations are justified when “an informed, high-level official of the US government has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the US.” This is so slippery, cowardly, and unconstitutional that it boggles the mind.
Let’s start with “informed, high-level official.” According to this memo, Obama’s political cronies, or, say, future president Rick Perry’s oil executive-turned-cabinet member lackeys, hold the power of accuser, prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner. One person, with no checks or oversight of any kind, with zero transparency and zero accountability, can assert, without evidence or trial, that an American citizen far from any battlefield is a terrorist deserving of death.
This is insanity. What would we say if China justified openly assassinating Tibetan dissidents? If Mahmoud Ahmadinejad slaughtered students in the streets because one of his clerics decided they posed a threat? We’d say: that’s wrong. We’d say: we’re better than that. If this memo holds, we can no longer say any of that.
The whole point of the Magna Carta, back in 1215, was to get King John to accept that no “freeman” could be punished except through the law of the land. Over a half millennium later, “due process” was enshrined in the US Constitution: according to the 5th Amendment, every American, not matter how heinous his crime, how depraved her mind, has the right to be tried in a court of law before a jury of his or her peers. That right has been annihilated by Obama’s memo.
Yet another brazenly immoral aspect of the memo is the complete redefining of the concept of “imminent threat.” The memo expressly states that the president’s assassination power “does not require that the US have clear evidence that a specific attack . . . will take place in the immediate future.” In other words, imminent doesn’t mean imminent at all.
Further elevating this to Orwellian levels of power-grabbing madness, the memo explicitly leaves open the possibility that assassinations may be permissible even when the target is not a senior al-Qaida leader, or posing an imminent threat, or when capture is infeasible. In other words, the president of the United States can technically kill whomever he wants, whenever, because we’re in an indefinite war. This twisted line of legal chicanery was first promulgated by the Bush administration in the defense of kidnapping, torture, warrantless wiretapping, and the suspension of habeas corpus. Now Obama uses the same dubious means for even worse ends: murder. But the shame, if this is allowed to pass, will be all of ours.
by Nathaniel Brodie
[Correction: The Tuskegee reference in this article was updated to more clearly address the Tuskegee experiments rather than the Tuskegee airmen.]