I have had numerous arguments with friends who are strong president Obama supporters over his asserting the right to kill whoever he chooses anywhere on the globe, using drones as the main weapon. These people defend such powers by saying that Obama is a good man and that they trust that he will use this power sparingly and only if he is sure that the people thus murdered are bad people and that it was necessary to kill them to ‘keep America safe’.
And when I ask about all the other people killed because they just happened to be near the location of the targeted victim or because the missiles went awry or were fired at the wrong target by mistake? The response is that they are sure that Obama and Hillary Clinton and all the people responsible for these policies feel really badly about it.
Really, this is their argument. It is where you end up with when your fear or your partisan feelings or leader worship take precedence over your commitment to due process and the rule of law.
I usually then ask them whether they would be comfortable giving this power to a possible future president Palin, because once presidents have this kind of power they will never give it up. They never have a straight answer to that question, usually mumbling something to the effect that the election process weeds out totally unfit people. I then ask them if they would also excuse the leaders of other countries who send hit squads to the US to get kill people that they identify as terrorists who seek to harm their own country. There is usually no answer to that. The question has obviously never crossed their minds, since symmetry in international relations runs counter to the pervasive American exceptionalism where rules are evaluated only according to whether it is good for the US.
It now turns out that the Obama administration itself was uneasy with Mitt Romney having this unrestricted killing power and “accelerated work in the weeks before the election to develop explicit rules for the targeted killing of terrorists by unmanned drones, so that a new president would inherit clear standards and procedures, according to two administration officials.” This move to codify the assassination program has been condemned by human rights groups.
Of course, now that Obama has won re-election that urgency is gone. After all, he is a ‘good’ person who won’t do bad things and has this extraordinary ability that enables him to know exactly who should live and who should die, no?
I am not sure which view is more depressing: that the Obama administration had what it felt was legal justification for their assassination program that they refused to reveal publicly (which at least indicates that they felt uneasy about it) or that they feel that the public is by now so accepting of this appalling policy that they feel comfortable codifying it and making it public.
[Update: Glenn Greenwald also weighs in on this news.]