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Nov 26 2012

Double-O-bama: Licensed to kill

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.]

36 comments

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  1. 1
    Stevarious, Public Health Problem

    Ugh. Who is it that’s making these stupid arguments?

    Of course, every president since the invention of the bomb has claimed and used the right to turn people into craters anywhere in the world at their own discretion. I’m not saying this is a good thing – quite the opposite – but what is it about drones that makes this situation somehow different?

  2. 2
    smrnda

    First, I can understand a person voting for Obama since, though there are some bad things about Obama (like this) the same things would have been worse under Romney, without much good to balance it out.

    The whole ‘I’m sure they feel bad’ is about the most ridiculous argument I’ve heard. CEOs ‘feel bad’ when they lay off 1000s of workers, military leaders ‘feel bad’ when their plans end in disaster, presidents ‘feel bad’ that civilians got killed.

    It’s a life and death issue for a lot of other people, who actually get killed or actually feel the damage done to themselves, their family and neighbors and their entire nations, who could probably care less about empty nonsense that certain leaders feel bad about it.

    Let’s ask these people if the cops happened to gun down some people they knew because their aim was off one day would the cops saying ‘gee, we sure feel bad’ be enough? No, it’s a double standard in that (some (privileged)) American lives are sacred, and everybody else is disposable.

  3. 3
    Mano Singham

    These people could be classified as ‘liberals’ as understood in US political discourse. These kinds of arguments are made by people who have decided to support a person come what may and then have no alternative but to create ad hoc justifications for their actions.

  4. 4
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    That’s not an argument. That’s just sloppy rationalization.

    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 can only assume these people were also pro-Bush, or have forgotten he existed.

  5. 5
    Mano Singham

    No, they were extremely anti-Bush. This is what makes the lack of logic so startling.

  6. 6
    Stevarious, Public Health Problem

    Is there any chance that you could provide a link to someone making this argument? I’ve never seen it.

  7. 7
    Lou Doench

    Here’s the rub Mano, lots of people were very anti-bush for a LOT of reasons, not just his appalling human rights record. Yes Obama’s human rights record is pretty awful as well. But I’m pretty sure he’s a positive on a whole lot of other important issues, and whats more I don’t think that there is anyone with a punchers chance of attaining the Oval Office who would be markedly better on the issue. Getting change in this case is going to require activism above and beyond electoral politics.

    Yes, your friends are wrong to rationalize the Pres’ bad behavior. But in a binary system like ours that offers so little chance to make meaningful change at the ballot box, its completely understandable.

  8. 8
    WMDKitty -- Survivor

    “…his asserting the right to kill whoever he chooses anywhere on the globe, using drones as the main weapon.”

    Please provide evidence that Obama has, in fact, asserted the right to kill whoever he chooses anywhere on the globe.

    Terrorists don’t count.

  9. 9
    unnullifier

    Not presuming to speak for Mano here, but I wonder if he’s alluding to

    … Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

    via: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/29/world/obamas-leadership-in-war-on-al-qaeda.html?pagewanted=all under the section in the article labeled ‘They Must All Be Militants’.

  10. 10
    Mano Singham

    “Terrorists don’t count”? But isn’t that the problem? We have only the administration’s word for it that these people are terrorists. If Obama calls someone a terrorist is that sufficient for you to excuse his killing him? Commenter unnullifer has already given one link but I have written about this policy numerous times such as here with links.

  11. 11
    Mano Singham

    This was an argument made to me by a friend.

  12. 12
    Mano Singham

    It is one thing to say that you will vote for Obama because he is better than the alternative, while still criticizing specific actions. That I can understand. It is quite another to feel that one must approve such actions to justify one’s support. That makes no sense to me and furthermore eliminates all credibility to oppose similar actions by a different president.

  13. 13
    WMDKitty -- Survivor

    I don’t approve of drone strikes because I feel that it is cowardly and dishonorable to kill from half a world away. It also increases the chances of civilian casualties — something we can all agree is Not of The Good.

    However, I don’t see that there is enough evidence to be able to say, definitively, that Obama has misused or abused this ability to strike from half a world away.

  14. 14
    WMDKitty -- Survivor

    No, it’s not “if Obama calls someone a terrorist.”

    It’s more “all available evidence points to this person being a member of a terrorist group AND this person (or group) has made, carried out, or attempted to carry out threats or acts of terrorism. Therefore, in the interest of national self-defense, we must deal with this threat.”

    I’d prefer, of course, that “dealing with threats” entailed more talking with (and less killing of) the people involved. I’d love a world without war and terrorist attacks. (I know, I know, probably never gonna happen. A cat can still dream, no?)

  15. 15
    Mano Singham

    But we don’t know *any* of those conditions you specify, that “all available evidence points to this person being a member of a terrorist group AND this person (or group) has made, carried out, or attempted to carry out threats or acts of terrorism. Therefore, in the interest of national self-defense, we must deal with this threat.”

    Even conceding for the moment that the government has the right to summarily execute terrorists (something that itself is highly debatable), not only is no evidence produced to back up those claims, there no attempt to obtain even an indictment, and the person is not given any opportunity to refute the charges. We just have to take the administration’s word for it that he/she is a terrorist.

  16. 16
    Clay

    I have really struggled with this fact. I was an unapologetic Obama supporter in his first election. I was also a consistent antagonist to the expansion of governmental powers during the Bush II administration. Despite my support of Obama I have major difficulty legally supporting the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki and his son thereafter. Not to mention the collateral loss of life which included other US citizens in close proximity. I think these actions further encroach on our civil liberties even more so than the Bush policies. Personally, I think al-Awlaki “needed killin’.” I think his rare capability to connect to and influence both American citizens and foreign students living in the US posed a unusual and more significant threat to the safety of Americans, far more than any other Islamic “cleric.” Former US Major Nidal Hasan’s actions in Ft. Hood Texas are a prime example. With that said, I do not believe the rule of law should be unilaterally subjugated by any President’s authority. We, as American citizens, have the right to a trial by a jury of our peers and to confront our accusers in open court. Our acquiescence in allowing the killing of American citizens without the constitutionally guaranteed rule of law simply because we might agree it is justified only permits future transgressions against Americans. In future presidencies, we may not agree with the justification. Consequently these extrajudicial killings should be castigated and disavowed vehemently . . . whether we trust this President or not. Jonathan Turley, constitutional law professor at George Washington and previous frequent figure on the talking head shows (although semi-quiet these days), was dead on point regarding this issue.

    On another note I want to take this opportunity to say thanks to Dr. Singham. I enjoy your blog and am glad you are posting. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

  17. 17
    WMDKitty -- Survivor

    And we’re supposed to trust people who have every reason to lie about how the person targeted was “really a good guy,” and “totally wasn’t a terrorist”, he just somehow happened to be affiliated with and giving support to a terrorist group.

    Not happening.

  18. 18
    Glenn

    All wars now quickly degenerate into heavily armed military forces aligned against vulnerable civilian populations in the attempt to coerce changes in political opinion. This practice was once known as terrorism.

    What should be an honorable last resort against an aggressive threat has now become no more than a ritual slaughter, elevated to a religious ritual, honorable only to the delusional worshipers of the godlike modern State.

    The remote mechanization of slaughter deprives the soldier of honor and the test of his manliness, and has become as empty of the spiritual as kissing one’s sister is. The word “hero” has become empty of meaning when danger and the bravery called forth in its encounter is no greater than that of spraying insecticide on scurrying roaches.

    The “license to kill” of the Bond movies has become the modern reality. Rape is a greater crime than murder in the religion of State so murder erases the sin of rape or any other imaginable exploitation of victims.

    The State that accommodates itself to the murder of vulnerable civilians will easily transition that behavior to dissenters and other undesirables in all populations under its domination.

    The annual deaths of 45,000 Americans are now attributable to denied care under the health care for profit regime that exists in this nation, with both the world’s highest prison population and per capita prison population.

    The insensitivity of the State to the people of this nation will become more apparent as the terms of the “fiscal cliff” become better known by their impact than by their bi-partisan marketing. The brutal capitalism inflicted upon Russia after the Soviet Union’s collapse killed a great many of its people. We are about to see a new regime of brutal capitalism work its passive blameless murder on us.

    The god of State is not a merciful god, but a vengeful god.

  19. 19
    Glenn

    A people too fearful to question their leaders are too fearful to be a free people.

    Faith is for religion, not government.

  20. 20
    Lofty

    OT, but political: Mano, you seen to like the Colbert Report so I thought you would like this:
    http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-11-27/is-colbert-saving-us-democracy/4394764

  21. 21
    Dalillama, Schmott Guy

    Great, thanks, Glenn. What was your point in relation to Stevarious’ very apt question?

  22. 22
    Dalillama, Schmott Guy

    It’s more “all available evidence points to this person being a member of a terrorist group AND this person (or group) has made, carried out, or attempted to carry out threats or acts of terrorism.

    The U.S. Constitution, which is binding upon all actions of the U.S. Government, outlines what should be done with someone when you have evidence that they have committed a crime. I recommend you look it up yourself, but I’ll give you a hint: summary execution isn’t on the list.

  23. 23
    Dalillama, Schmott Guy

    All wars now quickly degenerate into heavily armed military forces aligned against vulnerable civilian populations in the attempt to coerce changes in political opinion

    This describes all wars ever. It’s not new.

  24. 24
    WMDKitty -- Survivor

    US laws don’t apply on foreign soil, dude. Plus, we’re still at war, terrorists are, or are nearly indistinguishable from, enemy combatants.

    I’m not saying I agree with the action — I’d rather we had sent in a few of our soldiers to capture (if at all possible,) or to kill (if necessary.) But I’m not the one calling the shots, and I have zero influence over those who are in charge.

    I know that I don’t have all the information that the president has or had access to, and therefore cannot say he was right or wrong to take the actions he took.

    I also know that I cannot trust 100% of what I hear about this, regardless of the source. Whether it’s from “our side” or “theirs”, each has plenty of motivation to spin and even lie to make themselves look better.

    As for not revealing the plans for an “assassination program”, um, DUH? That would be like playing Poker with all your cards visible!

  25. 25
    WMDKitty -- Survivor

    Can’t argue with that. War is Hell.

  26. 26
    Dunc

    The difference is that one is a future possibility, and the other is actually happening on a daily basis.

  27. 27
    Mano Singham

    Anwar al Awlaki and his 16-year old son were both American-born citizens who were killed by the US government. I have written about this case numerous times. Are you suggesting that the US constitution ceases to protect US citizens from killing by the US government as soon as they leave the country?

  28. 28
    Mano Singham

    Who is saying he was “really a good guy”? All I am saying is that the rule of law needs to be followed and the summary killing of people by governments without charges or evidence or trial is wrong. The goodness or otherwise of the victim is immaterial.

  29. 29
    Nick Gotts

    US laws don’t apply on foreign soil – WMDKitty

    True, but foreign laws do. It is against the law in most countries* for a foreign military force without legal status in the country to kill people. This is true even if the government of the country connives in the murders – because that’s what they are. If your response is that the US government is not bound by foreign laws even when acting within the country concerned, why should any other government regard itself as bound by US laws even when acting within the US – for example, to kill Americans?

    *Anyone know of an exception?

  30. 30
    Glenn

    Political Theology, the character of religious institutions adapted by what is assumed to be secular, provides a context in which this behavior is understandable.

    Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, by Paul W. Kahn discusses this. I haven’t read his book yet, but have independently come to the same conclusions he presents, much more coherently presented than I could, in his Canadian Broadcast Corp podcast segment.

    http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/episodes/2012/10/26/the-myth-of-the-secular-part-5/

    Atheism is incomplete if not extended to the deity created by the apotheosis of the state.

  31. 31
    Psychopomp Gecko

    Despite my own rather fervent support in at least one other comments section, my view is shifting somewhat. I don’t see a problem with drone use in warfare. In assassinations, that is more questionable and goes towards any U.S. use of assassinations. I’m not sure how much of that we’re ever officially supposed to be doing, but I bet we unofficially don’t give a crap.

    If there was a way to limit their use to warfare, that would be one thing. I think it’s ridiculous to argue that we should give up a technological advantage because it makes warfare too easy for us. Why bother with tanks, satellites, body armor, missiles, or even just a navy and air force? Not like the militants have them, if we’re worried about reciprocity.

    And I don’t mean to divert the conversation, but something that needs to be factored in is if we’re even at war. It’s a bit murky, and helps to confuse just what any President can do. Al Quaeda isn’t a nation or anything so organized. We ought to treat them as a non-military security and intelligence concern in general. Let the CIA do what they do (stuff that isn’t right but no one hears about it anyway to judge sometimes) and the ones we have indefinitely detained need to be put up in criminal trials. No more justification for drone strikes either.

    Provided the evidence is there and the jury isn’t biased, I think it’d be fun to stick someone who wanted to blow himself up to kill us in the same cell as some Aryan Brotherhood skinhead who has gone too long without a woman. Unlike Fox, I don’t think the country is somehow less secure if the ones we can prove were attacking us wind up in a cell with Bubba the Big Lonely Baby Beater.

  32. 32
    Marcus Ranum

    I think it’d be fun to stick someone who wanted to blow himself up to kill us in the same cell as some Aryan Brotherhood skinhead who has gone too long without a woman.

    Hmmm… Rape as a punishment, nationalism triumphing over the rule of law (let alone decent human behavior) … You trying for the trifecta of immoral awfulness? All you need to do is add a bit of racism and you have a clean sweep. You’re disgusting.

  33. 33
    Marcus Ranum

    What does that make those who excuse it, support it, or wave it away as inevitable?

  34. 34
    Marcus Ranum

    Perhaps those who are claiming that Awlaki was a dangerous person who encouraged violence would like to compare and contrast his writings and arguments with those of right-wing commentators like Limbaugh, Beck, and Nugent. There is no evidence that Awlaki actually committed any violence – he was basically a blogger. If it was acceptable to kill him for his words, it would be equally acceptable to kill Beck, or Limbaugh, Malcolm X, or Martin Luther King.

    Guys, once you start licking the government’s asshole, it does not like it when you stop. Your reward for good service is more service. Now, you work to build a justification for the state to ruthlessly suppress you when your tongue gets tired. I wouldn’t care if you spend your life on your knees except that the precedents you’re accepting will be applied to me, too, and I don’t want to be treated as property of “my” government.

  35. 35
    Marcus Ranum

    However, I don’t see that there is enough evidence to be able to say, definitively, that Obama has misused or abused this ability to strike from half a world away.

    That the decisions are being made in secret – denying you exactly the information you’d need to make that determination for yourself – ought to tell you something, mmm?

  36. 36
    Stevarious, Public Health Problem

    I think it’d be fun to stick someone who wanted to blow himself up to kill us in the same cell as some Aryan Brotherhood skinhead who has gone too long without a woman.

    And what shall we do to the people who would find joy in seeing their enemies raped and tortured?

    (Before you answer, please keep in mind that by your own admission you are one of these.)

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