A lawless nation

There were some responses to my post on the topic of state-sanctioned murder, with defenders of the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki saying the usual things, that the US is at war with al Qaeda and since al-Awlaki was supposedly a leading member of that organization, Obama was justified in ordering his killing. It is now being reported that another US citizen was killed in the attack but since he was in the same car as al-Awlaki he was presumably a Very Bad Person Who Also Deserved to Die, since the bar for killing anyone has become so low.

It should be pointed out that all the claims of al-Awlaki’s importance, his supposed links to various actions, have come almost entirely from anonymous government sources in leaks to the media, with little or no evidence provided in support. There has been no attempt whatsoever to follow the normal procedures of even starting the process of establishing guilt, including the most minimal ones like issuing an indictment. But of course those things are now seen as the quaint obsessions of pedants, to be readily discarded in our lust for the blood for whoever happens to be the current Enemy of the People.

Of course, foreigners have long been considered entirely expendable in the Great War on Terror, in which hundreds and thousands now lie dead. We have already decided that the president can pick up people anywhere in the world, hold them indefinitely without access to family or lawyers, torture them, and create kangaroo courts with guaranteed convictions for those occasions when we want to create a facade that we still have some sort of legal system operating. What al-Awlaki’s killing has done is crossed a boundary that says that Americans overseas can also be summarily killed. That is progress of a macabre kind, that no nationality exceptions exist.

The only boundary that has not been crossed is the president’s right to murder US citizens within the US itself. But this is a mere technicality. It looks like all Obama has to do to cross even that line is churn out massive amounts of propaganda to convince the public that some person is a public enemy and then the entire military machine of the US, plus the FBI and the police, will be put into operation to carry out his execution orders. And the people will cheer when the execution is carried out because they will have been repeatedly told (by the president of course) that a Very Bad Man Who Wanted to Harm Us ‘has received justice’ and that our glorious and benevolent leader has saved us from that fate without wasting tax-payer money with frivolous concerns about legality and morality.

Is all this legal? Who cares? Laws and due process and the constitutional guarantees of protections of life and liberty are the concerns of wimps who don’t understand that We Are At War With a Mighty Enemy Who Seeks to Destroy Us, even though estimates of their number are pitifully small and they are scattered about the globe and poorly armed. We must fear them because those people are Evil Incarnate and are devious enough to find a way to take over the entire US and enslave us all.

But for those who have some niggling qualms about whether we are acting within the rule of law, don’t worry. Of course it is legal! Why, the president’s own justice department has issued a ruling saying it is legal, so that’s all right then. Actually it did not actually issue such a ruling. What it did was anonymously leak a story to reporters that such a ruling existed somewhere.

The Justice Department wrote a secret memorandum authorizing the lethal targeting of Anwar al-Aulaqi, the American-born radical cleric who was killed by a U.S. drone strike Friday, according to administration officials.

The document was produced following a review of the legal issues raised by striking a U.S. citizen and involved senior lawyers from across the administration. There was no dissent about the legality of killing Aulaqi, the officials said.

A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment. The administration officials refused to disclose the exact legal analysis used to authorize targeting Aulaqi, or how they considered any Fifth Amendment right to due process.

But hey, these days, that’s all we need, right? We have got used to being informed by those infallible, authoritative, and impartial sources, the anonymous government official, that things are being done in our name according to secret policies that we cannot be told about but that we must have faith in our great and benevolent leader that he always acts in our best interests. That’s the new democracy, folks!

Let’s look at the state of play. We have now reached the stage where the president has the sole power to (1) decide when we are at war; (2) decide with whom we are at war; (3) decide where the battlefield is (the whole world, apparently); (4) decide who is deserving of summary death; (5) use the entire police and military apparatus to carry out the murder; (6) judge whether his own actions are legal; and (7) keep everything secret.

Woe unto anyone who has the temerity to cross this mighty ruler. He can find himself declared to be an Enemy of the People and crushed like an ant or blasted out of existence by a drone, along with any other unfortunate persons who happen to be in the vicinity. And the people will cheer. The despots of the past could only dream of having such powers.

My question to those who think that all this is perfectly fine and morally justified is whether they think, now that they have abandoned the constraints of the constitution, that there exist any limits whatsoever on the president’s power. Is there anything that he cannot legally do in the War on Terror?


  1. says

    While I completely agree with you and share your outrage (and expressed it in your earlier post) I’m not sure this event is anywhere near as groundbreaking as you and Glenn Greenwald are making it out to be.

    The United States has long paid lip-service to high-minded legal and moral principles, but has always followed the simple legal philosophy of Might Makes Right. Why are we so shocked by the killing of a U.S. citizen when the country behind the killing has a long history of invading other countries, organizing coups against foreign governments (sometimes democratically elected), propping up murderous regimes across the globe, all while representing itself as the greatest country ever created? And now we’re going to get really pissed off because we’ve started killing our own? Is this the Rubicon, or did we pass it decades ago?

    Noam Chomsky has referred to the U.S. overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile -- which ushered in the brutality of the Pinochet era -- as the first 9/11, justifiably equating the U.S. with the terrorists it purports to despise. Under the cover of containing Soviet expansionism, control of U.S. economic interests was secured with no regard for the human cost. The average American has no idea any of this happened, and most wouldn’t care if they did.

    Countless U.S.-born individuals have already been torn asunder by the American death machine. This particular incident is different only in the degree to which it has been played out in public instead of in a back alley or a prison cell. I would suggest, therefore, that the only constraint on America’s lawlessness is what a majority of the American public can be brainwashed into accepting. The moment of truth will come when a critical mass of the people sees through the fear-mongering and actually resists. And we might be closer to testing those waters than we thought.

    Let’s see what happens if the Wall St. protests continue to expand and result in deaths. Most Americans will look the other way, disgusted by what the media portrays as rabble, just as they did in the Jim Crow era. When a country has been turning a blind eye for so long, state violence has plenty of breathing room. Only if the economy is in ruins, and ordinary people are facing severe hardships as in Egypt, will we see meaningful resistance. To get the attention of Americans, you have to hit them where it hurts -- in the pocketbook.

  2. says

    Also, considering that when Rick Perry said he had executed 234 convicts, and many could have been innocent, and the crowd cheered him up, I doubt it that most Americans are going to be outraged by the killing of a presumed terrorist, even if he was an American citizen. Like Richard pointed out, most Americans care about their money.

  3. says

    If you look back at this nation it has always been about murder for a so called just cause whether it was George Washinton killing a French lieutenant and not paying the price or policemen murdering black men in Alabama.

    Those people who cheer as people die are going to soon learn that they are if not rich enough, they are going to be in the cross hairs soon enough.

    As it was in Nazi Germany brother, son, daughter, father, mother will turn there own over to the executioner close to the close of this age.
    It’s not about right or wrong, it’s about power.

  4. Manik says

    I certainly agree with most of above. However, let’s look at some of the crimes, strategies, tactics and other blatantly unjust policies. State sanctioned crimes, regime change, supporting and arming despots, Invading and destroying other countries without just cause, torture, support of Israel, rendition, murder etc. These have happened through several administrations. The question is why? Is it because the American public always chooses the wrong guy, is it because all presidents think that America comes first and hence takes whatever action that needs to be taken to protect, project and maintain America’s superiority, is it because they have no other choice (for whatever reason)?, is it due to the impotency of the presidency, is it because of the power of the oligarchy, is it the megalomania that come with the office, is it due to a combination of the above or something else? Could someone please enlighten me?

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