We think of autocratic or despotic regimes as those operating above the law or unconstrained by the rule of law. It does not surprise us when people like Joseph Stalin, Saddam Hussein, or Colonel Gaddafi order the death of those they think threaten their rule. In civilized, democratic countries we have legal restraints on the use of such power by our leaders. Laws define the processes by which the lives and liberties of those living in our countries may be arrested and jailed—the nature of the evidence needed—the requirements of an independent judiciary system to judge that evident—the right of self-defense, etc.
We would be shocked at the idea that the President of the United States could order the murder of an American citizen without any of the due process required by the law. Why then was there so little out cry when President Obama declared that he has the authority to order the murder (assassination) of American’s that he considers dangerous to our Republic. It is shocking and dangerous that this declaration did not bring millions of American’s into the streets in protest. The reason it did not, I believe, is not that 9/11 has turned us into cowards willing to give up important freedoms for more security. It is, rather, that our traditions of constitutional constraint on government, with its checks and balances and explicit protections of our private, individual rights, makes it difficult for us to imagine the serious abuse of power by our President and our government.
It is not that Presidents have not from time to time abused their power (see for example my review of Arthur Burns’ Secret Diary about Richard Nixon: http://www.compasscayman.com/cfr/2011/07/19/Inside-the-Nixon-Administration–The-Secret-Diary-of-Arthur-Burns,-1969-1974/). However, such abuses have never taken root and become acceptable. Therefore we don’t really take seriously that the President would abuse the new right he is claiming in the interests of our security. Today’s quiet acceptance of his declaration of the right to murder dangerous Americans is thus almost (almost) understandable. It is unimaginable that the President would use such power in any way other than its intended purpose. But such faith is naive and dangerous. The relaxation of due process today, makes easier further erosion in the future. The weakening of our liberties, which reside in restraining our government as much as our neighbors, is a slippery slope. Presidents do not easily abuse powers they don’t have and can learn to abuse those they do have.
Attorney General Eric Holder attempted to justify these extraordinary powers in a speech at the Northwestern University law school earlier this month. As reported by Congressman Ron Paul:
“Attorney General Holder bluntly explained that this administration believes it has the authority to use lethal force against Americans if the President determines them to be a threat to the nation. He tells us that this is not a violation of the due process requirements of our Constitution because the President himself embodies ‘due process’ as he unilaterally determines who is to be targeted. As Holder said, ‘a careful and thorough executive branch review of the facts in a case amounts to ‘due process.’’ That means that the administration believes it is the President himself who is to be the judge, jury, and executioner.
“As George Washington University Law Professor Jonathan Turley wrote of the Holder speech:
“’All the Administration has said is that they closely and faithfully follow their own guidelines — even if their decisions are not subject to judicial review. The fact that they say those guidelines are based on notions of due process is meaningless. They are not a constitutional process of review.’”
“It is particularly bizarre to hear the logic of the administration claiming the right to target its citizens according to some secret selection process, when we justified our attacks against Iraq and Libya because their leaders supposedly were targeting their own citizens! We also now plan a covert war against Syria for the same reason.
“I should make it perfectly clear that I believe any individual who is engaging in violence against this country or its citizens should be brought to justice. But as Attorney General Holder himself points out in the same speech, our civilian courts have a very good track record of trying and convicting individuals involved with terrorism against the United States. Our civilian court system, with the guarantee of real due process, judicial review, and a fair trial, is our strength, not a weakness. It is not an impediment to be sidestepped in the push for convictions or assassinations, but rather a process that guarantees that fundamental right to be considered innocent until proven guilty in a court of law….
“Sadly, many conservative leaders were silent when Republican President George W. Bush laid the groundwork for this administration’s lawlessness with the PATRIOT Act, warrantless wiretapping, indefinite detention without trial, and other violations. Similarly, as Professor Turley points out, ‘Democrats previously demanded the ‘torture memos’ of the Bush administration that revealed poor legal analysis by Judge Jay Bybee and Professor John Yoo to justify torture. Now, however, Democrats are largely silent in the face of a president claiming the right to unilaterally kill citizens.’ The misuse of and disregard for our Constitution for partisan political gain is likely one reason the American public holds Congress in such low esteem. Now the stakes are much higher. Congress and the people should finally wake up!”