There have been a number of instances during President Barack Obama’s first four years when the mental gymnastics of the administration’s interpretation of constitutional action have strained credulity, but this week’s announcement — authorizing drone strikes on U.S. citizens — is by far the most audacious and despicable.
Last week, Obama’s Department of Justice released a 16-page white paper that outlines the legal justification for sending drones to kill American citizens who are members of “al-Qaeda and its associated forces” and are actively plotting attacks against the U.S. The memo does not specify which terrorist networks these “associated forces” are, mentioning only in a footnote that they fall under the term “co-belligerent” under the terms of war.
As if the vagueness of this line weren’t bad enough, a drone strike would be justifiable if “an informed, high-level government official of the U.S. government,” determines an individual to be an imminent threat. The idea that an appointed government official, whose actions are not accountable to the voting public, has the power to make life or death decisions is chilling indeed. Perhaps most terrifying, the memo “does not attempt to determine the minimum requirements necessary to render such an operation lawful,” meaning there is no legal threshold to determine what constitutes a justifiable attack, leaving the lives of American citizens dependent upon the case-by-case judgment of bureaucrats.
This is the United States of America, not the Soviet Union. While al-Qaeda and all who support it, in deed or thought, deserve no considerations or reprieves, Americans, so long as they hold citizenship, are protected by the Constitution. Government-sponsored murder is in flagrant disregard to the protections enshrined within the Constitution. Section 1 of the 14th Amendment states all persons born or naturalized in the U.S. are citizens and, therefore, no state can make or enforce a law that abridges their rights, “nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of the law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law.” There are no exceptions to this, and no nebulous legal bromides can negate these protections.
As John Adams famously said, “We are a nation of laws, not of men.” It is easy to be swept up in the overwrought emotionalism that defines terrorism and declare that atrocities groups like al-Qaeda commits negate the basic civil liberties of Americans involved within it, but this is folly. The United States Constitution protects the rights of minority groups and holds all men equal before the law, even those whose intentions run counter to majority rule. It is one thing to kill a combatant on the field of battle; it is another to gun them down in cold blood. A country that does the latter to its own citizens is a tyranny that must be condemned in the harshest terms possible.
When President George W. Bush authorized drone strikes against actual combatants and enhanced interrogation techniques, the media and members of the president’s party demanded he be tried of war crimes. They, and the president himself, railed against the suspension of civil liberties with the passage of the Patriot Act and warrantless wiretapping.
Yet somehow the assassination of American citizens does not affect civil liberties. The media, the self-appointed government watchdogs, have remained largely silent, and the Democratic party hasn’t said a word against their leader’s policy.
The Constitution, the framework that dictates legal government action, contains no caveats in protecting individuals’ civil liberties, and the administration’s twisting of its language to support their agenda ought to be offensive and horrifying to any sentient American. The day the American government can justify the killing of its own citizens and not be met by widespread, calamitous fury is a dark, dark day.