The issue of fighting a shadow war against non-state terrorist networks has never been an easy call, not even before 9/11. When and where to use military force, whether and how to capture terrorists rather than kill them or the other way around, what constitutes a “ticking time bomb” scenario and what it means for interrogations — none of these are easy questions. Nor is the conundrum that has dominated headlines this week, which is what to do about American citizens who are suspected of joining such groups and participating in their plans to launch attacks, especially on the US.
However, one group has largely always treated these tough issues as cut-and-dried questions. And as Reason’s Nick Gillespie points out, that’s been true in both the Bush and Obama administrations. The difference is that they switched sides, arguing dissent, human rights, and the Constitution during Bush’s tenure. These days, though, they’re arguing that the President should be given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to targeting Americans for assassination:
Back in the day, [Daily Beast writer Michael] Tomasky was a reliable critic of everything related to Bushitler, by which I of course mean Dick Cheney. … Tomasky struggles with the in-your-face spectacle of a president saying he has the right to pick which Americans can be killed unilaterally by insisting that the important thing is to walk a mile in Obama’s mocassins:
I’ve always written about politics with part of my brain focused on the question of what I would do if I were in Politician X’s position. This line of thought came so naturally to me that I imagined everyone did this…. [The memo is] certainly not something that makes the breast swell with pride. But it does make me wonder what I would do in this situation, and I can’t honestly come up with easy answers.
He should try harder to come up with answers, perhaps by halting the mind-meld with the powerful and instead grokking some imaginary solidarity with the falsely accused. After dilating a while on the term imminent as used in the memo and then deciding that al Qaeda is pretty much always about to attack the U.S., he concludes
Well, either this makes a certain sense to you, or you just think that a state can’t be in the business of killing its own citizens and that’s all there is to it. There’s no doubt that a sentence like “the president has the power to order the assassination of American citizens” sounds positively despotic. However, these are people who have gone off and joined Al Qaeda (the white paper also mentions “associated groups,” and one definitely wonders where that line is drawn, precisely). If an American citizen of German descent had gone back to…Germany in 1934 and joined the Nazi Party and worked his way up such that he was involved in the plotting of attacks against American soldiers, and Roosevelt had order him killed, no one would have batted an eye in 1940s America.
You got that? You’re either with the president’s logic or you can’t understand it (shades of George Bush’s simplistic, Bible-based manicheanism when he said you’re either with us or against us!). There’s enough qualifiers in the passage above to give anyone pause, of course: Who are the associated groups after all? How exactly is this like 1940s America? The short version, as even Tomasky eventually grants later, is that “it’s not 1940s America.” Last time, I checked, Congress declared war against Nazi Germany. And the Nazis kept membership lists which greatly minimized – though didn’t eliminate fully – questions of who belonged.
There’s another fallacy in Tomasky’s argument that Nick misses, too. We didn’t have the technology for remote-controlled assassinations in the 1940s (otherwise, we might have used it on Hitler rather than American traitors). When Americans got killed in attacks, they did so facelessly and namelessly as part of an overall military attack on Germany. We can argue the legitimacy of attacks on population centers (especially Dresden), but that was the nature of that war, and Germany set that precedent from the very beginning. The issue here isn’t collateral deaths of suspected American traitors in military attacks on AQ assets — it’s the deliberate targeting of individual Americans suspected of treason by their government with no real check or due process to make sure we’re getting it right.
Nick continues with other examples, and diagnoses the overall problem with the suddenly-credulous national media:
By making clear that as a journalist he tries to see things first and foremost from the perspective of the powerful, Michael Tomasky helps to clarify why so many in the media are rushing to the president’s defense. They are entranced with power and the view from the top. “Presidents live with that responsibility [of protecting American lives] every day,” he writes. “If that responsibility were mine, I can’t honestly say what I’d do, and I don’t think anyone can.” Not all journalists are awed by power, of course, even on the right (National Review’s Jim Geraghty, for instance, asserts that this sort of thing of extra-judicial killing policy wouldn’t be cricket even under a GOP president).
This isn’t ultimately about ideological hypocrisy – of liberals changing their tune once their guy is in office – but something much more basic and much more disturbing. It reveals that for all their crowing about being watchdogs of all that is good and decent in society, when push comes to shove, too many journalists are ready and willing handmaidens to power – including the power to kill.
The question of assassinations (by drone or otherwise) remains a complicated problem in an age of non-state antagonists. There are no easy answers for a nation attempting not just to defend itself from military attack, but also from the kind of infiltration attack that can produce massively-scaled casualties, as we saw on 9/11. The use of American citizens for that kind of infiltration is a real danger, and one difficult to defend against, which means the US government has a big incentive to make it as costly as possible. But that can very easily lead to tyrannical power if not checked and balanced with due process and a mechanism outside the executive branch for oversight of its use.
The establishment media used to remind us of that need for checks on power and due process when a Republican was President. Maybe we should have a Republican as President all the time so that the media can actually do its job.