An Appalling Threat to Civil Liberties and Democracy

Summary:  A guest post by Bernard Finel of the American Security Project, looking at America’s drift into a strange space, away from our traditions and principles.

What is most bizarre is how many appalling practices have become essentially “normalized” over the past several years.  The “war on terror” is a major villain in all of this.  Fabius Maximus notes an especially egregious example:

Code red! The Constitution is burning.

Now Obama — called a radical leftist by deranged Republicans — sends his lawyers into Court into extending Bush Jr’s assumption of powers to its logical conclusion, arguing that …

  • the Executive branch can condemn to death and execute a US citizen without prosecution or trial, without public notice, and
  • a Citizen’s right to legal representation depends on the approval of government officials, who can deny it without explanation or appeal.

There are no extraordinary circumstances here. No ticking bomb. No killing on the battlefield, by him or us. Our government asserts the right to condemn and execute citizens as it sees fit.

I’ve mentioned this before, but it is worth revisiting. The issue is specifically about New Mexico-born, radical Islamist cleric Nasser al-Awlaki.  If he is giving aid and comfort to our enemies — and he perhaps is — then charge him with treason.  Issue an arrest warrant.  Try to apprehend him, and if in the process of a good faith effort to arrest him, he’s killed, then so be it.  I am not making a radical civil libertarian argument.  I am simply arguing that there needs to be a process — an open process subject to oversight and judicial review before you kill an American citizen.

Yet, my position, that I think by any reasonable assessment is balanced and moderate is somehow outside of mainstream opinion.  Very Serious People in Washington seem to feel that actually having a public, reviewable process is an unreasonable constraint on presidential power. 

The dangers of the Obama position is that in a future crisis, it will form not the outer boundary of permissible action, but rather the inner boundary.  Killing citizens without a trial will be normal, and think about the extreme cases….  Look, we don’t need to be too creative to imagine the risks.  All through the Bush years, Dick Cheney — a genuinely evil and stupid man, but also Vice President for eight years — insisted on accusing critics of administration policy of giving “aid and comfort” to our enemies.  How hard is it to imagine in a future crisis that a Cheneyesque figure might decide to apply the Alwaki precedent to domestic critics as well?

This may seem absurd.  But you know what?  A decade ago had you told me that we’d be issuing death warrants without trial on citizens I’d have considered it absurd.  Indeed, had you told me the United States would have established a Gulag Archipelago of secret prisons where we routinely tortured prisoners, I’d have also called that absurd.  The absurd has become the normal, and the unthinkable is now routine.  That is the proper context for this debate.

About Bernard Finel

He is currently a senior fellow at the American Security Project, a non-partisan think tank located in Washington, DC. Previously, he was an Associate Professor of Strategy and Policy at the National War College and Executive Director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. He holds a BA in international relations from Tufts University and an MA and Ph.D. in international relations from Georgetown.

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