Though I am frequently disgusted by the seemingly-constant assertion that the US can exert its will across the globe, without oversight foreign or domestic, I am comforted by the fact that, on the whole, we feel a need to hide this opinion from plain sight, to cloak it in veiled statements heaped with denials. I like that we aren’t always proud of what we nevertheless do to other nations. If we trumpeted it from the rooftops every time we ordered an assassination or bombed a hospital, I think more Americans would denounce the actions of our government, and so we hide them away. At least we feel this shame. At some point, I hope, this hypocrisy comes out, that we realize that our foreign policy of violence is not just, but until then, I’ll content myself with a dollop of guilt.
The white paper issued by the White House on Monday, which justifies the killing of US citizens who are presumed to be enemy combatants without any oversight, is, I believe, a step towards a change in the way we view foreign operations. The document itself proposes no changes to policy, it is an apologia, but it legitimizes actions which must seem, to anyone vaguely acquainted jurisprudence, criminal. Asserting that the president may unilaterally order the death of any US citizen, without trial or judicial review, shows a hubris in the government and the military that may cause people to take a closer look at American operations abroad. Until now the government has sought as much as possible to keep its dirtier deeds from becoming public, and we have implicitly accepted this, not wanting to truly come to grips with what we do abroad. Maybe now we’ll have to.
To be clear, this white paper is not purely theoretical, an extreme situation posited as an exercise, it deals with reality. Last October I mentioned in my column the case of Anwar al-Aulaqi, an American citizen presumed to be an al-Qaeda leader who was assassinated by a US drone strike in Yemen. The administration has fought against hearings hearings to investigate the circumstances of Mr. Aulaqi’s death, and this white paper lays out in no uncertain terms that the White House will not accept any interference with what they consider to be the President’s right to order drone strikes.
It is argued that no trial or judicial review is constitutionally required, because the targets are enemy combatants. Is not the purpose of a trial to determine guilt? Moreover, I think it would be wise for us to reexamine what it means to be at war. Were an American serving in the infantry of an enemy nation with whom we were at war, it would be impossibly difficult to prevent their death until they could be brought to trial. Under those circumstances, it might be reasonable to label them an enemy combatant, entailing the forfeiture of their rights. But these were not Mr. Aulaqi’s circumstances. He was not killed as part of a larger attack, he was targeted for assassination.
We cannot pretend that war has not changed since our founding. Our ability to wreak violence anywhere in the world gives us more power, but also more freedom in deciding how to go about waging war. If we are able to target individuals, we can go through due process and ascertain their guilt or innocence in court before we move to kill them. The ‘war’ we currently fight is not fought by marching lines of infantry, but by targeted bombings. We can know who we are killing before we kill them, and that should entitle them to some rights. We may never be willing to grant foreign nationals the same rights as Americans, but I hope that sometime soon we will be willing to guarantee our own citizens the rights they deserve.
America has committed grievous crimes throughout the world, and Americans have turned a blind eye to them. We remember the hardships put on soldiers and their families, not on the people whose countries we have invaded. Now we have killed Americans in the name of defense and war, targeted them individually and ordered their assassination. I hope this will make us take a deeper look at what we’re fighting for, and at how we do it. The executive branch has acted alone on this one in a way that should not be allowed, we must insist on a balance of powers. Americans were knowingly killed by the government without trial, we must insist on due process. We cannot fight wars in secret, have decisions made this far from the public, their elected representatives, and the courts. If we are to be the greatest source of violence in the world, we should be willing to understand that, or we should change it.