The president of the United States murdered two American citizens this morning. He had some nameless functionary -- who was sitting comfortably and safely at a computer console somewhere on a well-guarded, probably secret military base -- push a button. A missile was then fired from a robot drone buzzing maleovently in the sky over Yemen. The missile then murdered two American citizens who -- let it be carefully noted -- had not even been charged with a crime, much less tried and convicted in a court of law of any offense.
The New York Times story on the murders relates a number of accusations against the chief target of the attack, Anwar al-Awlaki. Assertions are made, mostly by anonymous officials, that al-Awlaki was "operationally" involved in terrorist plots, although not a shred of evidence for this "operational" involvement has been offered. (Another American, Samir Khan, was also reported to have been killed in the drone hit. It goes without saying that Khan had also not been charged with any crime nor was there any evidence that he ever took part in a terrorist operation.)
It is true that the two American citizens murdered by the president did engage in a great deal of fiery rhetoric urging violent uprising against the American state. This might not be very nice -- but it does happen to be protected speech under the Constitution of the United States. Of course, that quaint document from the horse-and-buggy era has long since ceased to apply, even fitfully and imperfectly, to the operations of the United States government.
It may well be true that with their words Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan "inspired" someone to commit, or attempt to commit, heinous deeds. So has the Bible. So have The Beatles. But to inspire is not to command. Again, no evidence and certainly no proof has been offered that al-Awlaki or Khan ordered anyone to do anything, or that they were in any "operational" role to do so. (Unlike, say, the Nobel Peace Laureate who holds the top "operational" role in the American war machine, which has killed vastly more innocent people than even the most inspired terrorist groups.) If such proof existed that al-Awlaki or Khan played such a role, they easily could have been charged.
But they were not charged -- and were never going to be charged -- with any crime that would have brought their cases into the judicial system. The whole point of these high-profile murders was to establish, yet again, the "right" -- and the power -- of the U.S. president to kill anyone on earth, including American citizens, at his arbitrary command.
The open assertion of this arbitrary power is not an innovation of Barack Obama, of course. He is merely faithfully following in the bloodsoaked footsteps of his imperial predecessors. As I noted in a piece in a piece five years ago:
Bill Clinton's White House legal team had drawn up memos asserting the president's right to issue "an order to kill an individual enemy of the United States in self-defense," despite the legal prohibitions against assassination, the Washington Post reported in October 2001. The Clinton team based this ruling on the "inherent powers" of the "Commander in Chief" -- that mythical, ever-elastic construct ....
The practice of "targeted killing" was apparently never used by Clinton, however; despite the pro-assassination memos, Clinton followed the traditional presidential practice of bombing the hell out of a bunch of civilians whenever he wanted to lash out at some recalcitrant leader or international outlaw -- as in his bombing of the Sudanese pharmaceutical factory in 1998, or the two massive strikes he launched against Iraq in 1993 and 1998, or indeed the death and ruin that was deliberately inflicted on civilian infrastructure in Serbia during that nation's collective punishment for the crimes of Slobodan Milosevic. Here, Clinton was following the example set by George H.W. Bush, who killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Panamanian civilians in his illegal arrest of Manuel Noriega in 1988, and Ronald Reagan, who killed Moamar Gadafy's adopted 2-year-old daughter and 100 other civilians in a punitive strike on Libya in 1986.
In an earlier piece, in 2005, I noted how the clackety bones of the Clinton Doctrine of Unrestrained Murder was given flesh and blood by George W. Bush after 9/11 (scroll down for 2005 extract, and links):
On September 17, 2001, George W. Bush signed an executive order authorizing the use of "lethal measures" against anyone in the world whom he or his minions designated an "enemy combatant." This order remains in force today. No judicial evidence, no hearing, no charges are required for these killings; no law, no border, no oversight restrains them. Bush has also given agents in the field carte blanche to designate "enemies" on their own initiative and kill them as they see fit.
The existence of this universal death squad – and the total obliteration of human liberty it represents – has not provoked so much as a crumb, an atom, a quantum particle of controversy in the American Establishment, although it's no secret. The executive order was first bruited in the Washington Post in October 2001. I first wrote of it in my Moscow Times column in November 2001. The New York Times added further details in December 2002. That same month, Bush officials made clear that the dread edict also applied to American citizens, as the Associated Press reported.
The first officially confirmed use of this power was the killing of an American citizen in Yemen by a CIA drone missile on November 3, 2002. [This was Kamal Derwish, born and raised in Buffalo, New York, who was killed in a drone attack targeting alleged al-Qaeda operative Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi.] ....
But most of the assassinations are carried out in secret, quietly, professionally, like a contract killing for the mob. As a Pentagon document unearthed by the New Yorker in December 2002 put it, the death squads must be "small and agile," and "able to operate clandestinely, using a full range of official and non-official cover arrangements to…enter countries surreptitiously."
The dangers of this policy are obvious, as a UN report on "extrajudicial killings" noted in December 2004: " Empowering governments to identify and kill 'known terrorists' places no verifiable obligation upon them to demonstrate in any way that those against whom lethal force is used are indeed terrorists… While it is portrayed as a limited 'exception' to international norms, it actually creates the potential for an endless expansion of the relevant category to include any enemies of the State, social misfits, political opponents, or others."
Indeed, like the "inherent powers" of the "commander-in-chief," the definition of an "enemy" subject to arbitrary assassination is most elastic, as I noted in that 2006 article:
In an December 2002 story in the Washington Post, then-Solicitor General Ted Olson described the anarchy at the heart of the process with admirable frankness:
"[There is no] requirement that the executive branch spell out its criteria for determining who qualifies as an enemy combatant," Olson argues.
"'There won't be 10 rules that trigger this or 10 rules that end this," Olson said in the interview. "There will be judgments and instincts and evaluations and implementations that have to be made by the executive that are probably going to be different from day to day, depending on the circumstances."
In other words, what is safe to do or say today might imperil your freedom or your life tomorrow. You can never know if you are on the right side of the law, because the "law" is merely the whim of the Leader and his minions: their "instincts" determine your guilt or innocence, and these flutterings in the gut can change from day to day. This radical uncertainty is the very essence of despotism -- and it is now, formally and officially, the guiding principle of the United States government.
The murders of Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan are simply more public confirmations of this firmly established truth. As I wrote back then, "it's hard to believe that any genuine democracy would accept a claim by its leader that he could have anyone killed simply by labeling them an "enemy." It's hard to believe that any adult with even the slightest knowledge of history or human nature could countenance such unlimited, arbitrary power, knowing the evil it is bound to produce. Yet this is exactly what the great and good in America have done. Like the boyars of old, they not only countenance but celebrate their enslavement to the ruler."
In the coming days, we are certain to hear loud, full-throated praise of Barack Obama's murder of uncharged, untried American citizens. And most of these encomiums will come from heartsworn, true-blue "progressives" -- the very people who savagagely denounced George W. Bush for his "murderous tyrannny" when he carried out the very same crimes, in the very same way, in the very same place.
And they will be telling us, yet again, why we must must must support Barack Obama in his quest to win one more term atop the greasy pole of power. They will tell us, yet again, that we must forget these murders -- and the killing of many hundreds of innocent people in similar robo-slaughters in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan -- and work hard to perpetuate and entrench our own slavery in a lawless system whose leaders can kill any one of us at the push of a button, at the pulse of a whim, without charges, without trial, without mercy.
This is not just the usual partisan amnesia, this is not just moral blindness: it is active, open, undeniable complicity with evil.
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