I was part of the wave that was aghast at the George W. Bush presidency and thanked God Almighty when that dissembler of democracy passed from office. He and his claque had done as much damage to the Constitution as was humanly possible in the span of eight years (where was the tea party then?) and I was one of millions who whooped to Barack Obama as much-needed remediation for a wounded nation expedited into two wars at the whim of its chief executive.
I believe Bush’s successor, Obama, is at root a good man, an honest man. Until recently his greatest failing, in my eyes, was his naive belief that politics is a gentleman’s game and not blood sport; that one need only reason with one’s political opponents to achieve one’s political ends. The 2010 midterm elections threw cold water on that illusion.
However, political inexperience and its resulting incapacity for action are not impeachable offenses. But the summary execution of an American citizen calls, at the very least, for congressional hearings, for it is certainly a high crime.
When President Obama ordered the incineration — through the antiseptic vector of a remotely controlled drone — of an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, in Yemen, he served as judge, jury and executioner, neatly dismissing the American judicial system, assuring it that the executive branch would “take it from here.”
Awlaki was killed on schedule, and the American people yawned.
Dangerous? I’ll say. Several years ago the U.S. government conducted a manhunt to capture Saddam Hussein so that he might be brought to justice as an example to the Iraqi people of how due process works. There was something noble in this. But it begs the question: Why wasn’t an American citizen accorded the same treatment as a foreign dictator?
As preamble to his killing, the government told us of Awlaki’s many crimes, of his directing terrorist plots against the United States, of his inspiring other attacks. Is any of this true? Probably. Do I want to take the government’s word for it? Not on your life.
But I do want to follow the tenets of the United States Constitution: If there was just cause for Awlaki’s arrest, as a U.S. citizen he should have been captured alive and put on trial. Due process is a cornerstone of the republic. It is our shield against the excesses of government.
U.S. citizen Awlaki was not killed in the heat of battle. He was not a proverbial “ticking time bomb.” His assassination was the result of cool, calculated planning at the direction of one man, the president, who himself was freed to act by what we are told was a “secret memo.”
The Constitution, however, makes no mention of exceptions to due process by secret memos drafted in the opaque recesses of a government office.
As a sidebar, it is interesting to note that our government expressed concern over the manner in which Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi died. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she backed plans for a UN investigation. In her words, “You know, I think it’s important that this new government, this effort to have a democratic Libya, start with the rule of law, start with accountability.”
Good advice, which leads me to ask, if the rule of law is our concern, why does the United States blithely make an exception in its own case? The answer perhaps lies in the American taste for vigilantism — the knee-jerk reflex to “kill the bum” rather than see him accorded the rights of law.
It is an impulse deeply rooted in the American character, inflated to its greatest proportions and given free reign during the George W. Bush years, and ennobled by nostalgia for the Old West, when justice was an individual concern dispensed from the barrel of a gun.
And so we have an American president who equates assassination with justice; who in a bid perhaps to be seen as “tough” took the law into his own hands. Now that this taboo has been overcome, why shouldn’t the execution without trial of American citizens become routine? It’s easier than you think: The next assassination is only a secret memo away.
Robert Klose teaches at the University of Maine at Augusta in Bangor. He is a frequent contributor of essays to The Christian Science Monitor and the author of “The Three-Legged Woman & Other Excursions in Teaching.”