May 2010

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R.I.P. Rule of Law

By Thomas Vincent

Interested readers are invited to check out Tom's Political Blog "Certain Doubt"

“Democratic societies must espouse an unwavering commitment to human rights and reject the extra-judicial killing of any person; particularly, the premeditated, extrajudicial killing of persons arbitrarily identified as “criminals,” regardless of the nature and circumstances of their allege(d) crime. This is an international crime that is unacceptable in any civilized society. The rule of law requires that a person accused of a crime be charged and placed before a court of law.” -Rickford Burke

If one needed any more evidence to support the notion that democracy and the rule of law are extinct in America one need only look at the Obama administration’s attitudes toward extra-judicial killing of suspected terrorists and militants, even those who are American citizens. As Scott Shane of the New York Times reports:

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has taken the extraordinary step of authorizing the targeted killing of an American citizen, the radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki who is believed to have shifted (emphasis mine)from encouraging attacks on the United States to directly participating in them, intelligence and counterterrorism officials said Tuesday.

The significance of this statement can’t be overstated. As Glenn Greenwald notes in a piece for Salon in January:

Just think about this for a minute. Barack Obama, like George Bush before him, has claimed the authority to order American citizens murdered based solely on the unverified, uncharged, unchecked claim that they are associated with Terrorism and pose “a continuing and imminent threat to U.S. persons and interests.” They’re entitled to no charges, no trial, no ability to contest the accusations. Amazingly, the Bush administration’s policy of merely imprisoning foreign nationals (along with a couple of American citizens) without charges — based solely on the President’s claim that they were Terrorists — produced intense controversy for years. That, one will recall, was a grave assault on the Constitution. Shouldn’t Obama’s policy of ordering American citizens assassinated without any due process or checks of any kind — not imprisoned, but killed — produce at least as much controversy?

Sadly, Greenwald’s call for controversy has been met with deafening silence by virtually all of the media. Even the Congress has been mute, the lone exception being Representative Dennis Kucinich whom Jeremy Scahill quotes in The Nation:

“The assassination policies vitiate the presumption of innocence and the government then becomes the investigator, policeman, prosecutor, judge, jury, executioner all in one. That raises the greatest questions with respect to our constitution and our democratic way of life.”

Kucinich says the case of al-Awlaki is an attempt to make “a short-cut around the Constitution,” saying, “Short-cuts often belie the deep and underlying questions around which nations rise and fall. We are really putting our nation in jeopardy by pursuing this kind of policy.”

With characteristic bluntness, Kucinich notes that even from a practical standpoint the idea of allowing extrajudicial killing is questionable:

“In the real world, things don’t work out quite so neatly as they seem to in the heads of the CIA,” says Kucinich. “There’s always the possibility of blowback, which could endanger high-ranking US officials. There’s the inevitable licensing of rogue groups that comes about from policies that are not strictly controlled and that get sloppy–so you have zero accountability. And that’s not even to get into an over-arching issue of the morality of assassination policies, which are extra-constitutional, extra-judicial. It’s very dangerous from every possible perspective.”

Despite being touted as a constitutional law scholar when he was a candidate for president and despite professing loudly and often that under his administration the rule of law would be sacrosanct, by his actions, President Barrack Obama has shown a marked tendency to accept the rule of law only as long as it doesn’t conflict with his political agenda. For example, while he is quick to claim the legal and moral high ground when rejecting torture, in other areas his morality appears more flexible.

…beginning with his rather startling declaration that he will work to create a system of “preventive detention” for accused Terrorists without a trial, in order to keep locked up indefinitely people who, in his words, “cannot be prosecuted yet who pose a clear danger to the American people.” In other words, even as he paid repeated homage to “our values” and “our timeless ideals,” he demanded the power (albeit with unspecified judicial and Congressional oversight) to keep people in prison with no charges or proof of any crime having been committed, all while emphasizing that this “war” will continue for at least ten years.

Regardless of where one comes down on the morality and efficacy arguments, one thing is undeniable: Murder by Presidential fiat is not an expression of “unwavering commitment to human rights.” Whether one claims self-defense, executive privilege, or the divine right of kings, extra judicial killing – the right of a leader to kill anyone, anywhere, at anytime with no trial, no burden of proof and no questions asked – is nothing more than a frank admission that democracy and the rule of law are not absolutes but are merely concepts of convenience to be discarded, like plastic wrap, whenever they interfere with America’s “vital national interests.”

In the final analysis, it is hard to know which is more disturbing, that our president claims the right to kill American citizens without a trial merely by declaring them “terrorists,” or that everyone seems to be lining up like bobble-heads and agreeing that he has the legal right to do so.

Either way you can kiss democracy and the rule of law bye-bye.