Targeting Terrorists

A very unsettling news item recently surfaced about the drones this country has been routinely employing in such places as Pakistan to target terrorist leaders. The very fact that this country would resort to terror to fight terror is disturbing, especially when innocent civilians are killed in the drone strikes. But the rationale for these strikes is even more bothersome, since it puts me in mind of a blog I wrote some time ago about how nation-states set ethics aside when they engage in horrible acts they regard as in “the national interest.” This country was supposed to be above such acts. In this case we are told in a recent HuffPost news item the determination of when and where to use these drones “in the national interest” has become a political issue:

The report, by Michael Isikoff of NBC News, reveals that the Obama administration believes that high-level administration officials — not just the president — may order the killing of “senior operational leaders” of al-Qaida or an associated force even without evidence they are actively plotting against the U.S.

“A lawful killing in self-defense is not an assassination,” states the Justice Department white paper quoted by Isikoff.

The paper states that the U.S. would be able to kill a U.S. citizen overseas when “an informed, high-level official of the U.S. government” determines the target is an imminent threat, when capture would be infeasible and when the operation is “conducted consistent with applicable law of war principles.”

One concern that is receiving a good deal of attention is the possibility of illicit extension of executive power — a constitutional issue that will bear careful scrutiny by constitutional lawyers and political pundits. I am more interested in the moral issue, as we all should be. After all, ours is a democracy that was a signatory to the Geneva Conventions placing “humane” restraints on modern warfare. Those restraints have been found wanting recently by our incarceration of suspected terrorists in Guantanamo. But this policy takes us even further away from the ideals.

The issue here is not so much that this policy allows for the killing of American citizens — which has already been accomplished — but that it condones the killing of suspected terrorists in crowded areas where, regardless of nationality, innocent people will also die. The notion that we — that is to say, this country — routinely order drones into crowded urban areas with the intention to “take out” an alleged leader of al-Qaeda “even without evidence they are actively plotting against the U.S.” on the grounds that this is “consistent with applicable law of war principles” is morally reprehensible. What, precisely, are those principles? And how do we determine which ones are “applicable”?

If the drones were used against presumed terrorists in the streets of Los Angles or New York by our enemies we would assuredly not recognize this as “lawful killing.” What we would not allow to have done to our own citizens in this country — or anywhere else — we should not regard as morally acceptable when done by our own leaders to suspected terrorists, no matter how “high” the level of the “official of the United States” happens to be who makes this dreadful decision.

As a student of rationalization — the attempt to find reasons for doing what we are going to do anyway — I am struck by the claim that “a lawful killing in self-defense is not an assassination.” To begin with, how are those killings in any way “lawful”? What laws apply in this case? — certainly not moral laws. And certainly not moral principles as we can see from the fact that a neutral observer reading about such a “lawful killing” would never agree that it is not an assassination. Imagine what people in other countries must think of this nation when our leaders reason this way. Would we ourselves agree that it is not an assassination if “a lawful killing” targeted, say, the Secretary of Defense, or one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and killed several innocent bystanders in the process? We would be appalled, and we should be.

Just Plain Wrong!

A recent NBC News story is a grim reminder of a chapter in this nation’s history that we prefer not to read. It tells about a recent death at the Guantanamo detention center where more than 200 prisoners remain 10 years after their capture as suspected (but not proven) terrorists. The story begins:

A Guantanamo detainee who died Saturday was a former hunger striker who had recently been placed in a disciplinary cell after splashing a guard with a “cocktail”– typically containing urine, a U.S. military official tells NBC News.

In itself the news is grim, especially since it was reported only because guards at the facility were concerned that word would leak out and their eyes would be even blacker. But not only their eyes but this nation’s eyes are blackened by the very existence of this facility where men are kept in stark conditions and denied the fundamental right of every human being to trail by jury.

We recall that President Obama promised that he would close the facility. It was a promise made, I dare say, without knowledge of the implications of such a step. Once elected he quickly came to realize that the closing of the facility and moving the prisoners to a secure facility in the United States and trying them in a civil court would prove difficult at best — especially with a Congress that was only interested in resisting every step the new President attempted to take.

But the fact remains that the prison remains open and men are still held in captivity (excuse me, “detained”) even though they have not been tried and found guilty. A brief look at Obama’s attempts to close the facility is instructive (as quoted from Wikipedia):

On January 22, 2009, President Barack Obama signed an order to suspend the proceedings of the Guantanamo military commission for 120 days and that the detention facility would be shut down within the year. On January 29, 2009, a military judge at Guantanamo rejected the White House request in the case of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, creating an unexpected challenge for the administration as it reviews how America puts Guantanamo detainees on trial On May 20, 2009, the United States Senate passed an amendment to the Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2009 (H.R. 2346) by a 90-6 vote to block funds needed for the transfer or release of prisoners held at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. President Obama issued a Presidential memorandum dated December 15, 2009, ordering the preparation of the Thomson Correctional Center, Thomson, Illinois so as to enable the transfer of Guantanamo prisoners there. The Final Report of the Guantanamo Review Task Force dated January 22, 2010 published the results for the 240 detainees subject to the Review: 36 were the subject of active cases or investigations; 30 detainees from Yemen were designated for ‘conditional detention’ due to the security environment in Yemen; 126 detainees were approved for transfer; 48 detainees were determined ‘too dangerous to transfer but not feasible for prosecution’.

[Footnotes in the original article]

Needless to say, the detainees were never transferred to a facility in this country as the Congress simply will not allow it. The United Nations has sought to have the facility closed to no avail. And other nations have been harsh in their judgment of our treatment of these men, calling it a form of “torture” and a violation of human rights — pointing out that we are in violation of the Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of prisoners of war. Whether we agree with these criticisms or not, we must agree that this entire venture is something we cannot be proud of and would rather it had never happened — though “In a February 2012 poll 70% of Americans (53% liberal Democrats and 67% moderate or conservative Democrats) replied they approve the continued operation of Guantanamo.” If the poll is to be believed, it is even more embarrassing than the fact that the facility remains open.

The High Court

In its recent decision not to allow Arizona’s stiff immigration laws (with one exception) Justice Scalia wrote a “scathing” dissent that chastises the President and the Federal government for repeated failure to deport illegal aliens — despite the fact that more “illegals” have been deported under this Administration than any previous Administration. But what truly boggles the mind in Scalia’s dissent is the fact that he seems to want to fight the Civil War all over again. Note these comments:

Arizona’s entire immigration law should be upheld, Scalia wrote, because it is “entitled” to make its own immigration policy. At one point, he cites the fact that before the Civil War, Southern states could exclude free blacks from their borders to support the idea that states should be able to set their own immigration policies.

Scalia dismisses with a wave of his hand the government’s position that immigration is a federal matter since we need to be on friendly relations with our neighbors to the North and South and individual states could stir up a hornet’s nest. But that is the heart of the government’s position and it is the reason the Court decided to throw its weight behind the government — for the most part. But Scalia insists that the states themselves should determine what the immigration laws are to be — a view that echoes the thinking of the most devout of the Southerners in the mid-nineteenth century (if not today).

Scalia’s entire dissenting opinion sounds like paranoia: fear of illegals and the “evil” (his word) they do by taking jobs from the citizens of Arizona. But the notion that an appeal should be made to the rights of the states prior to the Civil War pushes his reasoning beyond the bounds of intelligibility and makes one wonder about the soundness of his mind. This Court as a group leaves so much to be desired, but one always hopes that the members will exhibit some glimmer of good sense every now and again.

One might argue that in overthrowing the laws of Arizona the Court has in fact shown good sense. The problem is they have allowed the “papers please” law that allows Arizona police to detain suspected “illegals” with “reasonable cause.” What this means, of course, is that it gives the police almost unlimited power under the law and it will almost assuredly promote racial profiling — though the police have been cautioned not to fall into that trap. Come on! Get serious: give the average policeman the right to stop and search anyone who strikes him or her as “suspicious” — and detain them for an undisclosed amount of time — and you are inviting abuse of power.

The real fear here is fear itself (with apologies to F.D.R.). The country seems to be in a paranoid state fueled by constant rhetoric about the “war on terror” and the blatant jingoism that surrounds public celebrations such as “fly overs” and flag waiving at sporting events; this atmosphere now allows the country to exhibit its full force with impunity: the end justifies the means. If we ever could, we can no longer claim the moral high ground, as Martin Luther King would have it. We can now kill suspected terrorists abroad with drones; after ten years we still have nearly 200 untried prisoners detained at Guantanamo (including children, apparently); and we can now legally detain for an unspecified time suspected “illegals” at home. I hesitate to use the word but we seem to be inching closer and closer to Fascism, though most people don’t seem to much care.

Courage of His Convictions

Most historians give Jimmy Carter poor grades as a president. Whether or not one agrees, one would have to admit he has shown himself to be an outspoken defender of human rights and a man determined to make his world a better place than he found it. Thus, though he may not have been the best of presidents, since leaving office he has shown himself to be the best of men in an age when there are very few we can point to with pride and say with conviction, “he (or she) is a good person.”

But the latest step he has taken shows not only his exceptional concern for human rights — not just the rights of American citizens — but also the courage to criticize a standing president from his own political party in an election year. As ABC News recently reported, Carter has written an op-ed piece for the New York Times in which he takes Obama to task for violating human rights in allowing (ordering?) drone kills that have taken not only the lives of terrorists, but of an unknown number of innocent victims as well. He also faults Obama for failing to act on his promise to close the prison at Guantanamo. As the report states, quoting Carter,

“Instead of making the world safer, America’s violation of international human rights abets our enemies and alienates our friends.” The news story continues as follows:

While the total number of attacks from unmanned aircraft, or drones, and the resulting casualties are murky, the New America Foundation estimates that in Pakistan alone 265 drone strikes have been executed since January 2009 . Those strikes have killed at least 1,488 people, at least 1,343 of them considered militants, the foundation estimates based on news reports and other sources.

In addition to the drone strikes, Carter criticized the current president for keeping the Guantanamo Bay detention center open, where prisoners “have been tortured by waterboarding more than 100 times or intimidated with semiautomatic weapons, power drills or threats to sexually assault their mothers.”

Assuming that President Carter has his facts straight (and we are in no position to know, though we might suspect that as a former President he would be privy to information the rest of us are not) these charges are alarming and deeply disturbing. We might have expected these sorts of actions of his predecessor, but we had hoped that this President, the President of “Change,” would bring a new moral order to the White House, if not a new political order — that he would take the moral high ground. Instead, he has disappointed those of us who expected (hoped?) for better.

It is true, as one of my fellow bloggers said in an earlier blog (May 12, 2012), that we do not know all the whys and wherefores that go into making decisions at the highest levels in this country. It is certainly the case that as soon as Obama began to deliver on his promise to close Guantanamo he met with stiff resistance. And the drone kills may have some sort of strange rationale that I simply cannot fathom. And while it is true that the “war on terror” started years after Carter left the White House, nevertheless he does have credibility and never loses sight of the wider canvas. He knows it’s not all about elections and politics — or even “the economy.” We need to listen to what he has to say and take him seriously.

Bold Move

In a recent interview Barack Obama came out openly in defense of same-sex marriage. From one point of view this is a no-brainer because there can be no moral reason why two people should not get married when they love one another. In addition, from a political perspective there is every reason why the marriage should be recognized, since failure to do so denies the parties the rights of citizenship that other married couples enjoy. Those who are in a tizzy about the destruction of the “sanctity” of marriage are sublimating a homophobia they are reluctant to confront. Heaven knows the world can use more love and less hate. None the less, while Obama knows how to play the political game he also knows that an election is looming on the horizon. Thus, for him to take a stand on an issue such as this is indeed a bold move. Following the interview, he sent around an email explaining his views:

What I’ve come to realize is that for loving, same-sex couples, the denial of marriage equality means that, in their eyes and the eyes of their children, they are still considered less than full citizens.

Even at my own dinner table, when I look at Sasha and Malia, who have friends whose parents are same-sex couples, I know it wouldn’t dawn on them that their friends’ parents should be treated differently.

So I decided it was time to affirm my personal belief that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry.

I respect the beliefs of others, and the right of religious institutions to act in accordance with their own doctrines. But I believe that in the eyes of the law, all Americans should be treated equally. And where states enact same-sex marriage, no federal act should invalidate them.

For a man who has been reluctant to take a positive stand on any issue for fear of offending someone, who has been far too conciliatory during his first years as President, this move raises some interesting questions. The man is a masterful politician, if nothing else. Though he was careful to point out that this is a states’ rights issue, one must wonder why he has chosen to be forthcoming on gay marriage at this time, a few months before a major election. The issue is sure to polarize voters and it could well cost him votes. But it could also bring back many of the younger voters he has assuredly lost as a result of his disappointing failure to deliver on promises to close down Guantanamo and bring the troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan. (Eventually, of course, the troops did come home from Iraq, but many of them were reassigned to an expanded war in Afghanistan and the trade-off was a disappointment to many.)  In addition, there has been little in the way of an economic recovery and there are still a great many people out of work. Finally, Obama has been far too friendly with the corporations and weak on the environment to please many of the bright-eyed hopefuls who saw his presidency as a sure sign of better things to come. He has to do something to bring back many of those voters. I suspect this declaration is a calculated risk.

More power to him. Regardless of his motivations, and they are clearly political, it is refreshing to see the man take a stand on a highly controversial issue, indeed, a moral issue, and declare himself boldly in favor of gay marriage. And this in a political climate where successful politicians are masters of the artful dodge, the old soft-shoe. I would love to think it is a sign of things to come and that a second term would see him take more stands on moral high ground when he no longer has to worry about his reelection. This is certainly what people expected from him in the first place.