Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Kill List

Earlier this week the New York Times ran a front page story about a secret “kill list” of targets that President Obama personally reviews and authorizes.

Mr. Obama has placed himself at the helm of a top secret “nominations” process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical. He had vowed to align the fight against Al Qaeda with American values; the chart, introducing people whose deaths he might soon be asked to order, underscored just what a moral and legal conundrum this could be.

Mr. Obama is the liberal law professor who campaigned against the Iraq war and torture, and then insisted on approving every new name on an expanding “kill list,” poring over terrorist suspects’ biographies on what one official calls the macabre “baseball cards” of an unconventional war. When a rare opportunity for a drone strike at a top terrorist arises — but his family is with him — it is the president who has reserved to himself the final moral calculation.

I’ll get to the morals in a bit, but as for the legal conundrum, it’s pretty clear: there’s nothing in the Constitution that authorizes this kind of executive power. But, as Charlie Pierce points out, there’s nothing in the history of the last fifty years that would indicate that there is anyone who is going to bring the president up on charges for using the 82nd Airborne to take out an individual.

Two things occur to me. The first is that we as a nation have allowed this to happen, and given the attitude after September 11, 2001, we as a nation find it acceptable. “We are at war” is the justification, and therefore we will allow revenge and summer-blockbuster A-Team adventures to prevail over the niceties and protections of the law we’re supposed to be fighting for: we fight fire with fire; they are terrorists, therefore we out-terrorist them with drones and SEAL teams.

The second thing is that somewhere in the back of our mind is the realization that the existence of the secret list is not a surprise. We all suspect that there has to be some secret things we’re not supposed to know about; that the cloak-and-dagger spy world is real and all the stuff we watch in the movies about black-ops and Delta Forces and IMF really does go on; just not with George Clooney, Tom Cruise, and Christopher O’Donnell.

This is where the moral conundrum comes in. It goes without saying that I oppose such a thing because it is warfare. I also agree with Benjamin Kirby in that I oppose it because it’s secret. It is supposed to let us as citizens go on our merry way, knowing full well that there are things we don’t know and aren’t supposed to know which are being done in our name so we can go on that merry way with a clear conscience. That aura of plausible deniability is a nice cocoon; it has always served the civilian population well to say they had no idea what was being done in their name, but it only masks the evil. It does not eradicate it.

The political calculus of this is pretty clear, too. The Obama administration would never have let this news story get out there without figuring in the benefits to the campaign. No Republican is going to stand up and object to the president — even this one — taking these kinds of measures against terrorists unless it is to grumble that Dick Cheney thought of it first. And certainly the Obama re-election team sees this as a stark contrast to the GOP candidate who sees Russia as our geopolitical foe. It makes it hard to run against Barack Obama as a black Jimmy Carter if he is spending his evenings in the Situation Room throwing darts at the top ten al-Qaeda targets.

However, I don’t think that’s what the Founders had in mind when they sat down to form a more perfect union.