The media and political
establishment have responded with near total silence to the Washington
Post's revelation last week that the Obama administration has transformed
extra-judicial assassination into a permanent practice of the US government.
What should be immediate grounds for
the impeachment of the president has been met with indifference, most notably
from liberal and "left" supporters of Obama's re-election. If the initial Post
article has something of the character of a trial balloon--to see to what
extent the revelation of such measures would be met with official
opposition--the results are conclusive: there is no significant commitment to
democratic rights in the media and political establishment.
By any objective account, the Post's
revelations are extraordinary. "Targeted killing"--a euphemism for
assassination--"is now so routine that the Obama administration has spent much
of the past year codifying and streamlining the processes to sustain it." The
administration has transformed "ad hoc elements into a counterterrorism
infrastructure capable of sustaining permanent war."
Kill lists "that were regarded as
finite emergency measures after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, are now fixtures
of the national security apparatus." At the same time, it is "a policy so
secret that it impossible for outsiders to judge whether it complies
with the laws of war or US values--or even determine the total number of people
In other words, the administration
has systematized a process by which the executive branch, with no judicial
oversight, kills people--including US citizens--routinely all over the world.
From a "state of exception," the administration has transformed these powers,
without any public discussion, into a state of permanence.
The language used by government
officials to justify such measures is chilling. The list of potential targets
has been dubbed a "disposition matrix." One former administration official
noted that they faced a "disposition problem"--i.e., the government faced the
challenge of disposing of targets. Wary of a potentially messy legal process,
whether in civilian courts or before military tribunals, the Obama
administration has elected more and more to simply kill people.
Writing in the Council of Foreign
Relations, Micah Zenko cites one military official
involved in the targeted killing program: "To emphasize how easy targeted
killings by special operations forces or drones has become, this official
flicked his hand back over and over, stating, ‘It really is like swatting
flies. We can do it forever easily and you feel nothing. But how often do you
really think about killing a fly?'"
Employing a somewhat different
analogy, former CIA analyst and Obama adviser Bruce Riedel, told the Post,
"The problem with the drone is it's like your lawn mower. You've got to mow the
lawn all the time. The minute you stop mowing, the grass is going to grow
housands have been slaughtered in
this way, including many entirely innocent civilians. Among those assassinated
by the American government were US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki,
accused of propagating Islamic fundamentalist ideas. Obama has declared that
ordering the killing of al-Awlaki was "an easy one."
Robert Gibbs, a top Obama adviser, declared in relationship to the killing of
al-Awlaki's 16-year old son, also a US citizen, who
was accused of nothing, that "he should have had a more responsible father."
It is impossible to speak of the
"erosion" of American democracy any longer. The situation is far more advanced.
Such language reflects a political establishment for which the most basic
democratic conceptions are entirely foreign. It is language befitting a police
The implications go far beyond the
use of drones. In seeking to justify its program of state killings, the Obama
administration has in effect obliterated the legal basis for all constraints on
executive power. The core concept of due process is inscribed in the Fifth
Amendment of the Constitution, which declares that "no person shall…be deprived
of life, liberty or property, without due process of law."
The concept of due process traces
its roots to the very origins of constitutional monarchy and the limitations on
arbitrary power in Britain--the Magna Carta. In brief:
a person cannot be deprived of his rights, including his right to life, without
a legal and judicial process. According to the Obama administration, however,
this due process requirement is satisfied by the internal deliberations of the
executive--by the president and his closest advisers.
And if the president can kill
anyone, including US citizens, without judicial review, what power does he not
have? Any but the most formal distinction between democracy and presidential
dictatorship is swept away.
Such measures will ultimately be
used within the United States. Particularly since the September 11 attacks, the
American government has constructed a huge spying apparatus, an apparatus
currently overseen by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC)--the same body
that is at the center of the assassination program.
In March, the Justice Department
modified guidelines to allow the NCTC to collect and "continually assess"
information on American citizens for up to five years, from 180 days as
established under Bush. In July, the American Civil Liberties Union remarked
that the changes amounted to "a reboot of the Total Information Awareness
Program" which Bush was forced to formally abandon in 2003 after intense public
opposition, though it was continued in different forms.
The terminal crisis of American
democracy is deeply rooted in the structure of American capitalism, and in
particular the vast growth of social inequality. Over the past several decades,
a tiny financial aristocracy has monopolized enormous resources on the basis of
speculation and increasingly criminal operations. After creating the economic
and financial crisis that erupted in 2008, this same social layer is determined
to pursue unpopular policies at home and abroad.
It is worth noting in this context a
column by prominent political commentator George Will, appearing in the Washington
Post earlier this month. Under the headline, "Seeds of Our Dysfunction,"
Will complains that "America's public-policy
dysfunction exists not because democracy isn't working but because it is."
People are not being sufficiently "reasonable," Will complains, particularly
because they do not recognize the need for massive cuts in social programs.
"People flinch from confronting difficult problems until driven by necessity's
Will is simply giving voice to
conceptions more broadly felt in the ruling class. The political system, even
under its current anti-democratic form, is seen as a hinderance
to implementing policies that are determined to be "necessary."
In fact, the two political parties
are as united in their commitment to a wholesale attack on the working class as
they are in supporting the policy of extra-judicial assassination abroad. In
the aftermath of the election, whether Obama or Romney wins, the ruling class
is planning immediate measures to slash social program upon which millions of
Unending war, social reaction, and
the repudiation of legality--this is the program of the American ruling class.
Democracy is incompatible with the continued rule of the financial aristocracy,
and the continued existence of the social system, capitalism, upon which it
The task of defending and extending
democracy, therefore, lies with the working class--through its independent
political mobilization in the fight for socialism.