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The Shooting Gallery: Obama and the Vanishing Point of Democracy

Posted on Feb 13, 2013
Jill Clardy (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

(Page 2)

As the White Paper memo produced by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel makes clear, Obama has put into play government policies so extreme and brutal that the administration has propelled itself to the vanishing point of legal illegalities. This is partly evident in the Obama administration’s claim, duly noted even in the mainstream press, that it can target and kill American citizens anywhere on the globe. The emergence of such practices has little to do with a legitimate need to promote national security and a country’s right to self-defense. On the contrary, such policies represent America’s slide into barbarism, made all too vivid by the fact that the officials who are responsible for them are not only held unaccountable, but nominated to the highest positions in the American government. Witness the nomination of John Brennan as the next director of the CIA. Moreover, the Obama administration now has carried this institutionalization of mad violence to an extreme with the assertion that a few officials in the highest reaches of government can decide which Americans and foreigners can be targeted and killed as enemies of the United States.

The winter 2013 release of the Justice Department’s “White Paper,” the confirmation hearings for John Brennan as the next CIA Director, and the publication of “Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition”[7] all provide powerful evidence of the ongoing assault on American democracy under the Bush and Obama administrations, and the consolidation of a culture in which fear and punishment reign unchecked and the law is on the side of the most frightening of anti-democratic practices. These indices reveal, in turn, a society in which terror becomes as totalizing as the loss of any sense of ethical and political responsibility. These revelations are about more than the fact that the United States is losing its moral compass or is violating civil liberties and promoting human rights abuses, though these registers should not be dismissed.

What such commentary misses is the degree to which the Obama administration exercises scorn toward democracy itself, such that it now resembles an authoritarian state. The White Paper, for instance, reveals a mode of governance, policy, and practice that is deeply anti-democratic in its claim to be able to use lethal, yet legal, force against American citizens anywhere on the globe. When secrecy replaces judicial review and presidential power can be evoked without limits to kill Americans, it becomes difficult to recognize the United States as a democratic nation. Evoking the language of Orwellian legality to legitimate the claim that Americans can be killed without due process, the White Paper justifies assassinating American citizens if they are a “senior operational leader of al-Qaeda or associated force,” if they “pose an imminent threat of violent attack to the United States” and if their “capture is infeasible.”[8]

This Orwellian language operates in the dead zone of morality and jurisprudence. Moreover, this discourse becomes meaningless in light of the administration’s claim that the use of such sweeping authority and actions do not need judicial review, can be done in secret, away from the public domain and does not need to provide evidence to a judge before or after an attack.[9] What is truly shocking is that an American citizen can be targeted for assassination by the US government without the latter having to provide any proof of guilt - or the former being given the right to establish innocence. This is more than an attack on constitutional rights or a violation of human rights; it is a capitulation to authoritarianism. Glenn Greenwald captures this in his insightful comment:


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The most extremist power any political leader can assert is the power to target his own citizens for execution without any charges or due process, far from any battlefield. The Obama administration has not only asserted exactly that power in theory, but has exercised it in practice…. The definition of an extreme authoritarian is one who is willing blindly to assume that government accusations are true without any evidence presented or opportunity to contest those accusations. This memo - and the entire theory justifying Obama’s kill list - centrally relies on this authoritarian conflation of government accusations and valid proof of guilt. They are not the same and never have been. Political leaders who decree guilt in secret and with no oversight, inevitably succumb to error and/or abuse of power. Such unchecked accusatory decrees are inherently untrustworthy…. That’s why due process is guaranteed in the Constitution and why judicial review of government accusations has been a staple of western justice since the Magna Carta: because leaders can’t be trusted to decree guilt and punish citizens without evidence and an adversarial process. That is the age-old basic right on which this memo, and the Obama presidency, is waging war.[10]

The administration’s legal rhetoric and the practices it legitimates increasingly make the United States look like the ruthless Latin American dictatorships that seized power in the 1970s, all of which appealed to paranoia, fear, security and the use of extra-legal practices to defend barbaric acts of assassinations, torture, abuse and disappearance. The writer Isabel Hilton rightly invokes this repressed piece of history and what it reveals about the current Obama administration. She writes:

The delusion that office-holders know better than the law is an occupational hazard of the powerful and one to which those of an imperial cast of mind are especially prone. Checks and balances - the constitutional underpinning of the democratic idea that no one individual can be trusted with unlimited power - are there to keep such delusions under control…. When disappearance became state practice across Latin America in the 70s, it aroused revulsion in democratic countries where it is a fundamental tenet of legitimate government that no state actor may detain—or kill—another human being without having to answer to the law.[11]

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