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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 3)

Not only has the Obama administration discarded the principles of justice, judicial review and international law in its willingness to kill Americans without limits on its authority, it openly flaunts such behavior as integral to how the United States defines itself in a post- 9/11 world. And while it has agreed recently to release its legal reasoning for killing US citizens by armed drones, it has done so only “to ease pressure on John Brennan, the architect of the drones strategy, at his Senate confirmation hearing as CIA Director.”[12] How can any American possibly talk about living in a democracy in which the President of the United States claims that he and a few high-ranking government officials have the right and “the power ... to carry out the targeted killing of American citizens who are located far away from any battlefield, even when they have not been charged with a crime, even when they do not present any imminent threat in any ordinary meaning of that word.”[13]

In a democracy, citizens have constitutional rights, checks and balances limit unaccountable authority and human rights are upheld rather than scorned. The task of governance and political leadership is not to promote dangerous policies, but to draw out injustices embedded in the recesses of the past and present, to make clear that the cover of secrecy and silence will not protect those who violate the law, and to reject forms of patriotic militarism that sanction illegality in the name of a permanent war on terrorism. But there is more at stake here than a call for transparency, the embrace of human rights and the rejection of a government that imprisons, eavesdrops on US citizens or kills them without charges, trial and due process. There is also an obligation of democratic leadership and governance to uphold some measure of accountability and to redress the policies and practices that implicate the United States in a long history of torture - one that extends from the genocide of Native Americans to the enslavement of millions of Africans and their descendants, to the killing of 21,000 Vietnamese under the aegis of the CIA’s infamous Phoenix Program. The purpose of this history is not to induce shame but to recognize that such crimes were legitimated by political conditions and institutionalized policies that must be excised from American domestic and foreign policies if there is to be hope for a future that does not simply repeat the past.

What is missing in the refusal to make visible the United States’ descent into authoritarianism is the necessity for the American people to see what is wrong with such actions, who should be held accountable, why such acts of human cruelty should not happen (again) and what actions must be taken to open up the possibilities for society to exercise collective judgments that enable a rejection of past actions as well as the possibility of a more just future. Moreover, as philosophy professor Maria Pia Lara argues, refusing to narrate human cruelty is tantamount to relinquishing the moral imperative to build a transformed democratic community. She contends that exposing and engaging the hidden dimensions of cruelty and the abuse of human rights is part of a moral imperative “directed at making others understand that what happened did not need to happen.” Moreover, such “stories [provide] us with a moral sense of the need to keep examining the past in order to ... build a space for self-reflection [and] define the process of establishing a connection between the collective critical examination of past catastrophes and the learning processes in which societies engage.”[14]

At a time in history when American society is overtly subject to the quasi militarization of everyday life and endlessly exposed to mass-produced spectacles of commodified and ritualized violence, a culture of cruelty and barbarism has become deeply entrenched and more easily tolerated. Beyond creating in this instance a moral and affective void in the collective consciousness - a refusal to recognize and rectify the illegal and morally repugnant violence, abuse and suffering imposed on those alleged to be dangerous and “disposable” others - such a culture contributes to the undoing of the very fabric of civilization and justice. The descent into barbarism can take many forms, but one version may be glimpsed when torture becomes a defining feature of what a country considers acceptable policy (to say nothing of riveting entertainment), or the majority of its inhabitants remain passive when the President of the United States claims he has the right to put together a kill list in order to assassinate American citizens. How else to explain the fact that 49 percent of the American public “consider torture justified at least some of the time [and] fully 71 [percent] refuse to rule it out entirely”?[15]


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Frank Rich has suggested that the American public’s indifference to national security issues is partly due to the massive hardships and suffering many Americans have endured as a result of the Great Recession.[16] This may be true but what it overlooks are the ever-growing anti-democratic forces, or what might be called authoritarianism with a soft edge, which haunt American politics and the modern ideal of democracy. The civic imagination is in retreat in American society and the public spheres that make it possible are disappearing.

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