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Apr. 8 2010 - 11:43 am | 698 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

Historical perspective on Obama’s assassination program

The New York Times and Washington Post reported yesterday that the Obama administration has given the CIA authorization to kill an American citizen without trial or due process.  Greenwald’s analysis of the assassination program is spot-on, so be sure to check that out.  It’s a disturbing idea, that Obama has proclaimed he has the power to order US citizens to be killed far away from a battlefield, and without any chance to dispute the charges against them. 

Yesterday, while reading about the civil rights riots of the 1960s, I came across a passage that hit a little too close to home.

Rick Perlstein, writing in Nixonland, describes the 1965 race riots in Cleveland in the following way (p.112):

The police chief was quoted calling for capital punishment “to keep the negroes in line.”  Witnesses told the story of a judge who convicted civil rights demonstrators without a trial, proclaiming, “They are all guilty because I saw it on TV,” … of black applicants to the police force turned down if they belonged to civil rights groups. [emphasis added.]

The story of the odious judge speaks for itself, and it would be difficult to find a better description of the way the public has condemned suspected terrorists than, “they are guilty because I saw it on TV.”  In many ways, that phrase encapulates the Bush-era understanding of justice that progressives so despised, and that Barack Obama is now continuing. 

Regardless of whatever evidence the judge in the above passage had, no one would defend his behavior today.  And he simply imprisoned subversives.  Imagine if he had just wanted to kill civil rights activists because he knew they were guilty even without the bothersome procedure of a trial.  That is exactly the understanding of justice Barack Obama has now codified.   


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  1. collapse expand

    If the accounts about Anwar al-Awlaki are right, this would be a real occasion of actual treason, as defined in the Constitution (and one of the only three Crimes the Federal Government has any jurisdiction to prosecute). So how ironic that rather than deal with the crime constitutionally (arrest, trial, conviction), Obama says just kill him. Then, for all those “other” crimes that the Federal Government has no jurisdiction over, afford the accused due process.

  2. collapse expand

    You end by saying through circumlocution that this is “exactly” the same as assassinating civil rights leaders would have been.
    I am a follower of your column, and in much agreement with you on a daily or weekly basis, but that comparison does not hold water. (In this metaphor, water = truth.)

    1) No one is calling for assassinations on U.S. soil.
    2) No one is saying that these criminals are not entitled to due process, if they choose to accept it.
    3) It is almost impossible to arrest and try people in foreign jurisdictions, particularly those which specifically shelter fugitives from U.S. justice.
    4) Civil rights activists would not have been subject to (federal) due process in the first place since they weren’t doing anything illegal. Many of them would have been thrilled to give their beliefs a day in (federal) court at the expense of their own freedom.
    5) The penalty for treason is death. None of the activists were facing death in a federal court…or even in a Jim Crow southern court.
    6) Presumably (in your hypothetical) troublemakers like Martin Luther King, Jr would have been assassinated at all costs. But in this case (the real one) if you believe in due process and don’t want to be assassinated…get a lawyer and TURN YOURSELF IN. Preferably in a country like France.

    We should be skeptical of these orders. Even wary. We should investigate and question, demand answers, etc. But don’t declare that the sky has fallen until someone issues an assassination edict for an American on U.S. soil, or one who is not already facing the death penalty.

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