Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Man Out of Season

There is a very troubling trend developing in our society, and it is being directed from the top.

I wrote earlier about my concern that the president had authorized the murder of Osama bin Laden in what appears to have been a violation of established American law prohibiting any government official from engaging in a conspiracy to assassinate a foreign leader. Now, I would like to make myself clear: I do not regret bin Laden's death. He was a homicidal religious fanatic of medieval world view, and his death renders us all, in civilized society, that much safer. But the question that does concern me is precisely that one, of a civilized society.

Since the death of bin Laden, we have seen the administration engage in the killing of two Americans associated with terrorist causes living abroad. The decision to murder them, via high-tech drone aircraft, was authorized at the highest level of government, and carried out with deliberation and precision. Their murders, though once again unregrettable, appear to have been undertaken in violation of American law; namely, the basic Constitutional prohibition against government depriving any American citizen of life and liberty without due process of law.

In these cases, the president appears to have arrogated to himself the role of judge, jury and executioner. The fact that at least one of the two men was included on the government's list of most wanted criminals makes no difference: The Constitution is clear, and the president is bound by oath to respect it. That President Obama appears to have authorized the killing of these two Americans seems to me to represent not only a violation of the law forbidding political assassination, but also of his oath of office.

Now, this is not a popular issue, and for that reason it has received relatively little attention. I have read the administration's legal opinion rationalizing the murders, and, frankly, I find it insidious in its intent and pathetic in its reasoning. It says, in effect, that the killings were legal because we did them. That is it. Because the president ordered them, they were legal.

This reminds me of Richard Nixon's declaration during Watergate that anything the president did was legal because he did it. That argument was specious then, and it remains specious today. In my view, unless someone can persuade me to the contrary, by authorizing these killings, the President of the United States has violated the law, the Constitution, and his oath.

The identities of the victims are irrelevant. The rationale for the killings is irrelevant. The effect achieved is irrelevant. The only question for a civilized society is whether the actions of the president were in accordance with law. If they were not, then the president must be held accountable, if not in the courts, then at least in the court of public opinion.

I am reminded, too, of the argument put forward by Sir Thomas More in the play "A Man for all Seasons" when he asked the ardent servant of the king the following question: If the devil came to Britain and hid behind the law, would you be justified in destroying the law to get at him? His point was that, once you begin dismantling the protective barrier of laws which alone separates us from evil, then what will save us when evil turns around and attacks? He knew that the answer was: Nothing. We will have been exposed and made vulnerable by our very zeal to destroy the devil.

The terrorists are devils; of that there can be no doubt. But in suspending or violating our own laws in order to to destroy them, we make ourselves that much more vulnerable to them, since they know or respect no law but violence.