Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Talking Like Adults

With the exception of Jon Stewart, the smartest and most interesting commentators in the media are bloggers. Network television is a cesspit of sensationalist drivel. Newspapers are calcified institutions. Most reporters are now nothing but the mouthpiece of their government or corporate "sources". Radio is a bunch of neanderthals grunting at each other. There is precious little reason to read, listen to, or watch any of the mainstream media out there.

Some bloggers though? Some of them are keeping the fire burning.

Allow me to give you an example of some bright minds having a public conversation on matters of substance in a way that edifies everyone.

Hopefully you know by now that President Obama has publicly announced his intention to target certain individuals he designates as enemies of the United States for elimination. On the list of targets are at least four US citizens. One in particular, Anwar al-Awlaki, is the focus of this particular debate, because he is the only one whose identity we know.

This debate began, because al-Awlaki's father sued to get a court order to ban the government from assassinating his son without due process. In response, the Department of Justice on behalf of the White House filed a brief asking the court to dismiss the case without hearing the merit of the claims on the basis of "state secrets". In other words, to quote Glenn Greenwald, "not only does the President have the right to sentence Americans to death with no due process or charges of any kind, but his decisions as to who will be killed and why he wants them dead are "state secrets," and thus no court may adjudicate their legality."

Glenn Greenwald, who blogs at Salon, is a persistent progressive civil libertarian. He was joined by Alex Massie at the Spectator in arguing that this represented a massive power grab by the president and a serious threat to constitutionally guaranteed liberties. And here is where it became a true conversation - Andrew Sullivan of The Dish at the Atlantic cited both men and argued briefly against them, saying essentially that this doesn't amount to an assassination, but rather a normal act of war in the context of the global war on terror. Sullivan, having been a vocal critic of the Bush administration torture policies was immediately called out all over the internet for being a hypocrite.

Proving the libertarian strain awkwardly straddles the liberal/conservative divide in this country Sullivan got hit from both sides. Daniel Larison of Eunomia at The American Conservative hit back that Obama defenders who shy from the word "assassination" are no better than the Bush defenders who wanted us all to choke down that Enhanced Interrogation bullshit. Scott Horton of Harper's Magazine used his legal expertise to delve into the issues behind this argument and show why Ex Parte Quirin, the case being used as the major precedent for presidential authority to kill American citizens still requires due process, and probably doesn't even apply in this instance. Greenwald came back the most emphatically with questions for Sullivan to answer, such as would Sullivan be comfortable with a future President Palin having the established authority to assassinate US Citizens without judicial oversight or due process?

They were important, hard-hitting questions. The kind you don't see on CNN or Fox News. Andrew Sullivan took the time to reply, but unfortunately only stoked the fire more since his principal defense seemed to be to reiterate the assertion in the title of his post "We are at war!" as if this justified presidential power-grabs for Obama that he deplored under Bush. Novelist and blogger Barry Eisler took that opportunity to chime in with one of the best essays in the entire conversation tearing Sullivan's arguments to shreds without hyperbole. Greenwald also responded using a parallel example from a current situation in Kenya to drive home how far the United States has gone down the road of authoritarianism when small impoverished countries contending with serious terrorist threats have a higher respect for the rule of law than we do.

The debate may continue, but I think the major points have already been elucidated. Sullivan, unfortunately has not responded to the diversity or strength of the arguments of his opponents, but has chosen instead to rehash his "we're at war" line, which is unpersuasive to say the least. My sympathies lie with Greenwald in this. I can't believe we are even debating whether assassination is a legal option for the President of the USA, but I really appreciate the way this whole conversation has unfolded. No one stooped to ad hominem or hyperbole. Everyone, including Sullivan who I think has got the worst of it, attempted to present reasoned argument for their point of view with relevant factual support. Amazing to see journalists talking like adults.


Alan said...

Really strange for Sullivan who has been beating the anti-torture drums for years now to do such an abrupt about face.

But even so, at least there's some real discussion going on. Though I'm a bit surprised there has been so little. I suspect had Bush done this, there would have been a stronger outcry from the left.

Aric Clark said...

I'm biased because I'm a progressive, but my completely unsubstantiated anecdotal evidence based opinion is that the left has been more critical of Obama than the right was of Bush - but still prone to blind cheerleading when obviously the guy is practically a Bush clone on civil liberties.

Doug Hagler said...

It is staggering to me that the federal government assassinating US citizens is a left/right issue. I don't think that it is possible for an argument to be made from any viable political theory.

Alan said...

I'm also biased, and I think it's hard to make these sorts of comparisons in anything like an objective manner. (Count newspaper articles? Count the number of times someone is compared to the Stazi? I don't know how you'd make the actual comparison...) But it does seem like there's less of an outcry about this.

Or perhaps the comparison is worthless anyway and it would be better to say that, regardless of ideology, there should just *be* an outcry.

I think you're right that, taken as a whole, the left has been more critical of Obama than the right was of Bush. (See for example the outrage over the failure to repeal DADT, ENDA, and the other examples of the Obama Administration's "fierce urgency of 'meh' on LGBT issues.)

But I don't think that criticism has been as loud about these violations of civil liberties as they were with Bush/Rove/Cheney efforts to eliminate civil liberties.

Remember the habeas corpus controversy? That was at least as crazy as this notion that we can assassinate anyone ever, and yet the outcry from the left seemed about 100 times louder.

But then, perhaps I should watch what I say, given that the government wants to assassinate anyone they choose. At least McCarthy only resorted to political and personal assassination.

Aric Clark said...

Yeah, Doug, I don't think there is a viable argument from any political perspective that belongs in our republic. From a totalitarian perspective perhaps.

@Alan, The left is definitely not as vocal now as they were under Bush because Obama is inaccurately perceived as a progressive. That's why I think the relevant comparison is not between the left now and the left under Bush, but between the left now and the right under Bush - since Bush similarly was perceived as a conservative despite betraying many conservative principles (like small-government, non-intervention in foreign nations, privacy, fiscal responsibility etc..).

Doug Hagler said...

@ Alan

I actually see this assassination policy as the logical progression from the loss of habeas corpus. If the government can seize a person and imprison them without a trial perpetually, what is the difference between that and murdering them outright? To me, it's a difference of degree. Either way, the government takes someone's life away without any due process - it's just that assassination is a lot more abrupt than incarceration, and cannot be overturned later on.

But I totally agree - there should be an outcry from both sides on this. We should have drawn the line a long time ago.

Jodie said...


This point "the White House filed a brief asking the court to dismiss the case without hearing the merit of the claims on the basis of "state secrets""

IS due process. If the court knows what it is doing it will reject the White House's claim. If the court accepts the claim, the White House will be able to move forward with its plans and claim due process was followed and that it did nothing illegal.

@ Doug, this point "I actually see this assassination policy as the logical progression from the loss of habeas corpus." I think is absolutely true. That is the root cause of the problem. If there is to be an outcry, it should be here.

Habeas Corpus is what really lies between totalitarianism and democracy.

On the other hand, what makes assassination more heinous than carpet bombing? It is the natural consequence of surgical warfare and precision GPS guided bombing. We don't recklessly destroy whole villages in order to save them, or kill thousands of innocent civilians just to make a point. Heck, we don't even put our bomber pilots in harm's way. They sit behind a computer monitor in an air-conditioned office, play their little computer games, and at the end of the day fill out their time cards and go home to smiling wife and laughing children.

Warfare is not what it used to be...

That political structures designed before the industrial revolution are still around at all is amazing.

What I am saying is that it is even more remarkable than you realize that someone can find the words to debate the issue. At times to me it seems like such a hopeless runaway train that I am glad to live in a time when we can still enjoy what can only be the last days of summer before what is going to be a long dark and depressing winter for Western civilization.

Doug Hagler said...

@ Jodie:

To paraphrase Gandhi - 'What do I think of Western civilization? I think it would be a very good idea.'

Legally, the difference between assassinating a US citizen and carpet-bombing is that we do not carpet-bomb US citizens. The government doesn't have the right to declare war on the people. The idea is that even in a "time of war", even an idiotic, unwinnable and perpetual war like the War on Terror, the US government must give US citizens due process. And due process is not, under any reasonable definition, assassination by Executive fiat.

Morally, since nationality doesn't matter whatsoever in determining the value of human life, there is very little difference. It is the difference between the wild, diffuse viscousness of disregard for human life and civilian casualties, and the cold, calculating viciousness of premeditated murder.

Aric Clark said...

@Jodie, that's what this administration will claim, and those that follow it - that due process has been satisfied because a court had a chance to review the case and didn't because of "state secrets". That is what makes it dangerous is that it will be used to establish a precedent that is utterly contradictory to the spirit and letter of centuries of law.

Doug said the rest, better than I could.

Jodie said...

I still hope the court will reject the argument.

That Potus would authorize the assassination of an American citizen, for whatever reason, is too scary.

That a lawsuit could stop it is just surreal.

That a court would then authorize it is the suicide of democracy.

Nick.Larson said...

Wow. I hadn't really gotten out to read all of this last week, but this is some pretty good discourse folks. Talk about talking like adults. Bravo.

For me to way in on this one. Wow. It's hard for me to imagine this is a extension from the "war on terror" idea. That "war" should be talked about more like the "war on drugs" was in the 80's. So when I think about it I always forget that people are trying to inact this war as if it were equal to the combat going on in Afghanistan. For me really this comes down to the argument that we can pre-empt things with death, torture or distruction that assumption is sooo FALSE.

Paul Wise said...

The thing that frustrates me to no end is that we appear to be stuck with these people. Take this election for example: we have the choice to either maintain the status quo (an intolerable option for the reasons listed above), OR to bring into office a group who will make things much worse than they already are.

President Obama claimed he wanted to put the past behind him. To let bygones be bygones. It's even possible that he was being truthful when he gave his reasons for not wanting to prosecute torture and other offenses. That he didn't want to start a witch hunt. That he wanted to make a gesture to those so clearly in the wrong. That he wanted to bring us together rather than rip each other apart.

But if that's the case - if those really were his reasons - he was sadly misinformed as to the nature of evil. Evil doesn't just go away if you pretend it didn't happen. It festers. If you don't confront wickedness, it spreads. Obama's decision not to prosecute the Bush administration for its crimes against humanity made him culpable for them in turn. And now we're seeing the fallout.

And they wonder why democrats are disenchanted?