In the aftermath of 9/11, the Bush administration began asserting the need for a stronger executive branch (dusting off their “unitary executive” theory) under the guise of the threat of terrorism. A president needed to act quickly and decisively to protect the country from another devastating terrorist attack, they argued, and, according to Cheney, Bush and Rumsfeld, that meant giving the president new powers to capture and kill real and potential threats to the U.S. So over the remaining years of his Administration, Bush, with the help of the Patriot Act and the Homeland Security Act, assumed, more power to act unilaterally, resulting in Guantanamo Bay and black sites worldwide.
Of course, Bush’s second term ended in 2008 and a new President was elected. Unfortunately, the powers that Bush’s team coopted in the heat of a terrorist attack were quickly adopted by the new President, Barack Obama. And what would you expect? If you were the CEO of a company and your board of directors gave you sweeping new powers, would you, as the new CEO, rescind those powers? Probably not. One thing rulers are loathe to do is give up powers that they have. So fast forward to today, and you have the announcement that the Obama Administration believes it can use lethal force against American citizens on American soil under certain circumstances. This means if the President feels you are a threat, he can use drones to wipe you out. In Peoria or Denver or New Orleans. No arrest. No trial. No due process. Just “boom,” you’re dead.
Now Barack Obama seems like a sensible guy, and I’m sure others in his administration are just as sane and mentally stable as he is. They have all convinced themselves, and are trying to convince us, that of course no one is going to have to order the bombing of a house in Peoria. We’re sensible, rational people. You can trust us.
Uh, no we can’t. And that is why we have a Constitution. The Constitution is supposed to be our (the people’s) safeguard against the accumulation of too much power in the hands of too few leaders. That was the point of creating three branches of government as opposed to simply appointing a President (or king) to rule as he or she saw fit. Thanks to Bush and his posse of neocons, we now have an executive branch that thinks it has the power to be judge, jury and executioner under certain circumstances. And they get to determine the circumstances.
While Obama may be reasonable, what about the next President or the next? What if we elected a shoot-first-ask-questions-later cowboy like Rick Perry? Do you want him deciding who’s a threat to America and who isn’t? During the Occupy movement’s brief kerfuffle, the FBI categorized them as a terrorist group. The potential for abuse here is massive.
Defenders of the drone decision like to use hypothetical situations as evidence that the President needs this power. What about a guy strapped with explosives walking into a football stadium? That kind of thing. We are a nation of laws. The police already have the power and authority to stop a madman from hurting others, either by arresting him or, if the threat is imminent, shooting him. If there are people plotting terrorist attacks, they should be arrested and tried. Let the justice system determine their guilt and punishment, not a small cadre of government employees in a White House office.
The drone decision is frightening in its implications and we should all be letting Washington know that it is an unacceptable abuse of executive power.