Tame Discourse

The Limits of Reaction to Authoritarian Dictates


Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen in Yemen and member of Al Qaeda, was summarily executed by the Obama administration in a drone attack. The domestic response has been quite tame, even as details have emerged in regards to how the administration will determine when and where to use such force in the future. The “White Paper” that has been released states that “the U.S. Government could use lethal force in a foreign country […] against a U.S. citizen who is a senior operational leader of al-Qa’ida or an associated force” [1]. As The New York Times reports, “It adopts an elastic definition of an ‘imminent’ threat, saying it is not necessary for a specific attack to be in process when a target is found if the target is generally engaged in terrorist activities aimed at the United States. And it asserts that courts should not play a role in reviewing or restraining such decisions” [2]. In other words, no need for courts; if the president and his cabinet decide an American in a foreign country is a member of Al-Qaeda, they should have the ability to order an execution without bothersome judicial review to question the legality of the action.

This makes the reaction to this announcement, when there is any, quite interesting. Democratic Senator Ron Wyden (Oregon), one of the few critics, does not challenge the idea of killing Americans itself, in fact says that “if individual Americans choose to take up arms against the United States, there will clearly be some circumstances in which the President has the authority to use lethal force against those Americans,” and that the American public should be informed as to how the executive branch will interpret and use this authority so that they “can decide whether the President’s power to deliberately kill American citizens is subject to appropriate limitations and safeguards” [3]. To talk of completely trashing the idea is impermissible, inappropriate; the president can and should be allowed to execute citizens without a trial, and we should be grateful for possibly inputting which “limitations and safeguards” are eventually rendered. After all, “every American has the right to know when their government believes that it is allowed to kill them.” We have the right to know, but to protest it outright is inconceivable.

The left-liberal end of the media is no better on this issue. Ian Millhiser and Zach Beauchamp note that “the Constitution provides that no person may be ‘deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,’ but it gives no further guidance on exactly how much or what kind of process is ‘due’ to a U.S. citizen who becomes a senior leader of our enemies” [4]. Remarkably, “no person”—meaning no one, not ever—is not guidance enough; one’s allegiance to a faction whose ideas and actions we happen to dislike is alone sufficient to abandon one of the foundations of Western law. Any objection to the plan is on tactical grounds, not moral ones. We shouldn’t kill Americans, the argument goes, unless we’ve incredibly clear provisions as to how and when these actions can be undertaken. To raise the objection that we shouldn’t kill Americans because—like all killings the government commissions—it is immoral is outside the realm of acceptable discourse.

And yet many dove-ish journalists and publications fawn over its re-elected leader, the Washington Post crowning him the “President liberals were waiting for” [5]. The idea that progressives were waiting for a president whose foreign policy largely imitates his predecessor and whose domestic policy expands upon his predecessor’s doings is disconcerting; that the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) gives an even more elastic definition of what might constitute behavior deserving indefinite detention (without charges or trial) should do more than give pause [6]. If journalists or academics risk disappearing from sight for interviewing members of what the government deems a terrorist organization, our free speech is beyond compromised.

While there are a few dissenting voices who oppose the government’s right to assassinate citizens or the NDAA [7], discouraging revelations like the Open Society Justice Initiative’s reported discovery that fifty-four governments complied and actively helped the CIA in its rendition (illegal kidnap, detention, and torture) programs[8], at least this news comes to light. The fight for freedom never ends, regardless of the face or rhetoric the man at the podium wears and disseminates.


[1] Department of Justice “White Paper,” undated.

[2] “Memo Cites Legal Basis for Killing U.S. Citizens in Al Qaeda,” Charlie Savage and Scott Shane, New York Times 5 Feb. 2013.

[3] Wyden Statement on DOJ Memo on the Killing of Americans During Counterterrorism Operations

[4] “5 Practical Ideas to Rein in the Presidential Power to Kill Americans,” Ian Millhiser and Zach Beauchamp, Thinkprogress.org 6 Feb. 2013.

[5] “The President liberals were waiting for is (finally) here,” Chris Cillizza, Washington Post 21 Jan. 2013.

[6] “Scandal Alert: Congress is Quietly Abandoning the 5th Amendment,” Conor Friedersdorff, The Atlantic 20 Dec. 2012.

[7] See Glenn Greenwald in The Guardian, Amy Davidson in The New Yorker, et al.

[8] “CIA rendition: more than a quarter of countries ‘offered covert support,'” Ian Cobain, The Guardian 5 Feb. 2013.


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