Less than a year ago something very significant occurred in this country but it was almost a news footnote. Most Americans cheered when it happened. But was this event also another nail in the burying of our Constitution. Did another blow to the ideas of liberty over unrestrained power occur and people just yawned? On September 30, 2011 President Obama had Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, assassinated.
I think many Americans fail to recognize the horrific nature of the power (and the consequent erosion of every American’s liberty) Obama asserted and acquired in the office of the President by claiming the right to order and cause this killing. I also think Americans have uncritically accepted the assertions (or rather propaganda) provided by the government on this issue. Maybe this is because many are fearful of Muslims, or they believe this is revenge for 9/11, or they unquestionably believe that America is always on the side of angels, or they love the military and cannot bring themselves to question its acts or morality, or they just want to feel safer – even it that safety is an illusion. But Americans accept without question far too much. And without critical thought and questioning of authority – liberty can be (and is) sacrificed to all our detriment.
A brief history lesson is useful. Most people should know most of this, but a refresher is in order.
The United States of America was formed from rebellion. The essence of the American struggle for independence was the belief by our “freedom fighters” that the King of England (the State) had exceeded his authority and power (of course if the colonists had lost they would have been declared traitors to their lawful government and executed). The government of the King of England had become intolerable to the American colonists, and they declared war by issuing the Declaration of Independence (a list of grievances justifying their action and articulating their beliefs). This document had two essential points that were groundbreaking and formed the basis for revolution:
- People had rights that were inherent. They were the gift of God or were “natural rights”. They existed no matter what government asserted dominion over them. They existed in the absence of government.
- Government is instituted to protect these rights and only derives power from the consent of its people. When it fails to recognize and protect these rights (and correspondingly recognize the limits of State power), it is the right of the people to alter, abolish, and institute a new government.
This was a radical philosophical departure from every known form of rule on earth. Before the American Revolution (and before the signing of the Magna Carta), the citizens (or rather subjects) of any nation/king were almost without recourse to the whim of whomever ruled or exercised executive power whether that be a Sultan, a Czar, a King, or a legislative body. Law was whatever the person(s) holding the reins of power said was Law and limited only by their power to enforce it. In essence each person was the “property” of the State/King/Leader. Often a single person’s authority was the LAW. There wasn’t a law which applied to all. Rule of Men, not Law prevailed. Against these principles the colonists rebelled, fought, and won. A new country founded by the principles of liberty, not power, was born.
After we won our Independence, and after the failed Articles of Confederation, the “founders” sought to better organize a system for a federal government. This gave us the Constitution, and significantly, the Bill of Rights.
But it is ESSENTIAL to understand what these are and what they are not. There was much debate on whether to include the Bill of Rights in the Constitution. Many argued they were superfluous, that of course we had these rights because the Constitution was a document of LIMITED governmental authority. These people argued that whatever was not specifically granted was supposed to be prohibited to the federal government and retained by the people. But others argued that these rights were SO important they had to be specifically pointed out in order they were protected above all else.
But central to both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution is a fundamental belief in natural, inherent rights of all mankind and the danger of unrestrained government power, ESPECIALLY executive power (the police powers).
These principles of natural rights (despite the hypocritical treatment of slaves during the first century of our existence) that so many blithely assume are the natural order of things today, were radical and unheard of anywhere else in the world! I think these principles (something so many people and politicians casually dismiss as impediments to the “real world”) are the true reason this was such a great country and how we BECAME such a great country.
In case you do not recall them, listed below are a few of the Bill of Rights applicable to the Awlaki assassination. Again, remember that these are prohibitions against the exercise of government power. The rights these Amendments are concerned with are explicitly protected because the colonists that recently won their independence were quite cognizant of how central governments tend to usurp power and infringe upon the natural rights of their citizens. The guiding principle is the protection of a person’s right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness (economic right) from infringement by the State.
- Fifth Amendment. “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury…..nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” (this is a partial transcript, but the omitted parts do not change my point)
- Sixth Amendment: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”
I would argue the 7th and 8th Amendments are also impacted: Right to Trial by Jury and Prohibition against cruel and inhuman punishment.
What do we know about the Awlaki case? First, no matter how bad a person Awlaki may have been, he was an American citizen and therefore supposedly entitled to the protections of our laws, including his rights guaranteed in the Constitution. He was living in Yemen, a country led by an American puppet who would obey any request made by our government.
The U.S. government has somehow created a secret presidential panel that reviews evidence in secret and determines if someone, including an American citizen is a “threat” to “national security”. Awlaki was determined by this panel to be such a “threat”. This panel and the President provided NO evidence to the public, a court, or any other government entity to support the accusation. There is only the accusation and secret assessment. Based on this determination, without any independent finding and without being subject to review or oversight by any other branch/body of government, the President ordered an American citizen killed. We have been given NO proof he even did what he is accused of doing. And even if he HAD, our form of government does not provide the President the authority to kill someone just on his decision that person is a “threat”. In this nation I didn’t think we killed people for their thoughts (or their actions until they were tried, convicted, and sentenced by an impartial authority)? At least in theory this country is one where the rule of law applies, not the wishes of one man or group of men.
Questions I propose to you and all those who would cheer for the exercise of this power by Obama. What did Awlaki DO that made him subject to assassination? We are told he constituted a “threat”. The News says he was involved in planning operations against the United States. Who says? The government? Forgive me of the purveyors of the WMD lies (among 100’s of others through the years) aren’t on top of my most trusted list. What proof do we have? Why were no efforts made to secure his arrest with the help of a compliant Yemen government? Why should we believe the story told by the government? Considering the people were lied to about WMD, enriched Nigerian uranium, about the nature of hundreds of Guantanamo prisoners, about torture and Abu Ghraib, and countless other things just in the last few years, why should we believe this story about Awlaki?
But the bigger and more fundamental issue to me is this: We created a nation of limited government. We held and believed that certain rights are inalienable. We believed that certain rights are SO important that we created a Bill of Rights to specifically prohibit the government from infringing upon them. These obstacles to arbitrary and unchecked executive power are what make us American. Innocence is assumed. Guilt must be proved. Accusations are insufficient. Because government always abuses its’ power – ALWAYS – we must guard against arbitrary exercise of power. This is the foundation of what it was to BE an American – we were a nation of laws and PRINCIPLES. We were not a nation ruled by the unchecked authority of one man or group of men. And these rights are sometimes inconvenient to government. They cost us in resources. They are MEANT to be inconvenient. That is their value.
If ONE man (President Obama – and his successors) can decide life and death over an American citizen and decide without accountability, oversight, or challenge – then we are no longer ruled by law, but by man. That is dangerous to everyone. That is dangerous to our rights and liberties and eventually our life. It changes what this country IS. And don’t say it’s just this one example. A genie doesn’t go back in the bottle willingly. The government has admitted there are others on a secret “list”. If history has shown anything it is that if you give a government (or a man) the power to do something, they will eventually use that power. You see what is happening with protests in this country and around the world. When the next crisis happens here in the United States, and it will, do you feel better that we now have carved out a presidential authority to execute American citizens he deems a “threat” and that we have ignored the Constitution? Will OWS protestors become a threat to economic stability? Is that a national security issue and hence could some of these people land on a secret list? Will Tea Party activists become a threat? Homeland Security has already listed Tea Party activists as potential domestic terrorists. Heck Ron Paul supporters were listed as possible “threats”. Could supporting liberty and a restrained government land you on a secret list? The Patriot Act provides for the President declaring martial law in a whole host of circumstances. Obama just signed an executive order allowing him to take over the nation’s food, energy, and water supply – even in peacetime! This new unchecked power of killing by secret determination and decree by the president provides precedent for further “threat elimination” and unchallenged it weakens further our Constitutional protections.
I see a nation becoming more politicized with fervent nationalistic patriotism on the rise. This nation is economically collapsing and on the verge on bankruptcy. Military adventurism is increasing. The increasing power of the State and disregard of individual liberties continues unabated (Right to kill an American citizen is just the most recent and egregious, but erosions to the 4th Amendment have been pronounced.) Historically, very terrible things tend to happen when a great power/nation sees all this occurring at the same time. Oppression domestically and/or war abroad is the typical result.
We think of all the wars in the 20th century. And millions were killed in those wars. But what people should remember is that governments killed multiple times (150-200 million in the 20th century) the number of battlefield deaths of their own people. Think Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, China’s cultural revolution in the 70’s, Pol Pot in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and Vietnam, the repressive dictatorships of Africa and South America.
People have been at more risk historically from their own government than any invading army. Our founding fathers understood this. They tried to form a government of limited enumerated power. We have witnessed the erosion of this principle and these essential truths since that time. But at least we continued to pay lip service to the rule of law and individual rights. When the leader of a government declares the unrestrained, unreviewable power to kill his own citizen – how are we different than all those places that murdered millions of their own people. It is the PRINCIPLE that matters. No man, no government should have this unchecked power. America was founded on this PRINCIPLE. When you toss out or forget these principles, the historic results have been horrific. All empires flourish and fall, ebb and flow. To think America is immune to the dangers of totalitarianism is to ignore the history of mankind and I say we sow the seeds for a more dangerous form of government each time we choose expediency over principle; State power over individual rights.
But I am called the radical? I accept that designation…..IF…. If you mean that I think that 200 years ago our nation’s initial leaders came up with brilliant ideas on the nature of man and the nature of government – call me a radical. People are blind to what is really happening around them. The chains are being tightened and liberty eroded, but all they see is “dancing with the stars”. A nation where the citizens don’t zealously guard their liberty and rights will eventually lose them. They will lose them to some charming man with plausible explanations of the “need” to protect them from their own freedom and rights. But it’s only some disaffected Muslim American we killed – a “bad” American…..so I’m sure it doesn’t matter much.
It wouldn’t happen to us “good” Americans….right?