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Assassination is the new torture

by danps Sat Oct 9th, 2010 at 05:59:44 AM EST

The widespread revulsion over torture in the Bush era caused civil libertarians from a wide part of the political spectrum to unite in protest.  The latest presidential power grab is revealing some differences that had been concealed, though.

For more on pruning back executive power see Pruning Shears.


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Andrew Sullivan recently posted a brief defense of Barack Obama's assassination program and received a sharp response by Glenn Greenwald.  The ensuing debate (I believe this and this are the latest) at times has felt depressingly familiar.  For instance, Daniel Larison wrote "It is interesting how uncomfortable the word assassination makes supporters of the President's supposed power to order the assassination of U.S. citizens. It's actually not that different from the contortions defenders of torture engaged in to avoid admitting that they were defending torture."

Sullivan criticized media outlets over and over for not using the word "torture" as it applies to America.  Now he writes "I regard 'assassination' as the deliberate murder of a leader or individual for political purposes."  But he links to the following definition: "1. To murder (a prominent person) by surprise attack, as for political reasons."

"As for" is illustrative, not encompassing; the definition is much broader than his usage.  Assassination can be for many reasons.  For instance, John Lennon is routinely described as having been assassinated and it has (as far as I know) always been uncontroversial to say so.

This is not merely academic.  Language matters.  Assassination, like torture, is an unpleasant word with unpleasant connotations.  It is human nature to want to think well of our leaders, and to shrink from acknowledging that those we greatly want to admire might be doing bad things.  Since we are unconsciously inclined toward believing the best of them, it is especially important to consciously confront contrary evidence.

Assassination may be the issue that splits liberal and conservative civil libertarians.  Conservatives prefer the war analogy, liberals law enforcement.  This is not a new dynamic - the opposition to torture just overshadowed it for a while.  But recall this vignette from the 2004 presidential campaign:

Bush casts the war on terror as a vast struggle that is likely to go on indefinitely, or at least as long as radical Islam commands fealty in regions of the world. In a rare moment of either candor or carelessness, or perhaps both, Bush told Matt Lauer on the "Today" show in August that he didn't think the United States could actually triumph in the war on terror in the foreseeable future. "I don't think you can win it," he said -- a statement that he and his aides tried to disown but that had the ring of sincerity to it. He and other members of his administration have said that Americans should expect to be attacked again, and that the constant shadow of danger that hangs over major cities like New York and Washington is the cost of freedom. In his rhetoric, Bush suggests that terrorism for this generation of Americans is and should be an overwhelming and frightening reality.

When I asked Kerry what it would take for Americans to feel safe again, he displayed a much less apocalyptic worldview. "We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance," Kerry said. "As a former law-enforcement person, I know we're never going to end prostitution. We're never going to end illegal gambling. But we're going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn't on the rise. It isn't threatening people's lives every day, and fundamentally, it's something that you continue to fight, but it's not threatening the fabric of your life."
John Kerry was roasted for saying that, and Sullivan echoes Bush's "constant shadow of danger" worldview when he writes: "I believe this is a war, not some kind of lesser counter-terrorism operation, or a global criminal operation."  But the law enforcement approach works, and has worked for a long time.  (For a brief look at the Clinton administration's law enforcement approach, see this excerpt from Lies by Al Franken).  More Americans died from dog attacks than terrorism last year.  The threat from terrorism is real, but it can be addressed properly without sacrificing our commitment to the rule of law.  Terrorism has a context.

We are living through a very dark time, and it is a darkness of our own making.  In noting the overreaction to 9/11 Fareed Zakaria quoted James Madison: "Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germs of every other...No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual war."  Emergency wartime powers contemplate a relatively short duration.  This "war" is already longer than any other in American history, and even proponents acknowledge its scope.  Living in such a comprehensive, perpetual state basically means the end of liberty in America as most people generally understand it.  It means packing in the republic and hailing a new Caesar.

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by danps (dan at pruningshears (dot) us) on Sat Oct 9th, 2010 at 06:00:30 AM EST


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