Feb 06 2013

Just Powers

Why the White Paper Is So Terrifying

By Stephen Marche, Esquire

at 10:24AM, Feb 6, 2013

The administration’s white paper on targeted killings, which was released yesterday, has provoked some intense and entirely justified expressions of fear and loathing. There was Tom Junod’s piece on this site, which outright accused Obama of coveting kingship, and there was Ta-Nehisi Coates over at The Atlantic, who found an apt comparison with Orwell’s work on language and totalitarianism. Both are great pieces, and terrifying enough.

Where are we going to find a better description of what the Obama administration is doing with their legal defense of targeted killing? They have made the president into a sovereign. Their language hides this basic fact: The president now gets to decide when the law doesn’t apply. The vague terminology in the white paper – “imminent threat” and “national self-defense” – is intended to be meaningless. Threat and self-defense can be defined in any way the president likes. He gets to choose.

There are no exceptions under the law. There are no sovereigns. There is equality under the law and that’s it. Nobody gets to decide who doesn’t have rights under the Constitution. What’s so terrifying about this white paper is that it’s unconstitutional, not in the sense that it violates any particular tenet of the American Constitution, but in that it doesn’t respect the premise of there being a Constitution in the first place. The whole idea of having a Constitution is that no individual gets to decide what’s an exception to it.

What is so extraordinary about this moment in American life is that tens of millions of people are ferociously defending the Second Amendment, and throw the name of the Constitution around like it’s sacred, and yet they utter not one peep when its basic principles are shaken to their foundation. And let’s be honest about why the right doesn’t attack Obama for this outrageous violation of the founding principles of the country: They don’t want to look weak, and they think that it only affects people they don’t mind seeing die anyway. As for the idea that Al-Qaeda is so much of a threat that it requires extraordinary extensions of the president’s powers, I can only say that the United States didn’t need a sovereign while facing the Nazis or Communist Russia, both of which were infinitely more resourceful and threatening than a bunch of camel-humpers living in remote caves in the most desolate places on earth. Rome didn’t need a sovereign for five hundred years, while facing half a dozen truly existential threats. We all know how that turned out. At least they knew when they had an emperor. They had a ceremony and everything. Obama just has a white paper.

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