Drones for Democracy?

Randi Storch
Randi Storch is a professor of history at the State University of New York, in Cortland. She received her PhD in 1998 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
View all posts by Randi Storch »

All week I’ve been glued to coverage regarding our drone policy and the leak of documents rationalizing U.S. government policies surrounding their use. Talking heads, blogs and political commentary have me reeling over the implications of our new policy and its general disregard for due process, judicial review, and civil rights.

The trouble began under Bush W. when Congress authorized war not only against Afghanistan but also Al-Quaeda. Of course Al-Quaeda isn’t a country, but now U.S. forces could shoot its members on sight and detain suspected members of its organizations even if they are U.S. citizens. A new Department of Justice (DOJ)- leaked memo outlines rules for killing such U.S. citizens, including the provisions that a “high-level U.S. official believes that the individual in question poses an imminent threat of violent attack;” capture is not feasible; and the operation “complies with the laws of war.”

I want to parse the meaning of these vague phrases to pieces, because it is in the grey matter where all the historical abuses of power lie.  It is one thing to target Al-Quaeda, but the new memo also expands our kill zone to include an additional, undefined “associated force.”  Authors of this new doctrine also reveal their incredible arrogance when they nonchalantly redefine “imminent threat” to not mean not “imminent” at all but instead individuals who are “personally and continually involved in planning terrorist attacks.”

I sit squarely with those who argue that the terms outlined in the DOJ memo violate U.S. law and represent more than just a sign of its evolution. Even if we could ensure that “high-level” officials never make a mistake in their targets, the fact remains that the new policy undermines our democracy, encourages fear and protects irresponsible acts.

Thinking back through U.S. labor history and the many examples whereby the government misread social justice activism for threats, I worry about the current and future uses of this new policy.  “Imminent threats” and “associated forces” can mean lots of things, and labor historians don’t have to look far to frame a past where “intelligence” sources are not valid and “imminent threats” are not imminent.

Just think about the current controversy surrounding one example from our past: the Haymarket anarchists.  In that case, there were real bomb throwers.  The individuals responsible for detonating Chicago’s Haymarket Square bomb in 1886, however, were almost certainly not the ones who died for that crime. The inability of justice to prevail in politically charged cases such as this — where the lines between belief and action are easily blurred — makes it even more important that the U.S. government keep the decision to kill or not to kill public and transparent. We have a history littered with bad calls, when fear has tested the foundation of our democracy and Americans have had to fight to maintain the principles embedded in our constitution.  Unfortunately this is not a fight that we have won, but one that we must keep fighting and win.

One response to “Drones for Democracy?”

  1. Mark Lause says:

    Let us be clear. People can assert absolutely anything, particularly if they occupy offices of government, but there is no Constittuional grounds for the Department of Justice taking the position it does.

    In part, it has done so in the confidence that the “liberal” and “progressive” people who would mount at least a token defense to such initiatives by the Bush administration will generally defer to the most horrendous inititaives by the administration they helped to elect. To this point, almost all of these self-described “liberals” and “progressives” are still making excuses for certainly not challenging the president to do anything to justify their having voted for him.

    On all these questions, the Obama administration has taken this issue where the Bush people would have hesitated to go. This has clarified its unwillingness to investigate, much less prosecute the criminal activity of members of the Bush administration.

    The actual DoJ white paper that NBC released and on which the ACLU was commenting is actually much worse than this description. It argues that it’s legal for an executive branch hit on an American coitizen that does not pose any threat of immediate action. In other words, the government claims it can kill anyone it wants to, including American citizens, anywhere . . . and without even the requirement of an after-the-fact explanation.

    I am honestly befuddled at just how little of a reaction these things have provoked. But I’ve been horrified at so much over the last decade–the camps, the glorification of torture, the media making its peace with its inner Goebbels.

    There is a very intersting paradox in all of this, of course. For all the horrendous assertions by the govenrment as to what it can legally do, what it acually is doing remains comparatively low key.

    Certainly, the threat of facing an unaccountable and unrestrained power structure has been a serious factor in shaping the fate of Occupy and its inability to revive in most of the country–and perhaps more so for any prospect that the labor movement can reverse the current general trend of membership, much less militancy.