Oct 092011

Red Rocks State Park, Nevada

There have been, in the United States, groups of people who are lawbreakers and, when someone becomes a perceived danger to the leaders of the group, that someone somehow manages to wind up dead. These groups go by various names including gangs, “the mob”, and organized crime. When such people can be shown to have caused, either by direct action or by enticing others to action, the death of people, they are prosecuted by the legal system for murder.

There have been, in the world over the ages, other groups of people who have attained positions of power and, when someone becomes a perceived danger to the leaders of the group, that someone somehow manages to wind up dead. These people have been monarchs, dictators, war lords, tribal leaders or despots. These groups has never been prosecuted by their own societies, but they have been overthrown by intrigue, war or insurrection. In other cases, the leaders have simply died before any outside agent has been able to bring them to justice.

The United States has long had various bans on killing done outside the judicial system. There are executive orders (Executive Order 11905 signed Feburary 18, 1976 by Gerald Ford banning political assassinations, Executive Order 12036 signed January 24, 1978 by Jimmy Carter further banning indirect US involvement in assassinations and Executive Order 12333 signed December 4, 1981 by Ronald Reagan reiterating the banning of US intelligence agencies carrying out assassinations.), although executive orders can and have been revised and revoked. There are laws (U.S. Code Title 18, Part I, Chapter 51, Paragraph 1119 provides for the punishment of a US citizen who kills another US citizen on foreign soil). There is the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution which states that the government may not deprive a person of life “without due process of law”. Ever since its founding, the United States has long considered itself a nation governed by the “Rule of Law” rather than by the whim of the leader. This phrase is often used by politicians and and is often summarized with the phrase that “no person is above the law”, including most specifically the leaders themselves. It further implies that “no one can be punished by the state except for a breach of the law and that no one can be convicted of breaching the law except in the manner set forth by the law itself.

There is an October 5th post at businessinsider.com by Dr. John Corbin titled “End of Rule of Law in the United States” that is very thought provoking, particularly in the context just defined. In his article, Dr. Corbin, who now lives in Chile, makes a pretty good case for asserting that the United States has, through its actions, ended the rule of law in this country. His comments mostly have to do with the killing, ordered by President Obama on September 30, 2011, of Anwar Awlaki and Samir Khan. Both Awlaki and Khan were killed by drone strikes, on foreign soil. Neither of the two men had been convicted of any crime in any court of law. Both were American citizens. So, because of the purported activities of the two men which may have constituted treason or other illegal acts, rather than subjecting them to arrest and trial, our elected leaders instead decided to simply take them out, without a trial, without hearings and without public debate. While in this case arrest could have been problematic, this is extraordinary and should make all Americans fear that they may someday cross the boundary where the government thinks they have become inconvenient.

There is some evidence that this was a group decision. An October 6th article by Glenn Greenwald at salon.com titled “Execution by secret WH committee” explored the existence of a secret panel, operating out of the White House, which “is empowered to place American citizens on a list to be killed by the CIA, which (by some process nobody knows) eventually makes its way to the President, who is the final Decider.” The fact that there is a committee does little to diminish the far-reaching implications of this action. As Thomas Jefferson said,

The concentrating [of powers] in the same hands is precisely the definition of despotic government. It will be no alleviation that these powers will be exercised by a plurality of hands, and not by a single one.

A New York Times article published October 8, 2011 written by Charlie Savage titled “Secret U.S. Memo Made Legal Case to Kill a Citizen” describes a document that the Obama administration used to justify this killing of an American citizen without a trial. This legal opinion seeks to justify what has, until now, been an illegal, unconstitutional act. Of course, the government will not release the document and most certainly will cite the state secrets privilege to prevent its release. It may be the case that the legal opinion is solid and will hold up under scrutiny by legal scholars and experts outside the administration. But we may never know, if the document is not released.

The Council of Europe (An international organization in Strasbourg which comprises 47 countries of Europe. It was set up to promote democracy and protect human rights and the rule of law in Europe.) has issued a draft resolution objecting strongly to the increasing use of the state secrets privilege which states

Security and intelligence services, the need for which cannot be put into doubt, must nonetheless not become a “state within the state”, exempted from accountability for their actions. Such lack of accountability leads to a dangerous culture of impunity, which undermines the very foundations of democratic institutions.

In some countries, in particular the United States, the notion of state secrecy is used to shield agents of the executive from prosecution for serious criminal offences such as abduction and torture, or to stop victims from suing for compensation.

But it considers that information concerning the responsibility of state agents who have committed serious human rights violations, such as murder, enforced disappearance, torture or abduction, should not be subject to secrecy provisions. Such information should not be shielded from judicial or parliamentary scrutiny under the guise of “state secrecy”.

These actions by the US government should engender outrage on the part of its citizens. It is part and parcel of the host of changes to the way the government operates that have come about since the attack of September 11, 2001. Some of the changes have a basis in law (flawed as those laws may be), others have come about through Executive Orders or simply by someone in the executive branch deciding that they wanted to accomplish some specific objective. The Justice department and other legal aides have abetted the actions by providing legal opinions allowing such actions. This trend started in the Bush administration, but in continues under President Obama. We should demand more of our government. We are slipping into despotism. As Daniel Webster said,

Whatever government is not a government of laws, is a despotism, let it be called what they may.

The War on Terror and the attendant effort to instill fear in the minds of the public have had a devastating effect on this country. James Madison saw this 200 years ago,

If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.

We as a people need to rise up and demand the undoing of the ill-conceived practices instituted under the mantle of the War on Terror. We need to demand that those responsible for illegal and unconstitutional acts be held responsible. We need to insist that the legal system do its job before we are left with a hollow Constitution and a despotic, non-democratic, non-representational government. I hope it’s not too late.

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.
Frederick Douglass

 Posted by at 1:03 pm

  7 Responses to “Is the United States despotic?”

  1. The passing of the patriot act was a watershed moment in the American experiment. Shortly after that point, many people shouted about how we, as American citizens, had just lost a significant amount of rights. Many of these same people set about trying to restore those lost rights. Everyone felt a “bad thing” had happened but all felt hope in fixing it. Since the passing of the patriot act, a handful of rights have been restored. However, a huge number of other rights have been lost in the ensuing aftermath – not directly due to the patriot act itself. The passing of the patriot act was the breaking of a dam. The well minded people trying to patch the dam are fighting a lost cause.

    Mark my word, in 20 year’s time, we will be saying “How did we let it get so bad?” You make a call to action with your statement: “We as a people need to rise up and demand the undoing of the ill-conceived practices instituted under the mantle of the War on Terror.” But… How do people go about doing this. Once the dam has been broken, no number of people can hold back the water. It simply becomes a matter of rebuilding the village.

    • Thanks for your comment. I agree that it is gotten way out of hand and the fact that the courts have acquiesced in the process has made the situation much worse. However, It’s not clear to me that the situation is completely hopeless. While it has a different cause and different goals, the Occupy Wall Street movement shows that when people wake up to the situation, positive action is possible. It seems to me that the primary goal we need to have right now is make people aware of how much has been lost and work to mobilize a response that will address the situation.

      To be sure, it’s a big job. I believe that the government has become non-responsive to the average citizen and that non-responsiveness extends across all three branches. But I don’t think the right response is to simply acknowledge the problem and let it continue. The only way we can make a difference is to fight every step of the way with reasonable and responsible actions. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and others have all shown that people acting in concert can have profound effects on society and the government. It is my hope that if enough of us join in the cause, we can make a difference.

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  3. Do you have a facebook fan page? I looked for one on facebook though could not discover one, I would really like to change into a fan!

    • I don’t have a Facebook page. I object to Facebook based on both its business model and its business ethics. I’m not inclined to make the tradeoff between participating in the “social network” and the privacy implications of doing so.

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