THE BLOG
04/09/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Silence of the Sheep

"In an admission that took the intelligence community and its critics by surprise, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair acknowledged in a congressional hearing Wednesday that the U.S. may, with executive approval, deliberately target and kill U.S. citizens who are suspected of being involved in terrorism."

That's the lead paragraph of the news story I wrote for InterPress News Service last Friday. Since then, I just haven't been able to get this thing out of my mind.

Think about it: "...may, with executive approval, deliberately target and kill U.S. citizens who are suspected of being involved in terrorism."

That means that the President of the United States can decide who lives and who doesn't. Not a court. Not a jury. Just the president.

The proposition is overwhelming in its simplicity. And in its stupidity. And in its cavalier abandonment of our most precious principle: the rule of law. That quaint tradition we always cite as the root of our American "exceptionalism."

The key word here is "suspected." Killing U.S. citizens who are suspected of being involved in terrorism.

That means we must all believe that our intelligence mavens are perfect, infallible, incapable of error.

But common sense and history should tell us this cannot be true. Our intelligence folks make mistakes all the time. They are humans and humans cannot be infallible. And their performance in recent years has not been all that stellar. Think WMD. Think 9/11. Think Maher Arar. Think Brandon Mayfield. Think Richard Jewel and Steven Hatfill.

Lots of little slip-ups here.

But those errors are correctable. After we go ahead and kill someone, there's no do-over.

I found Admiral Blair's revelation so troubling that I consulted some of the country's most respected constitutional scholars to see if I was missing something.

Unfortunately, I wasn't. As Professor Francis A. Boyle of the University of Illinois Law School told me,

This extrajudicial execution of human beings constitutes a grave violation of international human rights law and, under certain circumstances, can also constitute a war crime under the Four Geneva Conventions of 1949. In addition, the extrajudicial execution of U.S. citizens by the United States government also violates the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution mandating that no person "be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.

He said, "The U.S. Government has now established a 'death list' for U.S. citizens abroad akin to those established by Latin American dictatorships during their so-called 'dirty wars'. The Bush Administration reduced the United States of America to a Banana Republic waging a "dirty war" around the world in gross violation of international law, human rights law, and the laws of war."

And where is the outrage? Mostly, it isn't. Our elected officials are driven by fear or actively trying to drive us with fear, or both. And we who elected them are busy being terrified and looking the other way while we try to find jobs and pay the mortgage and feed the kids.

But even in good times, we Americans are not the most well-informed citizens. We are far more likely to rail irresolutely against "government interference" in our lives. (Witness the teabaggers).

But doesn't killing American citizens represent a tad more than "interference" in our lives?

Maybe people just think Barack Obama would never, ever order any American citizen targeted and killed. Even if that were true - and we don't know that - we ought at least to be worried about Obama's successors.

Suppose it's a Dick Nixon? Or a George W. Bush? The powers Obama enjoys today will be used - and likely misused - by others later on. And we can't know what champions of the Imperial Presidency will emerge in our uncertain future.

Some of us thought George Bush should be impeached for eavesdropping on our phone calls and emails without a court order. That violated our Fourth Amendment right to be free from illegal searches.

That was about our privacy; this is about our lives. And collectively we all decide to go to the mall.

Our silence keeps reminding me of Pastor Martin Niemöller's 1946 speech, in which he famously said,

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out--because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out--because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak out for me.

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