In Sylvester Stallone’s futuristic thriller Judge Dredd, Stallone plays a police officer who serves as judge, jury, and executioner. Set in a dystopian future where civilization does not exist outside of heavily fortified cities, the movie posits a world where armed judges have unlimited power to take the law into their own hands.
But while the idea of a completely unaccountable extra-judicial “judge” seems un-American, as the New York Times revealed in a front page story last week about President Obama’s use of drones in the war on terror, the concept is no longer confined to the world of fiction. If their reporting is correct, the only things distinguishing Obama from Dredd are their choice of facial accessories and preferred methods for divvying out justice.
According to the Times, based solely on the deliberation of people within the American military and intelligence infrastructure, Obama is given a list of people considered high-value targets. On that basis, he can then sign their death warrant. From there, if a drone spots this person, they can be killed with a targeted missile.
Because of national security concerns, no outside scrutiny of this process is allowed. There is no way to know or judge the value of the evidence being used to sentence people to death; the American public simply has to take the president at his word that he is using this unprecedented amount of power wisely.
In a speech last year, John Brennan, Obama’s chief counter-terrorism officer, said that the number of civilian deaths from the drone program was in the “single digits.” However, as the article reveals, that’s because the White House has redefined the term “militant” to include all military-aged males in a “strike zone.” But since there are no defined battlefields against Al-Qaeda, the entire Middle East is essentially a strike zone.
Without being glib, Obama’s underlying assumption bears repeating: as the president, he can order the death of any male above the age of 14 in any country the CIA suspects Al-Qaeda is using as a base of operations. Not only can these men not appeal their death sentences, there’s no way for them to know of the sentence until a missile dropped from thousands of miles away kills them and anyone “associating” with them.
Even if the CIA made a mistake about their identities, by virtue of being killed by a drone, by definition, they are now “militants.” In essence, Obama's policy gives the American President the right to kill anyone in the Middle East on a whim.
Yet Al-Qaeda doesn’t exist solely in countries like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. By the same logic the president can use to order their execution overseas, he could surely order it closer to home if he suspected they were on American soil to commit an act of terrorism.
Nor, for that matter, is Al-Qaeda the only organization who wants to harm the U.S. and its citizens. Not only has Osama Bin Laden’s group inspired waves of copycats throughout the Middle East with only a tenuous connection to its recently deceased leader, but domestic terrorism has been a concern since the Oklahoma City bombing in the mid-1990s.
In the past few years, discontent has reached unprecedented heights in the U.S., with the Tea Party from the right and Occupy Wall Street from the left emerging to protest the growing consolidation of power in Washington, D.C. as well as rising economic inequality. If their rhetoric inspires people to commit acts of civil unrest, where does the president draw the line in terms of what he can and can’t do to protect the American public?
Under the prevailing logic of national security, there’s no way for the public at large to know. We just have to trust the president. Yet even if Democratic-leaning voters are willing to trust Obama, would they do the same for George W. Bush or Mitt Romney?
Under the watch of both Bush and Obama, the American president is now judge, jury, and executioner in the war on terror. This, like the Stallone movie it resembles, will not end well.