When is it tyranny?

Should it not concern all of us, left, right and other, that our government is claiming the right to kill Americans via legal justification that defies logic?

“Imminent” is a word with a fairly clear meaning: “ready to take place; especially hanging threateningly over one’s head.” That’s not exactly what the Obama administration says it means, according to documents obtained by NBC:

The secrecy surrounding such strikes is fast emerging as a central issue in this week’s hearing of White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, a key architect of the drone campaign, to be CIA director. Brennan was the first administration official to publicly acknowledge drone strikes in a speech last year, calling them “consistent with the inherent right of self-defense.” In a separate talk at the Northwestern University Law School in March, Attorney General Eric Holder specifically endorsed the constitutionality of targeted killings of Americans, saying they could be justified if government officials determine the target poses “an imminent threat of violent attack.”

But the confidential Justice Department “white paper” introduces a more expansive definition of self-defense or imminent attack than described by Brennan or Holder in their public speeches. It refers, for example, to what it calls a “broader concept of imminence” than actual intelligence about any ongoing plot against the U.S. homeland.

The condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future,” the memo states.

Instead, it says, an “informed, high-level” official of the U.S. government may determine that the targeted American has been “recently” involved in “activities” posing a threat of a violent attack and “there is no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities.” The memo does not define “recently” or “activities.”

It’s quite easy to imagine scenarios in which the government’s framework for ordering the killing of Americans, even Americans who they claim have aligned themselves with enemies, produces mistakes. And that’s not even getting into the potential to abuse such vaguely defined terms for this or a future administration. Government by “trust us” is not what democracy’s about.

If Obama or any other president wants to claim this dangerous right, it ought to be very clearly defined, and made to comply with the constitution. If it can’t be made to comply, it shouldn’t happen.

This is how actual tyranny arrives in our age: in slow increments, through internal memos and gaming of legal definitions. The only way to stop such a hydra is with aggressive counteraction of the same kind, ugly and unsexy though it may be compared to the days when tyranny arrived via bullies who dressed up in uniforms to come calling.

James Heflin

Author: James Heflin

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