The U.S. government has to strike a delicate balance when dealing with threats to the security of the nation. First, they have to ensure that violent plans do not come to fruition. However, weighed against this important task is the incredibly important duty of honoring our commitment to civil liberties and the Constitution. This week these issues came to the forefront with the leaking of the now infamous memo regarding the powers of the executive branch to decide when individuals can be assassinated, particularly using the drone program. One of the most contentious issues related to the memo was the justifications used regarding the assassination of American citizens suspected of terrorist activities. What many question is the Constitutional implications of this memo for the rights of American citizens. As such questions are raised, the overall state of American society with regard to civil liberties, militarization, and steps toward a police state are worth pondering. Given that Obama supporters and most Americans do not think that the drone program is a big deal, perhaps the headline should be, “Why have Americans become so obsessed with terrorism, safety, and security that they don’t even want a conservation about how militarized we have become in pursuit of our secure society?”
There is a reason the Founders wrote the Bill of Rights as they did. Their knowledge of and experiences with absolute power had shown them that laws and the abuse thereof had been a key factor in the imprisonment, and even execution, of innocent people. They knew that government could easily become too unrestrained, resulting in the denial of freedom, due process, and violation of the rights of citizens. The Founders appeared to endorse Sir William Blackstone’s 1765 Principle that “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” Even with their carefully crafted system in place, we know that today innocent people sit imprisoned, and worse yet, many have died for crimes they never committed.
It is with this in mind that people across the political spectrum raise multiple concerns about the leaked memo regarding the authority of the executive branch to target American citizens, or perhaps anyone, with drone strikes. We hope that these powers will remain limited. We hope that the targets are identified correctly and that the consequences are appropriate. But, even knowing the threats we face, and they are real, the memo gives one pause. It does so, because it is part of a pattern of troublesome questions about security and its correlates that Americans must begin to answer with more thoughtful dialogue. Up until now, these matters have been treated as though they are only the purview of the leaders of the nation. Secrecy surrounds the very discussion of legalities and tactics. It has been decided that in the name of security, the American people are not allowed access to major deliberations about issues that strike at the very foundation of our Constitution. It may be that Americans are content to see the Constitution strained in dealing with Americans who join forces with terrorists overseas as indicated in one unscientific poll captured on The Ed Show.
The point is that this should be an open conversation, rather than one limited to lawmakers behind closed doors. Americans may have different notions of the limits of executive power to order drone strikes. Maybe we’ve gotten to the point where we are willing to accept the reasoning given by the administration for the extrajudicial killing of American citizens. But, shouldn’t that be a national conversation? Letting Congress into the conversation only after the memo was leaked isolates the executive branch without oversight. What happens when it is no longer Obama in the presidency but instead a president we don’t trust? Perhaps a president who simply dislikes Muslims or some other group categorically. President Obama himself seemed worried what a future president might do with unleashed drone powers as started to call on Congress to set up guidelines for drone usage before the election when another person might have become president. Some people may not realize that his administration has still been pushing for guidelines to be codified.
Drones are not inherently bad. They are effective tools, and can be used in lieu of deploying troops which endangers troops. They kill civilians, but many people note, civilians are always casualties in war. However, like any other tool, such as guns or nuclear weapons, regulating their usage and using prescience about what might go wrong is prudent. We know these drones operate in foreign countries, but increasingly there is talk that drones are being purchased to operate within U.S. borders. Do we know if limits exist for these or will continue to exist? Would these ever be armed drones capable of killing people? The expansion of the use of drones within U.S. borders seems somewhat ludicrous in the moment, until one examines the militarization of American society.
Allow me to provide an example: The notorious black helicopter conspiracy theory is such a mainstay of the paranoid, conspiracy nut crowd that the rest of society uses it as a meme. It’s a useful marker to determine whether to take a person seriously, because if they start spouting it, you can tune them out. However, on January 21st, military helicopters buzzed through the skies of Miami shooting machine gun fire (albeit blanks).
They terrified residents of the city and no doubt contributed to the sense of many American citizens that their government was threatening to them, regardless of the justification. I know that personally if the military decided to do their “training exercise” of machine-gun firing helicopters in my neighborhood, I would be seriously upset. Talk about easily feeding the black helicopter, tin-foil hat wearing crowd. At the school level, there are schools planning to do drills with actual gunfire (of blanks). Do we, as a society, need to reduce ourselves to these measures all in the name of “safety and security?”
Other developments by DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), also feed the public’s fears of a surveillance state. For example, DARPA can now see you waving your arms from 17,500 feet in the air. Countries like Iceland, in an expression of alarm regarding direction of the surveillance state the United States has taken, have forwarded a Constitution that limits such powers. The attitude of the American public toward surveillance is, in itself, alarming. Repeatedly, you will hear Americans say, “If you are not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to fear from being watched.” Comments like this abound in the article about DARPA’s new long-distance reconnaissance tool. Are Americans becoming too comfortable with a police state? Although most mock and criticize the “Security Check Point” toy made by PlayMobil between 2003-2007 that many see as desensitizing children to a police state, it has its defenders on Amazon.com’s comments section as well.
As liberals we hope that our society progresses ever forward, further and further away from conservatism. However, things like climate change that may leave future generations scrambling for resources causing future political scenarios to become unpredictable. At the state level, red states that enact dominionist laws, laws outlawing abortion, or other anti-democratic laws can easily abuse the powers of law enforcement. The definition of a police state is a nation [or state] in which the police, especially a secret police, summarily suppresses any social, economic, or political act that conflicts with governmental policy. Do we wish to dismantle stalwart protections we have in place against an overly powerful police and military force?
My job is to serve low-income, first generation college students in a federal program designed to help them escape poverty by getting them through college. Because of the community where I live, a high percentage of the students I serve are from Somalia. They also happen to be Muslim. One of those students, Mohamed, I have worked with closely for two years. He was orphaned when he was 11 when a militant tribe killed his father, a simple farmer, and his deaf mother. He is an incredibly sweet soul, eager for adult role models, and I would vouch for his character without reservation. He is always enthusiastic to show any interested party pictures of his homeland…the place where he used to swim, a beautiful crystal blue watering hole…the farm where he lived…his village. He wants to start a non-profit to open schools in Somalia. Recently, he told me he is going back there to visit in two months. Because of his name, his religion, previous mistakes made by our government regarding detainment of innocent Muslims who visited countries plagued by pockets of terrorism, I fear for his safety and his civil rights, even though he is an American citizen. It is with all of this in mind that I hope we have a national conversation about civil liberties, an honest look at how militarization and surveillance contribute to becoming a police state, and that we keep in mind that one of the best ways to let terror rule the day is to surrender freedom for “security.”
Deborah is a former social work professor who taught social policy, mental health policy, and human diversity. Proud to be called liberal, she happily pays her taxes after being raised in a home that needed long-term welfare. Contrary to the opinion of many, she is living proof that government investment in children leads them out of poverty having received services from Head Start to Pell Grants. Deborah works with low-income, first generation, and disabled college students who are at high-risk for dropping out of college in a program designed to help them graduate. She lives with her husband, stepson, and an aging cat.