In one of his recent opinion pieces, columnist Thomas Sowell had this to say regarding people who have an issue with the federal government’s policy of attacking U.S. citizens who are suspected of terrorist activities in foreign countries using drone strikes:
”If an American citizen went off to join Hitler’s army during World War II, would there have been any question that this alone would make it legal to kill him? Why then is there an uproar about killing an American citizen who has joined terrorist organizations that are at war against the United States today?”
We hear this same kind of reasoning anytime there is a protest raised against any action the government takes in response to suspected terrorist activities. It doesn’t matter if the issue is the detaining of people indefinitely without due process, wiretapping without a court order, or blowing people into tiny pieces, the reasoning is pretty much the same. These people are terrorists, the argument goes, and they deserve no mercy. And if you aren’t doing anything wrong you have nothing to worry about.
People who make those kinds of statements are making a huge assumption, one that is very dangerous to make. They are assuming the government bureaucrats who “pull the trigger” on eavesdropping on, detaining, or even killing American citizens are always motivated by the purest of intentions and don’t make mistakes.
You see, just because some high-ranking government official claims that someone is a terrorist does not make it true. Being suspected or accused of something and being guilty of it are not the same thing.
Giving anyone the kind of power we have invested in certain government officials without oversight is a bad idea. The whole reason we have due process is because we hold it as a first principle of governing that a citizen should not be deprived of their life or liberty until an effort has been made to establish that they are guilty of the crime they’ve been charged with committing.
I don’t think most people have a problem with the idea that sometimes it’s acceptable to attack terrorist cells with drone strikes, even when U.S. citizens may be killed as a result. But what process is being followed to insure that the potential target is, in fact, a terrorist actively plotting violence against our country and not someone who is a victim of mistaken identity or someone who the individual giving the order to shoot has a personal vendetta against?
The answer is, we don’t know what process is being followed, because it’s all being done in secret. However, a recently leaked white paper on the subject that the Justice Department provided to Congress suggests that there really isn’t much of a process.
The paper states that if an “informed, high-ranking official” decides someone is involved in terrorist activities they can make the call to have that person taken out. I guess the question is: do you trust a faceless, unelected official in the Obama administration (or any administration in the future, Republican or Democrat) to have unchallenged authority to sentence U.S. citizens to death without any form of oversight?
I’m not that trusting. I believe the government needs to have the ability to strike against active terrorist cells to prevent attacks on U.S. interests and of course these things have to be done with some secrecy to be effective. But there needs to be a process of review by the judicial and/or legislative branch so that the power to take the lives of American citizens does not sit in the hands of one unaccountable individual.
Congressional officials are demanding more information on the drone strike program from the White House and we should get behind them, not question their patriotism. Checks and balances between the branches of our government are a key principle in our Constitution, and we shouldn’t let the specter of terrorism scare us into ignoring that principle.
Bill Ferguson is a resident of Centerville. Readers can write him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his blog at nscsense.blogspot.com.