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Democracy on Trial


The Memo released this week legitimating political murder is a farce, were it not a serious cover-up of extreme violations of international law and the profound negation of human decency.  We thought John Yoo’s apologia for torture in the Bush II administration was egregious, and that the Office of Legal Counsel was like a cancerous cell (as well as cell of rightwing zealots rubber-stamping whomever called the shots); but this takes the cake, anonymous in authorship, the Memo—its parentage still enshrouded in secrecy, thanks to Obama’s fanaticism about the National Security State—dodges every major question one expects from a forthright declaration of government policy.  Of course, why expect more?  And its release—a carefully planned “leak.” Not some brilliant, forceful reporting by NBC, but timed to precede John Brennan’s Senate testimony, as if, somehow, its content would make everything o.k., answer all doubts, and let the administration come out smelling like a rose.

No, Brennan, perhaps more than ever (I’m sure he vetted the Memo’s every word), comes off as an ICC (International Criminal Court) poster boy, from heightened interrogation to Svengalian promotion of the obliteration of fellow humans, to (next chapter) chief cyber warrior, always with the president’s ear, not that Obama needs much coaxing in these or other foreign- and military-policy areas, particularly the vastly expanded dependence on the CIA in issuing it a licence to kill (something his other favorite JSOC does not yet enjoy).

What’s wrong with the Memo, in addition to its baseness and stupidity (not even worthy of a bright right-wing law clerk)?  It includes the phrase “associated forces” so much that an “af” abbreviation would do—the phrase so nebulous as to take in anyone who criticizes the United States, such as yours truly or every CP writer, provided at least two are found together—otherwise, a mere assassination of an individual deemed an imminent threat to the US.  “Imminent” is a catchy word—ready to strike the homeland.  Must be struck down immediately.  And “associated,” we’ve come far since McCarthyism, when “fellow traveler” was sufficient to scare to death the beloved heartland.  Now, without definition, refinement, logic, proof, we call forth  “associated” in order to keep alive the general fear, justify the assassinations, and keep the defense budget on overdrive—as the social safety net is squashed.

Equally intriguing is the continued reference to the nonimportance of geographical boundaries.  Man, this is total war—all previous notions of international law and the laws of war, out the window, we’ve never faced such a dire threat before!!!  And don’t let the courts interfere; they don’t know what we know.  (And they aren’t the superpatriots we are.)  This is man’s work.  Terrorists could be everywhere (under every bed) disguised as labor organizers, antiwar activists, social workers taking their responsibility to their clients too seriously—all commies under the skin.  That’s why we have the Espionage Act, a Siamese twin to the counterterrorism legislation.  Stop parsing our Memos, we’re too clever by far for you.

And killing Americans?  They deserve it.  The Bill of Rights was never meant to protect criminals, much less terrorists.  And if these so-called Americans are right here at home, that changes nothing, because we have already juridically established that national boundaries are a nonstarter.  God Bless America.  Assassination is as American as apple pie.  Or so the implied reasoning of the Memo goes.  What is not implied, however, is the grab for executive power, in theory, dangerous, in Obamaean practice, doubly so, because directed to the worst features of government: targeted assassination, surveillance, paramilitary operations, covert–just about everything, perhaps of longest-term significance, absolute contempt for the law, whether now, death-from-the-skies with no shred of habeas corpus, substantive accusations, right of counsel, death expeditiously conducted (many times without knowing the victims’ identities), or more ghoulish, purely for the sake of terrorizing whole civilian populations (as in the well-documented “secondary strikes” on funerals and first responders).

When a practice or program is so vile, and should not have been contemplated, much less adopted, in the first place, the time has come to abandon it immediately and cleanly.  The obvious starting point, with or without its cancellation, is a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to flesh out, document, publicize, and prepare for prosecution WAR CRIMES, abundantly evident, despite the desperate demand for secrecy and treating government as the exclusive domain of the Executive, and within that, the nexus of presidential-military power, a litany of shared goals and methods, to be pursued without restraint, from unilateral global dominance to, specifically, itching for confrontation with China, if for no other reason, to keep alive the climate and custom of perpetual war fueling counterterrorism as a pretext for antilabor, probanker, antienvironmental conformity.  The country goes to hell in a handbasket, confident in its moral standing—curiously, as things go, the armed drone acting as the linchpin for the total framework to be operable, convincing, rational (from the perverted standard of keeping the class structure intact and letting the profits flow from the top, percolating only so far down).

The question is, What is worse, a war criminal running the government, or a people blandly, placidly, even adoringly accepting that?  Further, why must there be notice taken only when Americans are killed?  Are we so provincial, parochial, nay, xenophobic, authoritarian, not to recognize that all human life is precious, that every individual is entitled to live in security and free from sudden, arbitrary death?  One cannot get sucked into the mindset of the memo writers and war-crime enablers, much less the Obama-Brennan gang at the top meeting on Terror Tuesdays in the White House, deciding on the life or death (invariably the latter) of those on the hit list, with their lame justifications for the globalization of murder.  Why play the legalese game, as though the words of the Memo were written in authoritative stone, when in reality the Executive writes what it wants, to create the presumption of legality.  At the moment, Executive Power is going through the roof.  We get cute answers to or perfunctory dismissal of flagrant violations to the 4th, 5th, and 14th Amendments, as though the Constitution was of no account, and that underlying the fundamental objections raised to the violations was not what we know to be true: antecedently, state-sponsored murder.  Period.

Assassination comes in many varieties and forms, none of them compatible with democratic principles or the rule of law.  Israel is skilled with the gun and plastique, the US with heavier armaments.  Failure of disclosure (the original legal memos remain classified, not the outrageous p.r. job just released), failure of admission (we do not admit the identity and scope of casualties), and failure of confiding in the public (geopolitical strategy is not subject to debate, or for that matter, revealment), all strongly suggest that the secrecy, stubbornness, and, in abdicating government’s responsibility to the people, villany, have for their purpose the desperate avoidance of being discovered for what we as a nation have become, and our leaders in particular, perpetrators of war crimes.

The question persists: Why this “breaking news” about the death of Americans, as though we are blind to humanity?  I should like nothing better than to see—the impossible: America handing over Obama and Brennan to the ICC, thus purging the venom from our sysyem (aka our capitalist system) and learn to live in an harmonious world of peace and justice.  I would settle, however, for much less: a national campaign to petition the Nobel Committee to rescind the Peace prize.  Ain’t gonna happen; meanwhile, more drones, assassinations, violation of top-to-bottom law, and the normalization of continued attempts, increasingly unilateral, to maintain across-the-board dominance, political, economic, military, cultural, ideological, whatever our designated mad men think right.  More Memos of Self-Justification.

[My Comment to today’s (Feb. 6, 2013) New York Times editorial wherein I make a timely suggestion]:

“This dispute goes to the fundamental nature of our democracy….” Yes. But The Times drifts off by calling for a special court, etc., rather than saying, armed drones for targeted assassination is per se antithetical to a democracy and that the program must be stopped as a national disgrace and extreme violation of international and national law. Assassination is an affront to human decency. Yet this is Obama’s signature weapon and policy. We are seeing the expansion of UNCHECKED executive power like never before. Your article on cyber warfare just yesterday bears that out.

You may think it irresponsible, but I shall call, not from the lunatic right, but, placing civil liberties at the heart of a democratic system, for Obama’s impeachment. He has sullied and falsified America through cold-blooded actions, a political hustler and con artist, revealing, stripped of liberal veneer, a moral void, profound, deep, incapable of political leadership except that of dragging the US further into the slime of war, intervention, drones, collateral damage, denial, and, the crowning touch, nomination of John O. Brennan, evil incarnate, Strangelovian beyond what fiction depicts, from torture to drones to cyber war, a smooth continuum of death, destruction, denial (in his case, of civilian casualties).

Obama-Brennan, forever locked in embrace, each deserving of the other, from Nobel Laureate to War Criminal without missing a step, and his sidekick, covering his back.

Norman Pollack is the author of “The Populist Response to Industrial America” (Harvard) and “The Just Polity” (Illinois), Guggenheim Fellow, and professor of history emeritus, Michigan State University.


Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at

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