President Obama’s hope to redeem America’s standing as the standard bearer for human dignity has gone unfulfilled until now because of the realities of war abroad and the climate of fear at home. His speech Thursday afternoon about the war on terror was an effort to fulfill that hope.
One of the first promises Obama made as president was to close the prison camp at Guantanamo, Cuba. Soon, however, he found that it would not be as easy as he had hoped. Congress passed legislation preventing him from moving prisoners to the United States. Further, some prisoners due for release had no country to be released to. The U.S. forces had mistakenly swept up a number of innocent men, but once the U.S. had them, it didn’t know what to do with them and other countries didn’t want them.
Lately, dozens of prisoners have been engaged in a hunger strike in response to their imprisonment. Some of them continue to be held, even though they have been charged with no crime and even though the courts have cleared them for release. In the eyes of the world, Guantanamo continues to be synonymous with the torture and other abuses growing out of the war on terror.
Part of the problem is the broad understanding of the war on terror that had defined U.S. policy under President George W. Bush. Following Sept. 11, 2001, it was the view of the U.S. government that we were engaged in an actual war, but not against another nation. It was against a shadowy terrorist organization spread across many nations with a leadership that was hidden and methods and activities that were unpredictable. Under international law prisoners of war may be held for the duration of the war. But because the war on terror was being waged against an amorphous congeries of violent activists, there was no way of calling a close to the war. There would always be terrorists. Thus, prisoners at Guantanamo, held without charge and often without a legal basis, could be held forever. We had replicated the dungeons of a medieval principality.
But the war on terror as a legal construct must come to an end. That doesn’t mean the United States will stop fighting terrorists. In fact, the Obama administration has done a good job of it, as with the tracking and killing of Osama bin Laden. Obama has also ratcheted up the use of drones to kill people, including American citizens, who are seen as terrorist threats.
For some time, Obama has been asking for some sort of legal limits on his own power, some law or policy that would hold him accountable. As a constitutional scholar he is no doubt uncomfortable with the power of life and death placed in his hands, and he knows that placing the use of drones within strict guidelines is to preserve the democratic principles for which we are fighting.
Observing democratic principles in the context of war always opens up a president to criticism that he is being weak, that he is tying one hand behind his back. But it was the unprincipled brutishness of the torturers who dominated the Bush administration that weakened America. Reckless use of drones can damage the United States in a similar way. Obama has favored the use of drones because their precision reduces harm to bystanders, but bystanders still suffer. Choosing targets carelessly also claims the lives of innocent people.
The United States is not so weak or so fearful that it must practice the dark arts of the totalitarian state — assassinating people with impunity, torturing prisoners, holding people without charge, without evidence, without recourse, without end. Belief in democracy requires belief in the dignity of the individual and belief that even against barbaric enemies we need not stoop to their level of barbarism. That is how the ideals of democracy survive the tempests of war and terror that buffet us. Without those ideals there is no withstanding the storm.
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