The first drone strike occurred on October 7, 2001. Approximately ten years later, the U. S. government assassinated one of its own citizens, Anwar al-Awlaki, with a drone strike. Seven more years after that, drone strikes remain a primary weapon in the Global War on Terror (GWOT).
Does GWOT justify the CIA’s secret delivery of airborne ordnance against people who declare themselves enemies of the United States? What would we think if Vladimir Putin claimed the power to assassinate Russian citizens, and said his justification for doing so is a state secret? We would say a state that covertly violates its own laws, or that justifies violations with new rules, cannot be counted on to observe international law. Yet we see how unhappy our government becomes when it discovers Russian violation of international norms far less serious than ours.
Try to enumerate differences between tyranny and rule by criminals who protect themselves with trappings of power, and you find you have a short list.
In fact, the Russian state does assassinate its own citizens. Moreover, it does so without acknowledging responsibility for it. Significantly, it does not claim a right to do so. Naturally the Russian government does not acknowledge or justify criminal activities. Governments that openly assassinate their own citizens cannot last long. That the United States government thinks it has such a right: that it can compile kill lists in secret, assassinate people in secret, and justify these actions in secret, tells you a lot about its moral self-awareness.
Why is a memo that justifies assassination significant? Because it shows how a government behaves when it wants to persuade itself what it undertakes is okay. We saw the same thing when John Yoo wrote his sordid memo on torture. The ACLU responded to the state’s secret 2011 memo, leaked after al-Awlaki’s assassination. Hina Shamsi denounced the memorandum as “a profoundly disturbing document”, adding:
It’s hard to believe that it was produced in a democracy built on a system of checks and balances. It summarises in cold legal terms a stunning overreach of executive authority: the claimed power to declare Americans a threat and kill them, far from a recognised battlefield and without any judicial involvement.
We find government’s claims to constitutional legitimacy are entirely self-declarative, as are its justifications for specific activities, such as targeted assassinations, drone strikes against any target, or indefinite imprisonment of people it regards as threats. More pointedly, secret agencies that claim a right to assassinate citizens or imprison people violate fundamental rights to life and liberty.
The pieces are in place: the government claims a right to torture, to assassinate citizens, and to imprison people in solitary confinement indefinitely without due process. Every government and authority through history that has claimed these rights – or that has done these things without justification – has operated without limits. A government that operates without limits is not a government. It is a syndicate designed to control people through violence, threats of violence, murder and imprisonment.
That is why flag pins, emblazoned jackets, helmets and military gear our officials now carry and wear are so scary and significant. These marks of power have become a perverse and unsubtle way to announce, “I’m a member of the syndicate. I’m a member of a powerful organization that does whatever it likes.” We have discovered the state does not need formal pronouncements to tell its citizens they do not have protections they might think they have.