What America needs most today is a peace movement, a broad-based coalition that opposes not only the American empire’s operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan (as well as less overt activities elsewhere), but also its attendant accretion of presidential power, which diminishes or eliminates civil liberties and the traditional protections accorded criminal suspects.
Unfortunately, there have been impediments to the development of this long-overdue movement. People on the Right typically are not inclined to oppose wars. Even if they are uneasy about a given war, they equate anti-war activity with left-wing opposition to the military, failure to support the troops, and lack of patriotism. If a Republican is running the war, they are even less likely to make a fuss. Some on the Right are authentically anti-empire and are ready to join an anti-war coalition, but they seem to be waiting for others to take the initiative.
The Left of course is much more comfortable opposing war and executive power, and did so during the presidency of George W. Bush. But they can alienate potential non-Left coalition members by stressing their interventionist domestic agenda.
A more recent problem with the Left is Barack Obama. With a few exceptions, Obama’s election has silenced the critics of empire, invasion, occupation, Predator bombings, and civil-liberties destruction. Maybe they feel he is one of them, so they are giving him time to settle in before he begins to dismantle the empire. But Obama is well into his second year and there has been scant progress on this front. It’s safe to say that he has no intention of scaling back, let alone liquidating, the empire.
Maybe that’s why a group of prominent leftist intellectuals, activists, and actors have ended the ceasefire and have finally criticized Obama’s war policies. It’s about time. In a statement placed in the New York Review of Books, headlined “Crimes Are Crimes No Matter Who Does Them,” the group said, “Crimes under Bush are crimes under Obama and must be resisted by anyone who claims a shred of conscience.”
The group listed four reasons for speaking out, but clearly that was not an exhaustive list. First was the Obama administration’s claim of authority to assassinate even American citizens for suspected terrorist activities before there has been any judicial finding of guilt. That is an extraordinary claim of unilateral executive power. The Obama administration says it has the right to kill people such as Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen and Muslim cleric living in Yemen who says he was the mentor of the mass killer at Fort Hood and of the would-be airplane bomber over Detroit last year. Al-Awlaki, who has indeed made inflammatory statements about killing American civilians, is not operating on a traditional battlefield but rather is suspected — having never been charged or tried — of engaging in illegal activities. But Obama’s assertion of this authority is not restricted to al-Awlaki. Rather it is a reference to the government’s “to-be-killed list.”
Second was U.S. troops’ firing on civilians in Iraq in 2007, a massacre captured on video posted on the Internet by Wiki-leaks. Among others, two Reuters personnel were killed, and two children were injured while the bodies were being collected by other Iraqis. “As ugly as this video of the killing of 12 Iraqis was,” the statement said,
the chatter recorded in the helicopter cockpit is even more monstrous. The Pentagon says that there will be no charges against these soldiers and the media absolves them of blame. “They were under stress,” the story goes. “Our brave men and women must be supported.” Meanwhile those who leaked the video came under government surveillance and are targeted as “national security” threats.
Third was a massacre earlier this year in Afghanistan:
The Pentagon has recently acknowledged, after denials, a massacre near the city of Gardez, Afghanistan, on February 12, 2010. Five people were killed, including two pregnant women, leaving 16 children motherless. The U.S. military first said the two men killed were insurgents and the women were victims of a family “honor killing,” but the Afghan government accepts the eyewitness reports that U.S. Special Forces killed the men (a police officer and a lawyer) and the women, and then dug their own bullets out of the women’s bodies to destroy evidence. Top U.S. military officials have now admitted that U.S. soldiers killed the family in their house.
Just weeks earlier, a story broken in Harper’s by Scott Horton carried news that three supposed suicides of detainees in Guantánamo in 2006 were not suicides, but homicides carried out by American personnel. This passed almost without comment.
“Worse than Bush”
The statement pulled no punches and seemed designed to awaken Obama’s “progressive” base, which thought that Bush and Cheney were devils incarnate. Among the signers were authors Daniel Ellsberg and Noam Chomsky and actor Ed Asner.
“In some respects this is worse than Bush,” it said.
First, because Obama has claimed the right to assassinate American citizens whom he suspects of “terrorism,” merely on the grounds of his own suspicion or that of the CIA, something Bush never claimed publicly. Second, Obama says that the government can detain you indefinitely, even if you have been exonerated in a trial, and he has publicly floated the idea of “preventive detention.” Third, the Obama administration, in expanding the use of unmanned drone attacks, argues that the U.S. has the authority under international law to use extrajudicial killing in sovereign countries with which it is not at war. [Emphasis added.]
Acts that might have been “anomalies” under Bush, the group noted,
have now been consecrated into ‘standard operating procedure’ by Obama, who claims, as did Bush, executive privilege and state secrecy in defending the crime of aggressive war.
Unsurprisingly the Obama administration has refused to prosecute any members of the Bush regime who are responsible for war crimes, including some who admitted to waterboarding and other forms of torture, thereby making their actions acceptable for him or any future president.
It closed with an appeal to “end this complicity of silence.” This is a hopeful sign, indeed. It is hard to think of a more flagrant case of a presidential candidate’s selling the American voters a bill of goods. True, Obama promised to expand the war in Afghanistan, a promise, alas, that he is keeping. But he also promised to get combat troops out of Iraq on a timetable, but now there’s talk of letting that deadline slip. On the other hand, he led voters to think he would end the Bush era’s abuses of suspects’ rights and of everyone’s civil liberties. But his Justice Department plans to use civilian courts only for cases it feels certain it can win. Others will be sent to the military tribunals Obama once decried. Still other cases will not be tried at all. Now he’s even open to watering down Miranda rights for terrorism suspects when they are questioned by prosecutors.
Guantánamo, which was supposed to close by the end of 2009, is still open, as are the secret prisons in Afghanistan, where detainees are accorded no rights. Rendition, in which terrorism suspects are shipped to other countries for “interrogation,” continues. And Obama fights to keep certain lawsuits challenging government misconduct out of court on grounds of “state secrets.”
If the cumulative effect of all this isn’t enough to shake the Left out of their Obama swoon, what would it take? Maybe the New York Review ad will be the spark needed to launch a real peace movement, so that this immoral and criminal behavior will finally stop.
Sheldon Richman is senior fellow at The Future of Freedom Foundation, author of Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State, and editor of The Freeman magazine.
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