Feb 082013

As the latest apologist for Barack Obama’s policy of targeted killing in secrecy and without oversight, Michael Gerson once again illustrates the price we pay for the political myth that  “we are at war.”

This, of course, is the essence of the matter. If America is in an ongoing war against al-Qaeda and associated groups, then the rules of war apply, Yemen and the Afghanistan/Pakistan border are battlefields, and al-Qaeda operatives are lawful targets. This is the position taken by both the Bush and Obama administrations, consistent with America’s inherent right of self-defense and the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force. If this war were a myth or a metaphor, then the pursuit of al-Qaeda would be a criminal matter, requiring extradition, arrests and due process.

Of course Gerson is right.  If we are really at war, then the idea that we would restrain our commander-in-chief from waging that war is self-evidently absurd.  But if this war were a myth or metaphor, then not only would the pursuit of al-Qaeda be a criminal matter, the current policy of secret kill-lists drawn up by Obama administration officials would itself be criminal.

Gerson presumes that we agree with his assumption that this war we are supposedly fighting is not mere myth or metaphor.  But the stakes are too high for mere presumptions.  In wartime, the ordinary constitutional restraints upon the government no longer apply.  This is why Gerson, and all defenders of unchecked executive authority, must at every point be challenged to demonstrate — not merely assert — that this war is not a metaphor.

My guess is that if challenged, Gerson would cite the AUMF, which presumes to authorize the President to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”

Since September 11, 2001, is now more than ten years in the past, it might be prudent to ask whether the extraordinary powers granted to the President under the AUMF still apply.  If they do still apply, we might ask when we might expect to see them expire.  When will the war against the perpetrators of the 9-11 attacks end?

Unfortunately, apologists for unconstrained governmental killing like Gerson never seem to provide much guidance on these issues.  For them, so long as there is even one cave-dweller somewhere in Pakistan who might harbor thoughts about committing a terrorist act against the United States, we will be obliged to defer to the President’s own determination that drone strikes, wiretapping, indefinite detention, and other practices that in peacetime would clearly be the practices of a dictator, are consistent with the defense of American freedom.