The War in Context

   Alternative Perspectives on the "War on Terrorism" and the Middle East Conflict
President, commander-in-chief, judge, jury, and executioner
Editorial, The War in Context, November 8, 2002

Transferring the power of judging any person who is under the protection of the laws, from the courts to the President of the United States, is against the article of the Constitution which provides that 'the judicial power of the United States shall be vested in courts, the judges of which shall hold their offices during good behavior.' -- Thomas Jefferson

The war on terrorism, as George Bush and his cohorts like to remind us, is "a different kind of war." It should have come as no surprise then that when asked for an explanation about the killing of six suspected terrorists in Yemen, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer's first recourse was to trot out the same old line - this is a different kind of war.

What is different is that through the use of radio-controlled unmanned aircraft, the United States can now eliminate its enemies from the comfort of offices in Virginia. But the elimination of enemies - that's as old as history. Whether it is an enemy of the state being eliminated by state defense forces, or the opponents of a tyrant being tracked down by death squads, those who seek the swiftest "justice" have little time for legal process.

What is easily forgotten though - especially at times such as these when politicians and the press are perpetually fueling our fear - is that the law serves not only in the administration of justice but as a constraint on the powers of those who hold political office. The law is not a luxury that we can only afford during periods of peace; it is our only defense against war powers being turned into the instruments of tyranny.

At such a time that the CIA, the Pentagon, or the White House is either granted or assumes the power to act as judge, jury and executioner, those who govern us are no longer upholding the law; they have clearly placed themselves above the law.

When asked on Tuesday whether justice should not involve a judge, a jury, a prosecution and a defense, Ari Fleischer didn't hesitate to respond:

"Absolutely, when it's a case of American citizens and when itís a case of anything covered under Americaís laws and our -- America's Constitutional protections for America's citizens."

Legal process, in the eyes of Mr. Fleischer, is apparently a privilege that can only be guaranteed to Americans.

But it is now being reported that one of the six suspected terrorists who were incinerated in Yemen was in fact a US citizen. Perhaps Fleischer will argue that in such a case this individual renounced his constitutional protections the minute he joined al Qaeda. If this is the government's position, why do they insist on burdening American taxpayers with the cost of a trial for Zacharias Moussaoui (a French citizen and the so-called 20th hijacker)? Can't Donald Rumsfeld be provided with a revolver and given the satisfaction of putting him "out of business" (Rumsfeld's description of the effects of being the target of a Hellfire missile)?

The business that Bush, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Cheney and their subordinates have now embraced is the liquidation of enemies. Today it is al Qaeda, and soon it will be Saddam. After that, who knows? What is certain is that we will be assured whoever gets eliminated, it's for the sake of protecting the American people. Who, though, will protect the American people from a government that sees itself as being above the law?

©2002 Paul Woodward