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Where is the outrage over killing of U.S. citizens?

Posted: March 16, 2012 2:24 p.m.
Updated: March 19, 2012 5:00 a.m.

“...nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

-- from the 14th Amendment

Spin it any way you want. Justify it, rationalize it, chalk it up to the exigencies of war. And at the end, the fact remains:

A United States citizen is dead and the United States government killed him. Without trial. Without due process. Without hesitation. And many of those who loudly deplored George W. Bush for smaller excesses seem content to allow Barack Obama this larger one.

No, I do not mourn the death of Anwar al-Awlaki. If anyone ever deserved to have a missile from a predator drone land in his lap, it was this New Mexico-born Muslim cleric, killed last September in Yemen, his ancestral homeland. American counterterrorism experts say he planned the failed 2009 bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner. Additionally, he is said to have inspired the Fort Hood Massacre of 2009 and the botched Times Square bombing of 2010. The world is a better place without this guy in it.

Still, the means of his dispatch from this world ought to give us pause.

Attorney General Eric Holder recently gave a speech in which he attempted to justify what the administration did. His reasoning was not compelling. In Holder's formulation, the U.S. government has the right to kill citizens if said citizens present an imminent threat of violent attack and if capturing them alive is not a feasible option. It can do this, said Holder, speaking at Northwestern University School of Law, without judicial oversight.

"Some have argued that the president is required to get permission from a federal court before taking action against a United States citizen who is a senior operational leader of al-Qaida or associated forces," he said. "This is simply not accurate. Due process and judicial process are not one and the same, particularly when it comes to national security. The Constitution guarantees due process; it does not guarantee judicial process."

What a flimsy rationale upon which to balance a decision as monumental and portentous as the killing of a citizen. Even granting that the demands of armed conflict sometimes make such things necessary, it is inconceivable that the White House would claim the right to kill without at least presenting its evidence before a federal judge in a secret hearing. To eschew even that safeguard -- there is precedent, in urgent cases, for a ruling to be handed down in hours or even minutes -- is to set Obama up as potential judge, jury and executioner of every accused terrorist.

So where is the outrage? Had Bush claimed the right to kill American citizens without judicial oversight, the resulting cries of protest would have been audible on the moon. Indeed, one of the protesters would likely have been Obama himself; he came into office on a promise to reign in the excesses of the Bush years, most infamously, the torture of so-called enemy combatants.

Now, Team Obama seeks to justify an excess Team Bush never did. Bush often said his job was to keep the American people safe. Not to diminish or demean that necessary goal, but it is worth noting that his oath of office actually says nothing of the kind. Rather, it requires him to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

It is difficult to see where torture -- much less, unilateral killing -- is consonant with that promise. And the people who decried Bush's excesses should also decry Obama's. Instead, he enjoys a measure of leeway and trust that Bush, whose overreach was much more habitual, never did. That forbearance is misplaced.

The leaders change, but the country is the country is the country -- and the principle at stake here is bigger than any one person's term in office. So no, Barack Obama does not deserve the leeway and trust our lack of outrage accords him.

No president does.

(Columnist Clarence Page is on vacation. In his absence, Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts is featured.)

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