As the confetti settles and election euphoria wanes, progressives must concentrate on the next task: holding their own accountable. President Barack Obama’s first term was in many ways a disaster for civil and human rights, yet even the most vehement rights defenders have barely mentioned the extrajudicial killings of Americans, the deaths of innocent civilians in the drone war, or indefinite detention. Yes, Obama ended Don't Ask Don't Tell, defended free speech on the internet, and bolstered socioeconomic rights with his health care plan — for this he deserves great credit. But supporters must be honest with themselves: overall, Obama has a very mixed rights record and we’ve done next to nothing to challenge him on it.
To begin with: the drone wars. There are three huge reasons why Obama’s extensive use of drones is so problematic. First, Obama’s assassination-based foreign policy broadly interprets “counterterrorism” to justify killing anyone deemed a terrorist — even American citizens — without a trial, a policy that is in direct contradiction to the Sixth Amendment. In a watershed moment, the administration first defended their killing of U.S.-born Anwar al-Awlaki a year ago in Yemen as “consistent with the rules of war.” While reassuring us it’s “a very grave decision,” Obama now says killing American citizens sans trial is legal so long as it meets a three-part test — and kill they have. We don’t have solid numbers, but we do know thousands have been killed as a result of this policy, hundreds of them innocent civilians and American citizens. The Obama administration has sacrificed our civil rights on the altar of paranoia — the very criticism levied at Bush for the so-called Patriot Act. The precedent: it’s now much easier for the president to kill, the Constitution be damned.
Secondly, war is hell, and living in the midst of a drone war is no different. Drones are sold to the public as being free of collateral damage — we take out the bad guys with scrupulous care to protect innocent civilians. But in practice, Obama’s covert war is killing and terrorizing innocent men, women, and children. His policy is costing us not only the lives, but also the “hearts and minds” of the very people we’re purporting to help. While drones have undoubtedly done damage to terrorist groups, in the long term we may be breeding a whole new generation who hate those responsible for the fear and misery this policy represents.
In addition, this policy sets a dangerous precedent, not only for our civil rights, but also for future wars. Obama has taken it upon himself to take out people deemed threats anywhere in the world, regardless of whether we’re officially at war with the country or not. As Suzanne Nossel of Amnesty International writes, “The administration's reshaping of the concept of war risks undoing over 100 years of evolution of the laws of war, and the protections those laws have delivered.” What happens when other countries decide they have the same right to take out perceived enemies anywhere on the globe? To put it another way, what if China or Iran assassinated an American citizen on American soil from the sky because they deemed him or her a terrorist? We would (quite literally)— be up in arms. Why do we think our interference is so different?
It doesn’t end with the drones. Although Obama has closed the CIA’s secret prisons, released torture memos, and issued an executive order banning torture, he’s bowed to pressure not to close Guantanamo Bay. In a reversal on his original position, Obama has embraced trying terror suspects in the murky legal ground of military commissions rather than in civilian courts. He’s embraced the Patriot Act as well as the principles of indefinite detention. Many Guantanamo detainees have never been charged or tried. Out of the 166 current detainees, 86 have been cleared for release because they pose no threat to America; yet those 86 still remain incarcerated. In a recent, especially tragic case, Guantanamo detainee Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif died after a decade in prison even though he was repeatedly cleared.
Let’s not kid ourselves: if George W. Bush had been responsible for trampling on the Sixth Amendment and killing innocents in secret wars, progressives would be livid. Human rights proponents who support Obama have fallen to the rabid partisanship that pervades this country; they are afraid to criticize “one of their own” too harshly for fear of losing political ground. This must stop. If we want to continue to create a more ethical society, all of us, regardless of political affiliation, must be courageous enough to challenge our leaders—even, nay especially, when we like them. If we support the principles, not the politicians, those politicians will be forced to become more principled.