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Reflections on State Power

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(Article changed on February 12, 2013 at 16:01)

(Article changed on February 12, 2013 at 15:38)

It is the fundamental duty of the citizen to resist and to restrain the violence of the state.   Noam Chomsky

The recent memo leaked from the Obama administration shows the lengths to which the State will go in order to justify assassination of its citizens without trial, transparency, or accountability. This was not a power granted by the people through Congress to the executive; rather, it was assumed by the president and imposed on the citizens. This article will not examine the constitutionality or the legality of President Obama's drone program. This has largely been done elsewhere. The goal of this essay is to answer primarily these two questions: What are the limits to state power? Where do these limits originate?

It is by removing these questions from the current political discussion that servants of the state frame the entire discourse. No longer is it a question of by what right does the state have to extrajudicially assassinate its own citizens; but rather, does this program keep our democracy safe? Two assertions are made here without any shred of evidence. The first is that by circumventing legal procedures in "extreme cases" (whose definition, of course, is broad and ever expanding) our democracy is safer from external threats, i.e. terrorists -- the new "communists." The second is that unrelenting force will eliminate terrorism (and by implicit extension, that terrorism itself is even possible to eradicate completely).

Support for the drone program then becomes easy. For support itself is equated to preservation of democracy. Opposition is put in a bad light, since they have to propose an alternative, interventionist foreign policy that will eradicate efficiently all enemies that lurk behind every shadow. The right of intervention itself is left unquestioned.

There then develops a false dichotomy. We are told there are idealists and realists. The idealists, say state apologists, naively think that due process, respect for civil liberties, and protection of human rights can be applied equally to all without distinction. Realists believe that since we are in a global War on Terror, lethal force must be used even if the rights of individuals are infringed -- American or foreign -- and even if collateral damage occurs.

However, is the realist position not the ultimate form of naive idealism? To believe that such a power can be granted to any one man or collection of men without transparency, without error, and without abuse demonstrates a profound ignorance of history. Abuse of power will happen wherever power is concentrated in a few, unaccountable hands. Error will occur wherever man or woman is present. We need not look far to find disgusting examples of violent errors by state institutions. From the innocent deaths in the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, to innocent men being executed at home in the 29 states where state-sanctioned murder is legalized, it is evident that the government is not free from mistakes. This is not some abstract principle deduced from the minds of incomprehensible, ivory tower academics. This is the real consequences of our choices and actions.

It is of the utmost naivety to suppose that by giving the president the power to extrajudicially assassinate American citizens without transparency or accountability, liberty at home will be preserved and saved. Freedom can only be won and preserved by freedom. The only realistic position to hold is to reject the absolute logical absurdity that extrajudicial assassination will both make America safer from terrorism and prevent future terrorist acts. When the State assumes the power to kill its citizens without trial, it is not individual acts of terrorism that should strike fear into the hearts of every American, but rather state terrorism perpetrated by our own elected officials. One man killing another is called murder; but we seem to mistakenly call justice the state instituting a program of extrajudicial assassination.

Americans seem shocked that their government would even consider assassinating them without trial, transparency, or accountability. However, for much of the rest of the world -- and especially the Middle East -- America's supposed right, granted to and by herself, to detain, torture or kill a citizen of another country without trial, transparency or accountability is an everyday reality. Obama's drone wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia are just the latest part of America's War on Terror -- which should more accurately be called the American war of state terror against the populations of the Middle East. To think that Americans would tolerate drone bombings that cause hundreds of civilian deaths within their borders is, of course, morally outrageous.

Protesting Drones at Obama's Inauguration by World Can't Wait

In a system of highly centralized, hierarchical power, the goal is not to put faith in those in power to act responsibly. The goal is, rather, to dismantle the systems of unnecessary, hierarchical and concentrated power and, where this is not possible, to provide the greatest degree of transparency and accountability to the processes. To do any less than the latter is naive idealism, putting faith in the infallibility of fallible individuals.

We can now return to our original two questions. There is no mystery for the answers. The limits to state power and its origins are one and the same: the citizenry. Popular resistance to state power has always been the strongest factor in imposing limitations on the State. The State can only carry out actions in two ways. First, by the passive obedience of its citizens. Second, through the use of brute force to suppress dissent. The limits to the latter are determined by the will and numbers of the dissidents. The former stems from either ignorance or acceptance of governmental decisions.

Thus we begin with another question: do we allow the President to be judge, jury and executioner in a process that is nontransparent and unaccountable? If not, then we must propagate this judgment through all forms of media available: traditional, independent and social. The dissemination of why this policy is wrong is largely finished. What lacks is any mass movement to provide real pressure on the State to change its actions.

Posting on Facebook or Twitter solves nothing. It is a problem in the younger generations that we seem to mistake consciousness raising and awareness of a problem with solving the problem itself. This is false. First, recognition of the problem is key. But we can't pat ourselves on the back after making a 30-word Facebook status.

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I graduated from the University of Chicago with a MA in Social Sciences (concentration in Political Science) and a BA from Rutgers University in Political Science. I study social movements and the tactics that ordinary people use to make (more...)

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