A King is fine, so long as he’s one of us

Living today in longstanding democracies, it can be hard to comprehend why so many people living in the past, or other countries, would permit or even enthusiastically support the unchecked power of their monarchs and dictators. Wasn’t it obvious to them how dangerous and corrupting the accumulation of power by individuals could be?

When someone we don’t like is in power, all of the intellectual arguments for separation of powers jump to mind to justify our fears. But sadly our tribal minds go looking for totally different rationalisations as soon as ‘one of us’ is in charge. This is nicely demonstrated by the acquiescence of US progressives to the further expansion of Presidential powers that supposedly horrified them during the Bush administration:

For the last four years, Barack Obama has not only asserted, but aggressively exercised, the power to target for execution anyone he wants, including US citizens, anywhere in the world. He has vigorously resisted not only legal limits on this assassination power, but even efforts to bring some minimal transparency to the execution orders he issues.

This claimed power has resulted in four straight years of air bombings in multiple Muslim countries in which no war has been declared – using dronescruise missiles and cluster bombs – ending the lives of more than 2,500 people, almost always far away from any actual battlefield. They are typically targeted while riding in cars, at work, at home, and while even rescuing or attending funerals for others whom Obama has targeted. A substantial portion of those whom he has killed – at the very least – have been civilians, including dozens of children.

Worse still, his administration has worked to ensure that this power is subject to the fewest constraints possible

President Obama was recently convinced that some limits and a real legal framework might be needed to govern the exercise of this assassination power. What was it that prompted Obama finally to reach this conclusion? It was the fear that he might lose the election, which meant that a Big, Bad Republican would wield these powers, rather than a benevolent, trustworthy, noble Democrat – i.e., himself.

This is a nice example of human hypocrisy, as if we needed another. So long as a member of the other political tribe was in control, progressives would convince themselves that such a power grab was Wrong On Principle. But now that their man is in control, we can all relax and just trust him to be a Nice Guy:

… the primary reason for this fundamental change in posture [among progressives] is that they genuinely share the self-glorifying worldview driving Obama here. The core premise is that the political world is shaped by a clean battle of Good v. Evil. The side of Good is the Democratic Party; the side of Evil is the GOP. All political truths are ascertainable through this Manichean prism.

The result is that, for so many, it is genuinely inconceivable that a leader as noble, kind and wise as Barack Obama would abuse his assassination and detention powers. It isn’t just rank partisan opportunism or privilege that leads them not to object to Obama’s embrace of these radical powers and the dangerous theories that shield those powers from checks or scrutiny. It’s that they sincerely admire him as a leader and a man so much that they believe in their heart (like Obama himself obviously believes) that due process, checks and transparency are not necessary when he wields these powers. Unlike when a GOP villain is empowered, Obama’s Goodness and his wisdom are the only safeguards we need.

Thus, when Obama orders someone killed, no due process is necessary and we don’t need to see any evidence of their guilt; we can (and do) just assume that the targeted person is a Terrorist and deserves death because Obama has decreed this to be so. When Obama orders a person to remain indefinitely in a cage without any charges or any opportunity to contest the validity of the imprisonment, that’s unobjectionable because the person must be a Terrorist or otherwise dangerous – or else Obama wouldn’t order him imprisoned. We don’t need proof, or disclosed evidence, or due process to determine the validity of these accusations; that it is Obama making these decisions is all the assurance we need because we trust him.

As Glenn Greenwald notes, this blind trust in wise and just rulers is the antithesis of how the American system, designed in reaction to a foreign ruler who wasn’t ‘one of us’, was supposed to work: “in questions of power…let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.” Unfortunately the constitution isn’t doing much of a job of binding down the President, and the public never managed to bind themselves to the mast to keep caring.

It is especially reckless to allow this precedent to be set for a new technology for surveillance and assassination that will become gradually more accessible to both state and non-state actors. If it had its eyes on the long term, the US would be trying to develop laws and international norms to make sure that this technology is not used in a way that backfires on them in the future. This issue appears not to have been considered much at all.

If you ever find yourself mystified by the tolerance people across history or the world have for giving their rulers great discretion, just because they are charismatic or part of the same cultural group, just look around and you’ll see the same instinct remains all around us today.

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