The Morally Degenerate Sociopath’s Defense of Counter-Terrorism….

Nob Akimoto

Nob Akimoto

Nob Akimoto is a policy analyst and part-time dungeon master. When not talking endlessly about matters of public policy, he is a dungeon master on the NWN World of Avlis

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51 Responses

  1. Is “sociopath” being used here scientifically or poetically?  [We shall assume “morally degenerate” is a term of art.]Report

  2. Avatar Fnord says:

    From this basis, I believe the current Administration’s counter-terrorism policies, while not perfect are a damn sight nearer to it than the available alternatives.

    By this do you mean:

    1) The Obama administration provides a better set of counter-terrorism policies than the alternatives presented to us, as voters, by the political alternatives to Obama, or

    2) Given the fact that terrorists exist and can find shelter in “locations…outside the reach of standard capture operations”, the Obama policies are the best possible option?Report

    • I was arguing a bit of a mix between 1 and 2.

      That said, I’m not entirely sure who would be in the OLC of a Romney administration. If it’s Jack Goldsmith it might be a different argument focused more on 2 than on 1.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi says:

        I’d say a few hired assassins would do the job, in a lot quicker and better order.

        I don’t mind a lot of things so much as I mind the public knowledge of the same.         America ought not to admit to torturing people.Report

  3. Avatar trizzlor says:

    … the Obama Administration’s rationale for its counter-terrorism policies has been rooted in a single document: The 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force. This is a substantial concession on part of the Administration.

    How much of a constraint do you think the AUMF really is? It’s so thin and written so broadly that it really seems to have very few concrete boundaries. Granted, the previous administration tried to argue that the AUMF would allow a targeted attack in, say, London or inside the US itself and the supreme court pushed back on this in Hamdan but not formally. Overall I think it’s quite a stretch to call the AUMF the basis for a sound legal framework.Report

    • I think it’s a substantially more powerful constraint than making arguments that Article II provides all the authority necessary to detain people. As to whether or not it’ll be a useful constraint in the future…

      Well, I think Al Qaeda’s starting to be in a position where the 9/11 related rationale will slowly stop functioning. Once you knock out Zawahiri, it’s probably up for the current iteration of the AUMF.Report

  4. This is a good, thoughtful post. Thanks for writing it. That said, a few things that leap out at me immediately:

    1) The principle and greatest reason for a state’s existence is the protection of the lives of its citizens.

    This, it seems to me, is where terrorism/counter-terrorism discussions go completely off the rails. This simply isn’t the purpose of the state. The state exists to defend the liberty of its citizens. This is not wholly distinct from defending their lives, but it matters. It’s the core of liberalism, the whole kit and kaboodle. As soon as we abandon the distinction, we end up where we are, where the most important thing the state can do is root out every mean person in the world who has ever said unkind things about the United States.

    2) I can understand why there are those who find detailed explication of international law comforting. I’m just not one of them. The Bush lawyers had international law arguments too. That Obama’s lawyers are better at making their case is not terribly impressive, given the overall intellectual quality of the members of the Republican Party (read: abysmal). What you see is lawyers working to define the limited scope of the hard work they have to do to make the world safe for America. What I see is lawyers developing post hoc justifications to defend the power projection they wanted to do anyway. You fall back on the notion that Obama has tried to close Gitmo somewhat regularly, but from where I sit he made a half-assed gesture in that direction and then immediately abandoned it at the first sign of political pressure.

    3) Whatever the restrictions the executive claims on its authority, I just find the extra-judicial assassination of alleged terrorists/criminals/whatever pretty deeply wrong. These people haven’t been convicted of anything and are not, to my mind, and despite claims to the contrary, at war with the United States. I think you and Jaybird are right that targeted killings are a damn sight better than just lobbing cruise missiles, but their ease of use should give us all pause. And the fact that the administration refuses (or until recently has refused) to have an open conversation about their existence and the value of the targets should raise any liberal’s hackles. I won’t get into the related question of blowback or public relations with Muslim populations, because I don’t think that kind of utilitarianism is the right approach to this topic.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi says:

      Libertarians would like it an awful lot better if it was corporations siccing assassins on people.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew says:

      Liberalism certainly needs to be concerned with the imperative of the state to defend the people’s liberty, but at the same time, ultimately the purpose of the state is also to defend their lives where necessary.  And the liberal has to wrestle with the possibility that these imperatives can be in tension.  I personally don’t believe it is illiberal not to think that that tension is simply always to be resolved in favor of the defense of liberty.  What is illiberal is to conclude without deep reflection and persuasive reason that the tension should be resolved in favor of defending life – in general, or in specific cases. Liberalism doesn’t enact the cry of  Patrick Henry.Report

      • “Where necessary” does a lot of work in that sentence. My own position on that would be that the liberal state, properly understood, is fully justified in killing other people only in strict self-defense. That is what “necessary” means, and why you didn’t say “where sufficient” instead. Is it absolutely necessary for the safety of the citizens of the United States that we use drones to kill alleged terrorists without any trial, conviction, or other recourse to our own core values? Seems to me the answer to that is almost always going to be no, but I’m willing to let the state try to convince me otherwise. Simply declaring a fake war on a non-state actor and insisting that we can mete out punishment in secret is not a particularly compelling argument.Report

        • Avatar Michael Drew says:

          Absolutely, to all of that. Certainly the drone regime is not obviously necessary to protect life to the extent that one can’t argue that the policy is illiberal.  Obviously.  But your argument was far more absolute with respect to the need to defend liberty potentially – really, unambiguously – at the cost of defending life than just reaching that conclusion about this specific policy.  To me, liberalism is just the weighing of that (liberty against other values), weighted toward liberty, but not with liberty as a unique value.  You pretty much said that liberty is the unique value that liberalism seeks to protect.  I differ, but obviously, even as liberals we can differ on the point.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        I personally don’t believe it is illiberal not to think that that tension is simply always to be resolved in favor of the defense of liberty. 

        Mike,  I’m not hiring you as a survey question write anytime soon!  Would you mind rephrasing that so I can be sure I’m following you?Report

        • Avatar Stillwater says:

          I think he meant that not believing the state has no imperative to oppose the denial of an obligation to not defend individual liberty isn’t inconsistent with antidisestablishmentarianism.Report

        • I believe it was, “It’s not illiberal to sometimes resolve the tension in favor of the defense of life rather than the defense of liberty”.

          I’m not sure I agree with it, phrased that way.Report

          • Avatar Michael Drew says:

            This is right.  I’m not sure I do for all time either, but it’s where I am right now on liberalism: as I say above, the weighing of other values against liberty, always with the scale tipped slightly to liberty, but with other values as having ample space to have their case made for them, is for me the essence of liberalism.  In this accounting, libertarians are in fact variety of liberal with a high (high being a strictly arbitrary term here) threshold for being convinced that another value trumps liberty, unless in fact they are committed to liberty to the extent of not employing any balancing of it against any other values in their thought.  Meanwhile Leftists very well might not be liberals, depending on whether, when they consider the tenets of their Leftism, they do so by weighing them against the imperative of liberty (however much they value liberty), with at least a slight preference for liberty over other animating values (i.e. the burden of proof – again, however modest – lies with the value competing with liberty).Report

          • Avatar James Hanley says:

            Thanks, to Stillwater, Ryan and Michael all.

            In this accounting, libertarians are in fact variety of liberal with a high (high being a strictly arbitrary term here) threshold for being convinced that another value trumps liberty, unless in fact they are committed to liberty to the extent of not employing any balancing of it against any other values in their thought.

            I think that’s pretty true.  And I imagine some think they would never balance it, but I doubt if they’re being honest with themselves. I’m not sure many libertarians, if transported to a housing project in south-central L.A. in 1992, would be really that indignant about the curfew during the riots.

            And it’s worth remembering that libertarianism grew out of classical liberalism, as did modern liberalism–while the contemporary influences on the two have caused them to grow apart, they’re still organically related.Report

            • Avatar Michael Drew says:

              Right. Which is why I so much prefer to call Leftism Leftism, because if we call it liberalism, basically all of that history, and indeed any distinction between the liberalism I talk about here and Leftism gets lost.  I’d rather force Leftists to account for whether they’re actually liberals too rather than just give them both words.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                I’d rather force Leftists to account for whether they’re actually liberals too rather than just give them both words.

                I could be wrong, but unless they’re truly coming from a Marxist perspective, or perhaps some other continental philosophical perspective, I’m not sure they can really disclaim being liberal. Perhaps the purist communitarians can, but I haven’t met many of them.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:

      I think you and Jaybird are right that targeted killings are a damn sight better than just lobbing cruise missiles, but their ease of use should give us all pause.

      Agreed, with the emphasis that “giving us pause” does not mean, “it’s outrageous and has to stop immediately,” but “we should think carefully about whether the ease of use and diminished danger to U.S. forces will lead us to use these things too indiscriminately, despite the alleged safeguards.” (I’m guessing that’s pretty much what Ryan meant, too.)

      And the fact that administration refuses (or until recently has refused) to have an open conversation about their existence and the value of the targets should raise any liberal’s hackles.

      Agreed.

      I won’t get into the related question of blowback or public relations with Muslim populations, because I don’t think that kind of utilitarianism is the right approach to this topic.

      Disagreed.  The approach taken by Nob is distinctly utilitarian, in that it’s talking about efficient means for the government to protect citizens from dangers.  If this approach is cost-effective at killing individuals, but potentially costly in the sense of creating ever more individuals/enemies that need to be killed, I think it’s an important part of the debate. But my sense is that it will create a lot fewer new enemies than invasions and cruise missiles, due to less collateral damage. At least that would be my initial hypothethis.Report

  5. Avatar James Hanley says:

    Nob,

    Very well written, and I’m generally in agreement with your position on the issue, although very uncomfortably so.

    I would quibble on Obama and detention, though. During the NDAA debate, Michigan Senator Carl Levin revealed that originally they had included a provision to exempt U.S. citizens from indefinite detention, but that the provision was cut because of pressure from the administration.

    MR. LEVIN: … I have one other question, and that has to do with an American citizen who is captured in the United States and the application of the custody pending a Presidential waiver to such a person. I wonder whether the Senator is familiar with the fact that the language which precluded the application of section 1031 to American citizens was in the bill we originally approved in the Armed Services Committee, and the administration asked us to remove the language which says that U.S. citizens and lawful residents would not be subject to this section.

    Is the Senator familiar with the fact that it was the administration which asked us to remove the very language which we had in the bill which passed the committee, and that we removed it at the request of the administration that this determination would not apply to U.S. citizens and lawful residents? Is the Senator familiar with the fact that it was the administration which asked us to remove the very language, the absence of which is now objected to by the Senator from Illinois? (157 Congressional Record S7638. November 17, 2011. p.S7657)

    Report

  6. Just jotting a quick note to indicate I have read the responses by Ryan and James and will be writing a more detailed response to them sometime later today.

     Report

  7. Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

    I firmly believe that there will be a time of national reckoning for the Bush Administration’s counterterrorism policies. 

    I also believe that the reckoning will take quite a while, just as it has in France.  (The parallels are remarkable, particularly given the gallophobia of the last administration.) The arc of history, et cetera, et cetera, except that it’s not terribly comforting, given that I’m living in the present.

    But anyway, when that time comes, history isn’t going to look too kindly on Obama, either.  As Ryan rightly notes, above, the goal of a liberal state is not to make us as safe as possible, but to make us as free as possible.  Even if sometimes that means a little less safety.  Are we safer in a world without Anwar al-Awlaki?  The administration says so, and I’m in no position to deny it.  But are we more free, given the precedent it’s set?  I can’t believe it.  Not for a moment.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:

      I firmly believe that there will be a time of national reckoning for the Bush Administration’s counterterrorism policies. 

      I wish I could believe it at all, much less do so firmly.  I sincerely hope you’re right, but if I was laying my money on the table I’d place it on “no reckoning.”  Maybe the big difference between you and me is optimism/pessimism?Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        I assume Jason means decades from now. I think that’s inevitable, sort of like it was inevitable that we’d come to view the detention of Japanese Americans during World War II as a dark stain on our nation’s history. My worry is that it will be a relatively mild reckoning, though, more like the paragraph on our actions in the Phillippines at the turn of the last century than the internment.Report

        • Avatar James Hanley says:

          If that’s all, then we differ wildly on the meaning of “reckoning.”  I’m not sure Jason defines it that differently from me, but I’ll have to let him speak for himself.Report

          • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

            I do mean decades from now.  Again, like in France.

            The key factor, in both cases:  the existence of an otherwise lawful and stable political system in which a major faction is deeply invested in denying or minimizing the criminality.Report

            • Avatar James Hanley says:

              But what do you mean by reckoning? Something that will change the system in a way that makes it unlikely that the same thing can happen again, or a critical paragraph in the American history textbooks?

              I could see the latter, but am dubious about the former.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

                Nothing anyone writes ever makes a future act of evil impossible.  But at least there might come a time when people don’t hesitate to write what’s true.  No?

                 Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                Agreed. I just don’t know if I’m willing to call that a “reckoning,” except in the weakest sense.  It’s awfully easy to say, “Oh, weren’t we bad once upon a time, while continuing to turn a blind eye to anything that’s actually going on now.”  I mean, it’s nice that we’ve had a reckoning of sorts about the internment of Japanese-Americans, but A) nobody ever seems to have been punished, so there’s not much deterrent effect, and B) we’re doing something comparably bad now, but collectively we’re not drawing the appropriate conclusions.

                So I guess having that future reckoning is better than not having it, but it seems a rather cold comfort.Report

  8. Nob: This was really a great and useful post that changes my view of this administration’s anti-terrorism policies substantially.   I can understand why Ryan isn’t terribly keen on the notion that the legal arguments make a practical difference, but for me they make a massive long-run difference.  Knowing a small bit about how OLC works, the reversal on the legal arguments sets an important precedent.

     Report

  9. Thanks for the kind words guys.

    I think I’m going to address the points raised by Ryan et. al in a follow-up post.

    There’s a few things I’d like to chew over, and I’m also not 100% comfortable with using some off the record conversations as a basis for a reply, so I might have to rethink/rephrase how I present some points.Report

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