6 February 2013, 15:48

A Ticket to Tranai, by Barack Obama

A Ticket to Tranai, by Barack Obama

A recently disclosed "white paper" which offers legal reasoning behind the claim that President Barack Obama has the power to order the killing of American citizens who are believed to be part of Al Qaeda, has raised a lot of discussion on the legal practices of the current administration.

At the Senate hearings on Thursday, the President's nominee for the CIA director's position John Brennan is sure to face grave questions concerning "kill lists" which he allegedly masterminded as a White House counterterrorism adviser.

The administration's critics point to the fact that Obama's administration made a point of doing away with the practices adopted by the previous administration of George W. Bush, which included illegal wiretapping, indefinite detention, kidnapping, abuse and torture. But today, as pointed out by the executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights Vincent Warren, "The parallels to the Bush administration torture memos are chilling."

Indeed, the disclosure of a secret memo comes as no surprise. The practice of extrajudicial killings has become too common in the latest years. What worries the American public the most, is the fact that if this or that suspect is a US citizen, this does not stop the administration and its militant arms, the CIA and the military, from applying the same methods as are applied to suspects of other nationalities. In the latter case, though, the US public does not seem to be worried that much.

In September 2011, a high profile case of the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki was widely publicized in the media. Mr. Awlaki, who moved to Yemen and became an advocate of jihad against the United States, was labeled a chief Al Qaeda operative and the explanation seemed to justify his killing. Little was said at that time about the fact that in a subsequent attack Awlaki's 16-year-old son was also killed. In any case, the White House has opposed any court hearings into the killing.

As pointed out above, the row surrounding the secret memo would have hardly arisen if the killings were limited to non-Americans. This is something the US public is used to, despite the fact that such killings – both as a result of a ground operation by special forces, or resulting from drone strikes, have caused thousands of deaths in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, or elsewhere. For the administration it is always easy to explain that those killed belonged to Al Qaeda and therefore they cannot be counted as innocent civilians. The public is eager to swallow such explanations.

The fact that such strikes and operations have deteriorated relations with once-reliable allies like Pakistan does not seem to bother the Washington strategists. The rule of "might is right" in their eyes has the topmost priority, and allies can be won (better say, arm-twisted) back.

In Robert Sheckley's "Ticket to Tranai", any person killed by someone in authority was automatically considered a criminal, and people like presidents, premiers, judges, etc. did not have to bother explaining why they had killed someone. The logic is definitely appealing to the US administration, and the label of semi-mythical Al Qaeda comes in more than handily. If someone is labeled "an Al Qaeda accomplice", that person is automatically included in the "kill list" – no matter whether he or she is an American citizen or not.

But the funny thing is that in "The Ticket to Tranai" the public had a useful tool of retaliation. A row of special buttons freely accessed by the public allowed anyone to blow up any official without any explanation or punishment.

While applying the methods of dealing with suspected criminals described in the 1955 story, the administration probably feels safe, expecting that the methods of retaliation will not be applied to them. Indeed, the rule of law in their view works unilaterally.

Boris Volkhonsky, senior research fellow, Russian Institute for Strategic Studies.

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