Targeted assassinations: A moment of truth for U.S. MennonitesBy Berry Friesen
The leaked Department of Justice “White Paper” purporting to justify targeted killings of United States citizens accused of terrorism creates a moment of truth for American Mennonites.
We have known since 9/11 that our national government claims the authority to use the weapons and tactics of war to pursue those allegedly responsible for the attacks on that day. Even so, the assertions of the 16-page legal brief prepared by the Department of Justice are breathtaking in scope. American citizens anywhere in the world may be killed simply because the president or one of his assistants is convinced they are planning violence “against the United States.” There is no need to disclose the specific accusations, give the accused an opportunity to set the record straight, or involve an impartial third party to keep everyone honest. According to the DOJ, the requirements of the law are met when the President and his advisors decide at one of their “Terror Tuesday” meetings that the accused is guilty. None of this is reviewable by any other authority such as a court of law.
This is the stuff of tyranny. It is what freedom-loving people have been resisting since the days of the pharaohs. It is unprecedented in U.S. history.
The DOJ White Paper assures us this power to kill will be exercised carefully and within the requirements of the Constitution. Thus, a U.S. citizen who is targeted must be “a senior operational leader of al-Qaida or an associated force.” The administration official who issues the order to kill must be “an informed, high-level official of the U.S. government.” He or she must determine that the targeted citizen “poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States.” It must be “infeasible” to capture the individual rather than kill him. The entire “operation” to kill must be “conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principles.”
Yet as one reads on, each of these limitations is emptied of substantive meaning. A “senior operational leader” can be anyone who is a member of al-Qaida or “an associated group” who “has recently been involved” in activities posing a threat to the United States. The “informed, high-level official” can be a political appointee whose status is entirely dependent on the president’s approval. The “imminent threat of violent attack” need not be demonstrated by actual evidence that a specific attack has been planned or is about to take place; all the administration needs is to know the individual is or has been involved in planning attacks on U.S. interests. Capture (rather than killing) becomes “infeasible” whenever the host country objects to the insertion of U.S. military force, or whenever it might expose U.S. military personnel to “undue risk.” The requirements of the “law of war” are largely irrelevant because al-Qaida is not a government and the conflict between the U.S. and al-Qaida is not a traditional war. According to the DOJ, the entire world (including the U.S.A.) has become a battlefield on which the U.S. and al-Qaida are engaged.
Now that it is indisputable that our government openly claims the power to kill its citizens and is committed to doing so as part of established policy, we have a choice to make. We can accept this as somehow legitimate (even if highly distasteful) and hope for presidents who will exercise this power wisely. Or we can step into a posture of dissent vis-à-vis our government, not because we doubt the good judgment of the individual in the White House, but because our government claims and is exercising illegitimate power over human life, unfettered by the Constitution, international law or any other form of accountability.
To be sure, there are ways to dodge this choice. Two-kingdom theology provides an out by lumping all governments into a single, undifferentiated group that is authorized to use the sword. Holding our government accountable for who it kills and why isn’t much valued in this way of thinking.
Partisan preference provides another evasion. We may like the current resident of the White House and consider him more restrained in his use of violence than the likely alternative. Shouldn’t we just be thankful the other candidate didn’t win?
Yet another dodge is our smug confidence that U.S. government hit squads target Muslims, not law-abiding Christians like us. We have nothing to fear.
Or we can look full in the face of the chilling reality that our government has begun to openly and brazenly exercise tyrannical powers. We can acknowledge it has embraced lawlessness and will not soon retreat. We can recognize that each President will go further than the last in the exercise of this power to kill. Eventually, if we are faithful to the calling of messiah Jesus, it will reach us or our spiritual brothers and sisters too.
As American Mennonites, our calling is not to fix what has gone so wrong in Washington. Rather, our calling is to witness to the sovereign claims of Messiah Jesus, including his intention to restore all dominions, rulers and powers to their proper roles within creation. This witness must include public dissent from the arrogant claims of the DOJ White Paper. And it should be followed by other actions that demonstrate how gravely we regard this matter. For me, this will include nonpayment of a portion of my income tax, as described by the group 1040 for Peace.
Our government has crossed the line into lawlessness. Do we have the courage to say so?
Berry Friesen is an attorney and a member of East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pa.
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