But whether in the streets of our cities or in the skies over Asia and Africa, we have found a way to allow her a peak under the blindfold, and permitted her scales to be weighed with the thumb of the police and the heavy fist of the national security apparatus, as it suits us. In these arenas, Justice does not appear to be blind per se, but rather hiding behind the curtain of plausible deniability over how her sword is used to dispense that justice.
In a Department of Justice white paper obtained by NBC News, drones can be used anywhere, at anytime, against anyone who the U.S. deems “a senior operational leader of al-Qa’ida or an associated force,” who “poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States.” That goes for American citizens and other nationals, even if they are targeted in countries against whom we don’t even have a declaration of war.
“While both [American citizens unintentionally killed by drone strikes this year] Farouq and Gadahn were al-Qa’ida members,” the administration announced, April 23, “neither was specifically targeted, and we did not have information indicating their presence at the sites of these operations.” The strike that killed Ahmed Farouq is the one that also took the lives of two captives, who the U.S. has admitted it also didn’t know were going to be where the drone struck.
The point of the white paper is that DoJ can justify killing Americans without due process, so we should be okay with it. Sure, it can be justified, but merely massaging a definition of justice does not make it just. It makes it an excuse for unethical, possibly immoral, action.
Police have justified a rash of recent attacks on unarmed African American men with a standard as low as “I felt threatened,” to Ferguson: “He grabbed for my gun;” North Charleston, SC: “He reached for my Taser;” or simply, like in Tulsa and Baltimore: “He ran.”
Justifying is not rectifying, and it remains an unsatisfying excuse to most Americans. Justifications in these cases come across as a little too convenient, and are nothing more than attempts to gloss over substantive social issues too difficult for most police departments to make an effort to address.
“I think it’s going to be important for organizations like the Fraternal Order of Police and other police unions and organization to acknowledge that this is not good for police,” President Obama told the press, Tuesday.
“I think there are police departments that have to do some soul searching,” he added later, after acknowledging those who have moved beyond closing ranks to protect their own. “I think there are some communities that have to do some soul searching. But I think we, as a country, have to do some soul searching.”
There is a choice we make in our commitments, one that paves a path and drives us along it in pursuit of (hopefully) positive outcomes. Perhaps no other commitment invites scrutiny as much as the righteous pursuit of justice, for although we can all agree that we are resolved to achieve it, there is a gulf in the methods we use to get there. The importance of justice to our society is not something we are fed piecemeal. It is, rather, shoved done our throats in great gobs, and obedience to it is its own sweet reward.
Sadly, many conflate righteous pursuit and righteous justice, where ennobling the latter affirms the former, instead of the other way around. Righteous pursuit is peaceful pursuit, not only in resolving the truth of the circumstances of a tragedy that has already occurred, but in working toward the kind of understanding that prevents that tragedy from happening in the first place. The sense that everyone is on the same team, working toward the same ends, simply doesn’t exist.
Too often the virtue we like to think of as justice is dispatched thoughtlessly with a bullet in the back, or coldly dispensed by the state at the end of a needle, or by a soulless aircraft piloted by an invisible hangman, thousands of miles away.
“Greater transparency is just the start of what we need,” an attorney for one human rights group said in a statement last week, acknowledging the administration’s admission of the tragic drone strikes. He went on to urge “a fundamental reassessment of whether the secret drone war does more harm than good.”
When he ran for president, and even as recently as January’s State of the Union speech, Barack Obama maintained that Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, remains “a prison that the world condemns and terrorists use to recruit,” because it exposes America’s capacity for hypocrisy, ignoring justice and human rights in exchange for a perception of security. But the United States’ drone program has turned the Middle East and Central Asia into a Gitmo without the razor wire, where terror in the guise of justice is dispensed silently from the skies. It is no less a recruiting tool than the indefinite detentions of the prisoners in Cuba.
Whether in distant lands or on the streets where we live, we cannot continue to excuse our behavior as justifiable, merely because we want it to be. If we remain silent, then we are left with a distorted version of Lady Justice who is not only blind, but is also deaf and dumb.