The PJ Tatler

A Question for Obama Fans: How Is Killing Terrorists Without Trial Better than Capturing and Trying Them?

Put another way, if George W. Bush and Dick Cheney should be tried for war crimes regarding their rendition and Gitmo policies, why shouldn’t Barack Obama be tried for personally ordering lethal drone strikes on suspected terrorists? How is waterboarding a war crime, but unleashing a Hellfire not?

Mr. Obama has placed himself at the helm of a top secret “nominations” process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical. He had vowed to align the fight against Al Qaeda with American values; the chart, introducing people whose deaths he might soon be asked to order, underscored just what a moral and legal conundrum this could be.

Mr. Obama is the liberal law professor who campaigned against the Iraq war and torture, and then insisted on approving every new name on an expanding “kill list,” poring over terrorist suspects’ biographies on what one official calls the macabre “baseball cards” of an unconventional war. When a rare opportunity for a drone strike at a top terrorist arises — but his family is with him — it is the president who has reserved to himself the final moral calculation.

“He is determined that he will make these decisions about how far and wide these operations will go,” said Thomas E. Donilon, his national security adviser. “His view is that he’s responsible for the position of the United States in the world.” He added, “He’s determined to keep the tether pretty short.”

What Obama is actually doing is giving himself an out — killing terror suspects removes any need to keep them anywhere or deal with the legalities of evidence, whether or not to try them, where to try them, where to hold them, etc. It’s a kind of royal convenience to maintain some consistency with what candidate Obama said he would do, despite the incontrovertible fact that Gitmo remains very much in operation nearly four years after Obama pledged to his liberal base that he would shut it down.

There is a cost, of course. Every terror suspect killed ends their potential intelligence value. Capturing al Qaeda terrorists used to lead to capturing other, usually more important ones, and to figuring out the extent and operational capabilities of al Qaeda’s international network of operators and financiers. Such intel led to the capture of 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and to the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. We’re not getting that high value intel now. We’re getting intel and then using it to summarily execute suspects without trial. And Barack Obama personally orders each killing.

Serious question time: Was eight years of war crimes accusations against the Bush administration just political theater and noise? How is killing without trial, as Obama is doing, better than capturing and interrogating and trying suspects in a court, as Bush did? Upon what principle do liberals support the one and denounce the other?

What are liberals who don’t support the death penalty to do with a president who is personally ordering killings of people who Obama is not allowing to have their day in court?