Obama makes us cross a dangerous line

The late Christopher Hitchens noted that "George Orwell begins his book '1984' with 'It was bright cold day in April and all the clocks were striking thirteen'. Right away you know you are in different world."

That's how I find myself after reading a New York Times front page article titled "Secret 'Kill List' Proves a Test of Obama's Principles and Will." It reveals how President Obama keeps a list of terror suspects and personally approves their elimination with unmanned predator drones.

And in true Orwellian fashion, the president approved a new definition of casualties, thereby artificially keeping civilian deaths down. According to the Times, "it in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants... unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving innocence."

In less than four years, President Obama has already ordered five times as many drone strikes as George Bush did over eight years in office. And apart from the ACLU and the editorial pages of The New York Times, I have heard nary a peep about this.

Here is what Hina Shamsi from the ACLU had to say about the policy during an interview on Fox News:

"This is unlawful because it allows the president to kill people, including United States citizens, far from any theater of war. It is dangerous, because it sets a precedent -- not only for the next president and the president after, but for other countries, who may not have our historic commitment to the rule of law."

Couldn't have said it better myself. It's worth reading again.

For all of you out there who would have gone bonkers if George Bush had kept a secret hit list but are comfortable because it's Barack Obama and you trust him, think about the precedent being set. Think about what might come next. We are crossing a dangerous line here.

We are talking about suspected terrorists and those believed to be enemies who would do the nation harm. Who says so? The president? The CIA? Are foreign countries consulted? Who and what give them the right?

So far, drones have only been used overseas. However, as a recent front page article in the ADN (June 19) makes clear, domestic law enforcement is very interested in the technology for surveillance and other uses. It is cost effective. How long before we have drones crisscrossing the country monitoring Americans' behavior? Will we effectively go the London route, where security cameras are ubiquitous?

There are a lot of unanswered questions. Look, I get the security-versus-freedom debate. There was much discussion about this back after 9/11 when warrantless wiretaps were used in the name of security. But at least we had FISA courts providing judicial oversight. Plus, we weren't killing people and redefining "collateral damage."

The president takes great pride in the fact that he will not waterboard terrorists to get information, because that's torture. Instead, high-value targets are assassinated rather than captured and sent to Guantanamo Bay. This is the better moral or ethical approach? It's Orwellian, isn't it?

I know we're the good guys. I understand that it is a difficult call. But when people's lives (even presumed enemies') are at stake, it has to be hard. Yet it appears to be almost riskless in terms of direct U.S. casualties. But consider the possible backlash against the U.S. Will this further embitter and embolden our enemies, leading to more U.S. casualties down the line? I read that more and more countries will soon have their own predator drones. What then?

I am not a lawyer versed in international law. I am not a philosopher or political scientist or theologian schooled in "just war" theories. Normally I'm a law-and-order guy, but this is just a bridge too far for me. There are just too many unforeseen consequences. The moral and ethical dimensions are unsettling.

It may be time to put our killer drones in a holding pattern.

Jeff Pantages lives and works in Anchorage.