Monday, February 06, 2006

What If?

Can the president have "evildoers" assassinated on American soil? Newsweek takes a stab at answering this question, and comes up with this bizarre scenario:

What if the president had strong evidence that a Qaeda suspect was holed up with a dirty bomb and was about to attack?
Well, in that case, I doubt the president would personally order an assassination. Dealing with this suspect would be a task for federal law enforcement agents, and they'd already be authorized to use deadly force. Of course, they'd need to proceed cautiously - suppose the suspect had a dead man's trigger? - but that'd be true whether they chose to burst through his door, or had a sniper pick him off from a nearby rooftop. A really enterprising terrorist could even tip off the authorities himself, and wait for them with his finger on the detonator.

This is really just a new version of the "ticking time bomb" scenario with which advocates of limitless presidential power tried to justify torture. While it's true that torture is unreliable even when you're not dealing with a movement that invites personal martyrdom, what I find even more troubling about this argument is that terrorists aren't at all likely to use time bombs. They're far more likely to use remote triggers, preferably with some sort of fail-safe system (e.g., a cell-phone that any one of six individuals can dial to detonate the bomb). The "ticking time bomb" story is emotionally manipulative, largely because it's familiar from movies, but it's got very little to do with the actual nature of the threat we face from terrorism; it's a textbook example of misleading vividness, and I don't believe for a moment that it's accidental.

Newsweek's dirty bomb scenario is just as misleading, and just as dishonest in its presentation of a false dichotomy: The President either inconveniences a terrorist, or a dirty bomb is detonated in an American city...which would you prefer? Of course, the two outcomes aren't mutually exclusive. We're not encouraged to think about what happens when torture or assassination goes wrong (as, for instance, when the Mossad shot an innocent waiter to death in Norway in 1974). Nor are we supposed to think about how religious terrorists actually operate, or how they might adapt to the threat of summary execution and turn it to their advantage.

Cass Sunstein says that Bush would be on shaky ground if he had someone killed "who was not actively preparing an attack." But what does "actively" mean? Would taking photos of a public building count? Buying a backpack? Looking at online maps? Renting a car? Hurrying to catch a train? Newsweek can't bring itself to ask these simple questions, let alone the only question that really matters: What if we grant this power to the president, and he - or one of his successors - turns out to be a criminal?

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