Obama and Civil Liberties

Obama in Toledo

President Obama speaks to a crowd gathered at Scott High School in Toledo on Labor Day. Photo/The Toledo Blade.

President Obama was in town today to deliver a stump speech at a Toledo high school. I found out about it this morning on Twitter. I find out a lot of things on Twitter.

Most of me wanted to go hear the president speak, but after doing some searching I discovered there had been 3,000 tickets available for his talk and they were all taken. I wanted to take the kids, show them the motorcade, talk to them about doing our civic duty by voting and encouraging our political leaders to do what’s best for the people of this country. But they didn’t want to go. They didn’t want to drive downtown, and I didn’t want to push them into it. I figured he’d be back again before November. That’s one of the side-effects of living in a battleground state during a national election.

So, I turned back to Twitter, hoping to get some photos or personal stories from the scene downtown. I found a few posts—fewer than I thought I’d find. And then I came across a post that really caught my eye.TwitterCivil Liberties and Obama: a topic I’ve been curious about since he inserted language in the 2012 defense bill giving him executive power to interrogate and hold any person suspected of terrorism, even U.S. citizens, without due process.

I also like John Cusack. What could he have to say about this topic?

I clicked the link and was taken to a blog written by Jonathan Turley, a legal scholar who teaches at George Washington University and is really into constitutional law. He’s also really good friends with John Cusack.

The blog post was a Q&A, with Cusack asking Turley his thoughts about Obama’s poor record on preserving Americans’ civil liberties and how easily he has gotten away with their erosion.  I’ll highlight some interesting points.

TURLEY: … President Obama has not only maintained the position of George W. Bush in the area of national securities and in civil liberties, he’s actually expanded on those positions. He is actually worse than George Bush in some areas.

CUSACK: Can you speak to which ones?

TURLEY: Well, a good example of it is that President Bush ordered the killing of an American citizen when he approved a drone strike on a car in Yemen that he knew contained an American citizen as a passenger. Many of us at the time said, “You just effectively ordered the death of an American citizen in order to kill someone else, and where exactly do you have that authority?” But they made an argument that because the citizen wasn’t the primary target, he was just collateral damage. And there are many that believe that that is a plausible argument.

CUSACK: By the way, we’re forgetting to kill even a foreign citizen is against the law. I hate to be so quaint…

TURLEY: Well, President Obama outdid President Bush. He ordered the killing of two US citizens as the primary targets and has then gone forward and put out a policy that allows him to kill any American citizen when he unilaterally determines them to be a terrorist threat. Where President Bush had a citizen killed as collateral damage, President Obama has actually a formal policy allowing him to kill any US citizen.

I hate to think of Obama as outdoing former President Bush, but Turley makes the point that Obama bends the law for convenience’s sake, and Attorney General goes along with it. And, Turley, adds, just because Obama was a constitutional lawyer does not mean that Obama upholds the constitution.

TURLEY: Well, there’s a misconception about Barack Obama as a former constitutional law professor. First of all, there are plenty of professors who are “legal relativists.” They tend to view legal principles as relative to whatever they’re trying to achieve. I would certainly put President Obama in the relativist category. Ironically, he shares that distinction with George W. Bush. They both tended to view the law as a means to a particular end — as opposed to the end itself. That’s the fundamental distinction among law professors. Law professors like Obama tend to view the law as one means to an end, and others, like myself, tend to view it as the end itself.

And, Turley goes on to say that while Obama has tampered with our constitutional rights since being in office, it ultimately is up to the voters to hold him accountable. However, in our two-party, red-state/blue-state system, there are not a lot of options.

The Republican and Democratic parties have accomplished an amazing feat with the red state/blue state paradigm. They’ve convinced everyone that regardless of how bad they are, the other guy is worse. So even with 11 percent of the public supporting Congress most incumbents will be returned to Congress. They have so structured and defined the question that people no longer look at the actual principles and instead vote on this false dichotomy.

Now, belief in human rights law and civil liberties leads one to the uncomfortable conclusion that President Obama has violated his oath to uphold the Constitution. But that’s not the primary question for voters. It is less about him than it is them. They have an obligation to cast their vote in a principled fashion. It is, in my opinion, no excuse to vote for someone who has violated core constitutional rights and civil liberties simply because you believe the other side is no better. You cannot pretend that your vote does not constitute at least a tacit approval of the policies of the candidate.

Yes, Houston, we have a problem.

Read the entire Q&A on Turley’s blog here.

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