Would You Empower President Obama to Kill With His Mind?




Imagine that President Obama is visited by aliens who give him the power to kill any human being with his mind. Simply by willing it, he can bring about his or her violent death, as if by a tiny missile. Alternatively, he can kill inconspicuously, so that the target appears to die from an aneurism, a heart attack, a stroke, or any number of other "natural causes" that he can vary as he sees fit. He is limited only insofar as he can kill just one person at a time, which takes roughly two minutes.

The power would expire at the end of his term.

Would that be a good thing?

Predictably, I don't think so. As I've argued for years, it's imprudent to empower a single person to kill in secret on his own unchecked authority. And making it easier to kill makes abuses more likely.

But tens of millions of Americans disagree. The Obama Administration's targeted-killing program is popular, despite the phenomenal power it gives the president, the dearth of meaningful oversight, and the extreme secrecy surrounding it. Even the specific arguments its defenders marshal suggest that they'd be enthusiastic about the scenario I've sketched. Let's dub the hypothetical leader in that scenario Double-O-bama for his alien-issued "license to kill." 

Obama's defenders say his drone program causes less "collateral damage" than air strikes or ground invasions. Double-O-bama would be even more precise, always killing only the intended target.

Drones reduce the risk to American troops. Double-O-bama would require even fewer "boots on the ground." 

The extreme secrecy that surrounds targeted killing is justified with the argument that its better if the enemy doesn't know our methods. Double-O-bama could prevent any information from leaking.

Defenders constantly invoke analogies to the Civil War and World War II. Imagine how much carnage Abraham Lincoln could've prevented with Double-O-bama's power. FDR could've killed Hitler himself!

Here's a passage from a recent Charles Krauthammer column defending Obama's targeted killing program:

Who has the authority to decide life-and-death targeting? In war, the ultimate authority is always the commander in chief and those in the lawful chain of command to whom he has delegated such authority.

This looks troubling. Obama sitting alone in the Oval Office deciding which individuals to kill. But how is that different from Lyndon Johnson sitting in his office choosing bombing targets in North Vietnam?

That's exactly what Double-O-bama would be doing -- he'd just be able to carry out his will as ultimate arbiter of life and death more effectively than Real Obama. Does that ease itself change things? Drone supporters don't think so. They're always telling us that drones are just another weapon in our arsenal -- an amoral technological advantage that can be used for good or ill.

What's my point? That millions of Americans embrace a theory of executive power so broad that, as presently articulated, it offers no good grounds for objecting even to comic-book powers.

Maybe it's time for a more conservative theory of presidential power, even if you do trust Obama. Or would supporters of his targeted killing program really be okay with President Double-O-bama?

A thought experiment about the War on Terrorism, starring President Double-O-bama

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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