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Drones, Assassinations, and the Drug War

AssassinationsThe New York Times is reporting that the Chinese military recently planned to assassinate by drone a suspected drug lord hiding out in Myanmar who was accused of having murdered 13 Chinese soldiers. While Chinese authorities ultimately decided not to carry out the assassination and ended up capturing the guy and having a court sentence him to death, the episode clearly points in the direction that both the Chinese communist regime and the U.S. government are taking their respective countries.

After all, China could justify the assassination of the suspected drug lord in the same way that the U.S. government justifies the assassination of suspected terrorists. While drug possession and drug dealing are criminal offenses, both China and the United States have declared “war on drugs.” Thus, the argument would go, the drug war, like the “war on terrorism,” is a real war, like World War I and World War II. In war, assassinations take place. There is no such thing as murder. Killing is legal. Moreover, the drug lords are illegal enemy combatants in the drug war because they don’t wear uniforms.

That’s the reasoning that U.S. officials use to justify their assassinations in their “war on terrorism.” Terrorism, like drug dealing, is a criminal offense. That’s why U.S. officials continue to bring many terrorism cases into federal court, with indictments, prosecutions, jury trials, convictions (or acquittals), and jail sentences that come with them.

But what President Bush did after 9/11 is simply declare “war on terrorism,” much like U.S. officials (and China) long ago declared “war on drugs.” Bush said that by declaring war on this criminal offense (terrorism), that gave U.S. officials the option of treating terrorism as either a criminal offense or an act of war (and, Bush said, also gave him extraordinary, emergency, “temporary,” dictatorial wartime powers over both the American people and everyone else in the world).

Thus, for some terrorist suspects, the war on terrorism became like a real war, like World War I and World War II. For others, it remained a criminal offense, which is why it’s included in the U.S. Code, which enumerates federal crimes. The decision is entirely discretionary and arbitrary. It’s up to U.S. officials to decide whether a suspected terrorist gets the wartime route (i.e., indefinite detention, torture, kangaroo military tribunals, Gitmo, etc.) or the federal criminal-defendant route (i.e., indictment, jury trial, due process, etc.)

The best example of this post-9/11 phenomenon is the case of American citizen Jose Padilla. The feds grabbed him as a suspected terrorist and sent him into a military dungeon, where they tortured him and claimed the authority to keep him incarcerated for life, without the benefits of the Bill of Rights. He was a suspected terrorist, they said, which enabled them to treat him as an illegal enemy combatant because he wasn’t wearing a terrorist uniform at the time they grabbed him.

But one day, the feds just changed their minds. They suddenly converted Padilla from a wartime combatant into a criminal defendant, transferring him from Pentagon’s custody into the custody of U.S. marshals. Then they proceeded to treat him as a criminal defendant, indicting, prosecuting, convicting, and sentencing him.

That’s what they can now do to any American, not just Padilla, because the federal courts upheld this dual-track, arbitrary, discretionary, post-9/11 authority.

Given this precedent, there is no inherent reason why the U.S. government can’t do the same thing in the war on drugs, as the communist regime in China is now doing. If terrorism can be treated as either a criminal offense or an act of war, at the discretion of the authorities, there is no inherent reason why drug offenses can’t be treated in the same manner.

In fact, as most everyone knows the Pentagon is now militarizing the drug war, especially in Latin America. While the American people have prohibited the military from enforcing criminal laws inside the United States because they believe it’s a bad idea, no such constraints exist on the Pentagon’s doing this sort of thing to the people of other countries. Thus, the Pentagon and CIA are flooding Latin American regimes with money, armaments, and advisors to help them wage the perpetual, endless war on drugs. How long will it be before the U.S. government follows China’s lead by expanding its program of drone assassinations to suspected drug dealers, especially in Latin America?

Are drug laws consistent with a communist society or a free society? Are state-sponsored assassinations consistent with a communist society or a free society? Is denial of procedural rights, such as due process of law and jury trials, consistent with a communist society or a free society? Is the militarization of a society consistent with a communist society or a free society? Is the arbitrary discretion to treat a criminal offense as either a crime or an act of war consistent with a communist society or a free society?

When the United States is doing the same things that one of the most brutal communist regimes in the world is doing, shouldn’t that cause Americans to pause and reflect on where the U.S. national-security state has led and continues to lead our nation?

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation.

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