A License to Kill

And so we now know (per CNN, February 5) of a 16-page Department of Justice memo setting forth parameters for when the U.S. government can “legally” murder an American citizen completely outside the requirements of due process.

The elements of “legality” established in the policy paper are nothing if not vague and overbroad. Applying a three-part test, the U.S. government gives itself a blank check to murder citizens insofar as they pose an “imminent threat,” capture “would be infeasible,” and the killing is consistent with accepted law of war principles.

If you weren’t already terrified by the power that the Obama White House has arrogated to itself and future administrations, this memo ought to do the trick. The unabashed indifference to the rights and lives of American citizens that is contained in the memo should come as no surprise, validating the general arguments anarchists offer about the nature of the state.

Understanding that basic nature is a necessary prerequisite for accurately assessing phenomena like the War on Terror and its daily outrages against civil liberties. The state is defined by invasions of the sphere of legitimate individual sovereignty possessed naturally by every human being.

Market anarchists contend that those spheres of sovereignty, within which each person may act freely and according to her own judgment, translate into a foundational law of equal liberty — a law which cannot rightly be transgressed by man-made laws or institutions. In turn, market anarchists argue that, when carried out to its logical conclusion, this law of equal liberty must in practice mean a society absent the state — though, it is important to note, not necessarily without law, order or many of the forms of social organization we have today.

If the state is defined by the fact of its aggression against peaceful individuals, and if it forcibly precludes competing arbiters of law, order and defense, then it is incompatible with the fundamental law upon which any civilized, consensual society must be grounded. As Francis D. Tandy wrote in 1901, anarchists ask only “that the State shall restrict itself to the protection of person and property and the maintenance of Equal Freedom, and then, in conformity with that principle, cease to compel anyone to support it. If you wish to call what is left ‘a State,’ our only disagreement will be on the use of the word.”

Furthermore, anarchists point out that as a historical matter, states have never actually engaged in the business of promoting peace, law and order anyway, that they have rather been defined by chaos, slaughter and injustice since their emergence. Kill lists, arrant heedlessness toward due process, war without end — none of these come as a surprise to the anarchist observer, whose skepticism toward centralized power is reaffirmed time and again.

The actions of the United States in the War on Terror reduce its invocations of transparency, law and order to mere catchphrases, used to overawe a credulous population, but cast aside without ado when they become inconvenient. Limits that the state places upon the exercise of its own power are not and never have been been strong enough to check the underlying interests at play.

And that’s just the point we must make in the face of, for instance, executive branch murder memos: We cannot grant a single institution the unqualified prerogative to monopolize the use of force within society and expect that it will only use that monopoly for good. The only curb on the destructive power of an institution or other actor in society is a true separation of powers, giving no one the right to arbitrarily aggress, and leaving the sovereignty of each individual intact and unmolested.

Were we to arrive at such a point, we would find no state there. Trade and commerce, law, order, these would remain — indeed thrive — without the great predator, the state, to swathe its wanton exercise of deadly force in the language of the common good. The state is the enemy of the common good and the enemy of life. The Justice Department’s memo is an unnerving reminder of that fact.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory