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If you care about civil liberties, can you vote for Barack Obama?


I wrote this in April. Given today's assassination of a U.S. citizen with Al Qaeda ties, it's a good time to restate it.
First, do no harm.

That's where I start with my philosophy of governance. Maybe it sounds conservative. I don't think conservatives would have me as one of their own, though, because I think it is also wise—where possible—for republican government (as the servant of the community) to provide services we can't otherwise provide for ourselves. A safety net for the poor. Universal healthcare. NPR. Stuff like that.

But a government charged with providing such services to—and on behalf of—the citizens has a basic obligation that supersedes those: Do no harm.

Do not torture people.

Do not lock away people without due process of law.

Do not eavesdrop on people without a warrant.

Do not subject people to cruel and unusual punishment.

Do not deprive people of their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

If a government cannot do those things, the rest—the social services, the safety net—is just a payoff. If a government cannot do those things, then it is probably no longer a government that derives its power from its citizens, but instead is (or is on its way to becoming) a government that rules its citizens. It's not always easy to tell the difference between the two, but the distinction is there—and it is important.

I have lost confidence in the ability of Barack Obama to first do no harm.

He is in charge of a government that—despite promises to end torture—is clearly trying to break the will of one of its own citizens in a military brig.

He is in charge of a government that prosecutes suspected terrorists in whichever format seems most likely to guarantee a win for prosecutors, instead of giving every suspect equal access to the law.

He is in charge of a government that seeks ever more-expansive ways to spy upon its citizens. He is in charge of a government that claims the right to kill a citizen without any kind of legal proceeding. He is in charge of a government that proclaims itself legally immune from efforts to hold it accountable for transgressions. And he is in charge of an administration that reserves to itself the right to make war without permission from Congress.

I voted for Barack Obama in 2008 because I was mad. I was mad at George W. Bush for doing everything I've listed above, plus a few other things. I was kind of mad about Republican governance that seemed interested, mainly, in catering to the interests of the rich, but I was mostly mad about how the Bush Administration had reserved to itself unlimited, abusive wartime powers—in the name of prosecuting a war without end. Obama seemed to promise more than that.

He has delivered, on these matters, almost exactly what came before. I can no longer trust Barack Obama, or the Democratic Party, to be truly on the side of civil liberties.

Adam Serwer, a liberal, wrote: "Point is, though, if you voted for Obama in 2008 expecting a restoration of the rule of law, a rejection of the Bush national-security paradigm or even a candidate who wouldn't rush headlong into wars in Muslim countries expecting to turn back the current of history through mere force of will, then you don't have a candidate for 2012. You probably don't have a party either." He is right.

Conor Friedersdorf, a conservative, wrote: "Since his January 2009 inauguration, President Obama has embraced positions that he denounced as a candidate, presided over a War on Drugs every bit as absurd as it's always been, asserted the unchecked, unreviewable power to name American citizens enemy combatants and assassinate them, and launched a war without seeking Congressional authorization. His attorney general's efforts to live up to his boss' campaign rhetoric have been thwarted at every turn. And presiding over the disgraceful treatment of Bradley Manning, he has lost the right even to tout his record on detainee policy. On civil liberties, President Obama cannot be trusted." He is right.

For a long time, I have paused before the decision I find I must make. Democrats are awful, but Republicans are worse. They'll do all of the above—gleefully, without any pretense of a furrowed brow—and they'll do it while doing everything they can to exacerbate inequality between the very rich and the rest of us.

After the darkness of the Bush years, I came to convince myself that the lesser evil is, well, less evil. At some point, though, the lesser evil is still too evil to support. I don't believe Barack Obama is evil. I believe he is better than his opponents—but not in the critical realm where the "do no harm" rule applies. And I do not believe he is good enough.

The president has announced his re-election campaign. At this point, he will not have my vote. He has until November 2012 to earn it back. I do not expect he will.



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