Medea Benjamin shouts as President Obama speaks at the National Defense University in Washington, DC, May 23, 2013. (Photo: AFP)
An almost unheard of thing happened near the end of President Barack Obama’s much anticipated speech on counterterrorism Thursday: a critic publicly challenged him on the ongoing detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and the use of drones in targeted killings. And in the charged confusion, something resembling an exchange occurred.
“You are commander-in-chief! It’s been 11 years; release [the Guantanamo inmates] today!” Code Pink founder Medea Benjamin bellowed at the National Defense University in Washington DC.
“We’re addressing that, ma’am,” the president answered, struggling to get a word in. He then went on to directly address the issue:
“I know the politics are hard. But history will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism and those of us who fail to end it. Imagine a future — 10 years from now or 20 years from now — when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not part of our country. Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are being held on a hunger strike. I’m willing to cut the young lady who interrupted me some slack because it’s worth being passionate about. Is this who we are? Is that something our Founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave our children?”
Incredibly, and somewhat surreally, Benjamin was allowed to stay, only to pounce again.
“Can you stop the signature strikes killing people on the basis of suspicious activities?” she called out.
As security ultimately escorted her away, Benjamin continued: “… thousands of Muslims that got killed — will you compensate the innocent families? I love my country. I love the rule of law. Abide by the rule of law! You’re a constitutional lawyer!”
And, again, Obama did not entirely brush her off:
“The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to. (Applause.) Obviously, I do not agree with much of what she said, and obviously she wasn’t listening to me in much of what I said. But these are tough issues, and the suggestion that we can gloss over them is wrong.”
In the aftermath, the exchange has been dismissed as a “heckling” event. But the truth is that for a brief time the atmosphere in the room was electric. And, everyone present was transfixed, with every camera, and most every eye, trained on Benjamin. It was bizarre to see the leader of the free world struggle to continue this most important of speeches with the majority of his audience looking the other way.
The term “speaking truth to power” is much bandied about, often by self-congratulatory journalists. But rarely do we witness an exchange that actually lives up to the spirit of the phrase.
Whatever you think about Benjamin’s tactics, they nevertheless spurred a riveting exchange. And they arguably could not have come at a better time on a more crucial set of issues: a president’s power to kill or indefinitely detain without due process.
As it happened, Obama’s chief of staff was sitting directly behind me, and I couldn’t help but catch some of his reaction. Not only did he seem unfazed, he even wondered aloud if he should call off the encroaching security guards.
One was left to wonder if some quick political calculus was at play, not only because the confrontation offered Obama an opportunity to answer his harshest critics, but also because it was a gripping exhibition of democracy in action… even if it was freedom-of-speech by accident. (“How did she get in here?” many a scandalized journo uttered in the aftermath.)
Explaining her actions after the speech, Benjamin told the New York Times:
“People around the world are tired of nice words from President Obama, and they want some concrete action….Some say it’s rude to interrupt the president, but it’s rude to kill innocent people with drones.”
Even before Benjamin injected herself into the proceedings, the speech was compelling. Obama addressed many of the deep concerns about his counterterrorism policies to date, including their constitutionality and their morality.
The president called for an end to the perpetual war footing the country has maintained since 9/11. While admitting and defending his “lethal targeted action with drones,” Obama also said he would move to significantly circumscribe their use with new guidelines for transparency and accountability. He also said he would begin anew the effort to end the scourge that is Guantanamo.
“So America is at a crossroads. We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us. We have to be mindful of James Madison’s warning that ‘No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.’ Neither I, nor any president, can promise the total defeat of terror. We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society.”
Obama acknowledged the “hard fact” that innocent civilians had been killed by U.S. drones.
“And for the families of those civilians, no words or legal construct can justify their loss. For me, and those in my chain of command, those deaths will haunt us as long as we live, just as we are haunted by the civilian casualties that have occurred throughout conventional fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
He used the targeted killing in Yemen of the U.S. citizen Anwar Awlaki to address a core anxiety about his policies.
“For the record, I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen — with a drone, or with a shotgun — without due process, nor should any President deploy armed drones over U.S. soil.”
Because Awlaki was actively trying to kill Americans, Obama said, his citizenship should have offered no more of a shield than the citizenship of a deranged domestic sniper as a SWAT team approached.
Still, Obama appeared to recognize that the unchecked use of drones could be corrosive to the nation’s democratic underpinnings. “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance. For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power — or risk abusing it.”
“Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states,” Obama said, regarding the need to dial down the unchecked power that Congress delivered to the Oval Office 12 years ago via the Authorization for Use of Military Force.
He called for revisiting the rules so that lethal force would only be used on those who pose a “continuing and imminent threat,” and that there must be a “near certainty” that no harm would come to civilians.
“America does not take strikes to punish individuals; we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat,” Obama said.
In regard to the last line, Democracy Now noted a McClatchy newspapers report that said, “Obama’s speech appeared to expand those who could be targeted in drone strikes and other undisclosed ‘lethal actions.’ Up until Thursday, Obama and his top aides have said that drone strikes are restricted to killing confirmed ‘senior operational leaders of al-Qaeda and associated forces’ plotting imminent violent attacks against the United States. But Obama dropped that wording Thursday, making no reference at all to senior operational leaders.”
Obama also offered a variety of possible new drone oversight approaches, one being the establishment of a new a special court, and the other an in-house group within the executive.
Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman spoke to a number of administration critics after the speech. They were in the main critical of these proposals, suggesting that they were tantamount to asking judges for “death warrants.”
Obama went on to point out the fiscal absurdities involved in keeping Guantanamo open —$150 million each year to incarcerate 166 prisoners. But, beyond the money, to the rest of the world, Guantanamo stands for an “America that flouts the rule law.”
For her part, Benjamin objected to the NY Times and others calling her a “heckler”:
“I think a heckler is a very negative term, and I think it’s a positive thing when people find the courage to speak up to leaders who are not leading. And I didn’t do what I did to embarrass the president. I did it because I feel that he needs to be pushed more, that it has been over four years now of policies that have been killing innocent people with drones. It has been now over 11 years that innocent people are still being held in Guantánamo and now being force-fed. These are crisis situations, and it requires more from us as citizens.”