April 10, 2013
(DreamWorks, Twentieth Century Fox)
(DreamWorks, Twentieth Century Fox)

I finally got around to seeing the movie “Lincoln” the other day and it made me think of drones. Drones have been in the news a lot these last few days as new reporting has identified their emergence as the dominant force against terrorist threats abroad and concerns continue about their use to target possible enemies within our own borders.

Terrorism, and our response to it, is neither the source of such wide-spread suffering as slavery was nor does it represent the same degree of threat to our union, but it is disruptive to our democracy and challenges our values nonetheless. The legal justification for the tactics against terror generally and the use of drones specifically has been surrounded by controversy and shrouded in secrecy under Bush and Obama. These tactics run contrary to most of our democratic and legal values: due process and oversight, to name just two. As did, perhaps, Lincoln’s tactics to hold the Union together and to ultimately ban slavery. Tony Kushner’s screenplay adaptation of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s masterpiece “Team of Rivals” has some dialogue that speaks not only to the times of Lincoln but also to our own.

Early in the film, President Lincoln explains to his cabinet why he instituted the Emancipation Proclamation which many, including some within his own circle, thought an egregious violation of federal power. At first, Lincoln jokes that his attorney general wasn’t “any too certain about the legality of my Proclamation, just it wasn’t downright criminal. Somewhere’s in between.” Then, in Kushner’s words, Lincoln goes on to the more serious heart of his argument: “I decided that the Constitution gives me war powers, but no one knows exactly that those powers are. Some say they don’t exist, I don’t know. I decided I needed them to exist to uphold my oath to protect the Constitution…”

This explanation is too much for cabinet member John Usher who says Lincoln’s description of his powers matches those of a dictator. Another cabinet member disagrees saying, “Dictators aren’t susceptible to law.”  “Neither is he!, ” shouts back Mr. Usher. “He just said as much! Ignoring the courts? Twisting meanings? What reins him in…”

And next, Lincoln gives his answer: “The people I suppose. I signed the Emancipation Proclamation a year and half before my second election. I felt I was within my power to do it; however, I also felt I could be wrong about that. I knew the people would tell me. I gave ‘em a year and half to think about it. And they reelected me.”

Perhaps the American people have given their blessing to giving this president and his predecessor extraordinary powers. They were both reelected. The majority of Americans may feel that, like abolishing slavery, the ends justify the means when it comes to fighting terrorism.  But what Lincoln did was transparent; he suspended habeas corpus and seized the “property” of slaves. The people could make their own judgment about that.  But the war on terror occurs in the shadows, and the American people are ill-informed about how it is conducted or what the consequences may be. Shadows are not conducive to the healthy flourishing of democracies. The check of the people is rendered blank.