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U.S. hiding behind tortured definitions

National GovernmentJustice SystemAl-Qaeda

If it is true, as the writer Samuel Johnson once said, that "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel," then the dictionary must be the first.

Consider how readily our leaders, in justifying what cannot be justified, parse definitions down to microns of fineness or invent obfuscating euphemisms to hide behind. As in Bill Clinton's memorable attempt to deny he had misled the American people about his relationship with a White House intern. "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is," he said. Then, there was the Bush administration's attempt to make waterboarding, sleep deprivation, clothes deprivation, stress positions and other filthy instruments of torture sound as antiseptic as an operating room: "enhanced interrogation," they called it.

To those acts of violence against clarity, we can add a new one. A Justice Department memo recently obtained by NBC News authorizes drone strikes to kill U.S. citizens who join al-Qaida, saying this is legal when three conditions are met. The third is that the operation be conducted "consistent with applicable law of war principles." The second is that capture is infeasible. But it is the first that puts ice down your back. It requires that "an informed, high-level official of the U.S. government has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States."

If you don't see why that should shiver your spine, perhaps you use a different dictionary than the government. Merriam-Webster for instance, defines "imminent" as an adjective meaning, "ready to take place; especially: hanging threateningly over one's head."

But in its memo, which surfaces as the Senate ponders confirming John Brennan as director of the CIA, the Justice Department says its definition of "imminent threat" doesn't require "clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future."

In other words, "imminent" doesn't mean "imminent." And if U.S. intelligence -- which we all know is infallible, right? -- determines you to be a member of al-Qaida, that determination, absent any evidence of a planned attack, gives the government the legal pretext to vaporize you. Worse, the government contends this may be done without oversight, judicial or otherwise. The president becomes, quite literally, your judge, jury and executioner.

That's what happened to Anwar al-Awlaki, the Muslim cleric, born in New Mexico, who was dispatched to meet Allah in 2011 after a career of planning and inciting terrorist attacks in the United States, including the failed bombing of Times Square in 2010.

No one weeps for this man. Yet it is possible to be glad the planet is rid of him and yet deeply concerned about the means used to achieve that goal. Not for his sake, or for the sake of any other plotter against this country, but rather for the sake of the country itself.

Barack Obama came to office decrying just this sort of Bush-league overreach, the ends-justifies-the-means rationalizations of an administration that reserved the right to imprison without trial and issued memos contemplating the legality of scalding a prisoner with water or putting his eyes out. Of course, Michael Corleone was critical of the Don, too, until he assumed that power.

So it was welcome to hear the president pledge greater transparency, in last week's State of the Union address. And administration officials say they have been pondering ways to create independent oversight of the counterterrorism program.

But it is time to stop pledging and pondering and just do. The idea of a secret killing program, answerable to no one, is jarringly inconsonant with who and what we are supposed to be. One fears that, in the name of expedience, we will become what we abhor. Indeed, the danger is imminent.

Whatever that means.

Leonard Pitts, a Maryland resident, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him via email at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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