Obama and the office of the president

TW: indefinite detention, suspension of constitutional rights, violence against protesters

Today is President’s Day, which is a federal holiday in the US used to commemorate President Washington and President Lincoln, who are often recalled as the man who saved us from dictatorship twice over (from the UK and from himself) and the man who prevented the dissolution of the United States into smaller, weaker states during the Civil War. Though they might have done such remarkable feats which many residents of the US benefit from to this day, we often don’t like talking about what resources they had at their disposal to do so.

This, of course, is particularly noticeable today, on the day that we inevitably laud both of those prior presidents and inadvertently contrast our lofty depictions of them with the all too fallible reality the Obama administration has given us. Just a few days earlier, it was reported that those how have been indefinitely detained in Guantánamo in opposition to almost every major judicial policy laid out in the US constitution are now being subject to warrantless searches while in court. Sadly, there’s an argument to be made that warrants wouldn’t be necessary, since their jail cells were being searched, rather than their homes – nevermind that they’ve been forced to live in those cells for years now. The legal procedures are so broken, it’s hard to even sort out how many judicial norms are being broken at once.

(An unnamed Guantánamo detainee sleeps in his cell in 2008. Cells like this were targeted for searches while their usual occupants were at court hearings. Image from here.)

There’s little attention paid to how Washington personally led American troops in the successful putting down of the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791, which resulted in one protester being shot and another repeatedly stabbed. In a judicial decision both of those deaths were deemed accidental but that’s a difficult explanation to swallow, particularly in the case involving multiple stab wounds. It seems quite important to admit that the first presidency of the United States under our modern constitution was marred by agents of the state killing protesters with impunity.

Likewise, whether you ultimately swallow Lincoln’s argument that habeas corpus needed to be suspended since an insurrection was happening and many citizens of the United States were no longer operating as citizens of that country, you have to admit he suspended the right to a trial and the necessity for the state to have legal charges before detaining a person. Many of the same legal rights that have been broken time and again by the Bush and Obama administrations were outright erased from the legal system for a few years under Lincoln.

In short, the constitutional norms and legal precedents of the United States’ constitution have been uniquely damaged over the past thirteen years, but those violations are by no means a break from an otherwise smooth political history, particularly when the lives of Black Americans, women, and other systemically disenfranchised groups are considered. While it might seem topical to contrast the modern situation with what’s often imagined to have been the United States of  Lincoln’s and Washington’s time, there’s less of a contrast there than we might want to admit.

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