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'Presidential Kill List:' abroad or at home, do we approve?


Last Sunday on an episode of “The Firm” (a television show based on John Grisham’s novel by the same name), a U.S. Army-man’s son was murdered by the federal government; he was assassinated in a Washington, D.C. suburb due to his associations with terrorists and as a means to stop the son from bombing a D.C. landmark.

The father, with the help of the show’s protagonist attorney, made efforts to get information about the killing from the government using a Freedom of Information Act Request. 

The hearing to rule on the request, which took place in secret and under extreme surveillance, divulged the existence of the “Presidential Kill List.” According to the show, this list authorizes the government to take down American citizens in a theatre of war and with little to no explanation to the victims’ families. 

As the show demonstrates, in the age of modern warfare and terrorism, the theatre of war extends well beyond that of the battlefield. Thus, as the show portrays, the government could argue that the taking down of American citizens acting as terrorists as part of the “kill list movement” could reasonably extend to domestic soil. 

Interestingly enough, Attorney General Eric Holder defended this system on Monday in a talk he gave at Northwestern University School of Law. Currently, the United States uses systematic killings to target those suspected of killing and pursuing Americans. These systematic assassinations (although the government refuses to call them such) include American citizens who are working abroad in terroristic capacities. 

Holder refers to these takedowns as “operation(s) using lethal force” and insists that when they occur in a foreign land they are perfectly legal if three conditions exist: (1) imminent threat, (2) inability to capture and (3) the action is within the laws of war.

According to USA Today and Reuters, a “secret panel” places individuals on the kill list and then reports the information to the president. The proceedings of this panel are not open to the public, meaning that the probable cause (or lack thereof) is never reviewed before or after the killings are approved, nor is a trial granted, nor are charges ever formally announced.

What I struggle with is how easy it is to imagine the reality of that episode of “The Firm.” Notice that the three conditions listed by Holder fail to include a requirement of “in a foreign forum.” The definition of these attacks as deadly force “in a foreign land” seems secondary, and with such little transparency and accountability, it seems likely that the “applause” and support given to the current use of this program will encourage the government to continue to push the limits of this movement.

And, while Holder insists that the Constitution “requires due process, not judicial process,” how can we be sure that due process is given if no one other than those deciding to kill and doing the killing are privy to the evidence?

Terrorism and the threat of terrorism are real, but so is the Constitution. Fear is often a legitimate motivation, but if it goes unchecked, basic rights tend to go by the wayside, as demonstrated by the unchecked killing of American citizens by our government.


Emily Stedman is a second-year law student from Marietta, Ga.