What Slaughter wants to say but cannot quite say is that, whether or not Western civilization and its deeply embedded egalitarian ideal might have survived a Mongol victory at Vienna in 1241, or perhaps have arisen in quasi-reptilian form among evolved dinosaurs in the absence of the Yucatán asteroid, the 4th of July can be thought to commemorate a true inflection point in human history as a meaningful history. The American Founding as symbolized by whichever of its most important days may or may not qualify as history’s single most course-altering event, but it still invites comparison, without any hint of vulgar “exceptionalism,” to a small handful of other singular moments – as in the Hegelian world-historical concept, but with point of origin transferred to the New World from the Old: perhaps not as the biggest day in the natural history of one damn thing after another from Big Bang to Heat Death, but as a or the day after which history itself, as human history, must be thought of as truly changed.
A political identity and a position on political identity may in the final analysis be indistinguishable from each other, and I cannot legitimize my own concept of legitimacy or of political identity without referring to the same to be legitimized, identity-creating or -affirming or -confirming concepts.
The overall dysfunctionality of a political discussion can be the product of countless such lesser dysfunctionalities, though the overall dysfunctionality of that discourse may in turn be what makes it manageable, or manageable enough. We dislike things the way they dysfunctionally are, and that is how we like things.
The pathos of the libertarian lament reminds us of real death and suffering, and of real failures of policy and moral imagination, but such stubborn self-insistence makes it difficult for others to speak to the would-be prophets other than as to children. Here as so often, the ideological libertarian position reveals itself to be implicitly pacifist and essentially anti-political, in a word utopian, in calling for an impossible polity, one that would be inherently incapable of defending itself or its integrity against violent opposition, whether from actual states or from so-called non-state (actually crypto- or proto-state) actors.
In an “objective” if not necessarily “morally clear” accounting, the thousands killed and thousands more disfigured and terrified would receive many thousands of times greater concern. The child dismembered by a bomb blast, the soldier buried alive in a bunker, the prisoner merely sent off to some conventional Hell, and on and on, precisely as they become multiplied by thousands or millions and turned into numbers, all seem to command less outrage and concern than the captive in manacles.
The Drones as symbol refer us to a tyrannical, imperial, not merely mechanical but super-biological or super-organic, invulnerable, temporally and geographically unbounded, and most of all cruelly lethal power that has already annihilated the human being ideally before it sends its “Hellfire” missile at him to finish the job, while also morally annihilating the distant human pilots and their masters, the latter group eventually including all of us who benefit or who possess a moral share in the program as citizens of a democratic republic.
To step back from the Armageddon-level options that still follow the U.S. president around in a briefcase, there remains only a post hoc and in the highest sense political check on a president’s interpretation of Article 2 powers. In non-global-apocalyptic but merely national apocalyptically extreme cases, a president may even interpret his designated and implied powers to allow for flagrantly unconstitutional measures: We return as frequently to Lincoln during the Civil War, nullifying the requirement for writ of habeas corpus, generally prosecuting a war against insurrectionists on the basis of his own judgment until eventually recognized by a wartime Supreme Court. At such points, it is “up to history” to determine whether the executive has done the right thing – will get a monument or a tearful farewell under threat of impeachment.
If progressives believe, or know whether they believe, that exceptional measures were justifiable, but went wrong, then an entirely different replacement regime and set of reforms might make sense than if they believe common rhetoric about rule of law mattering more than all other concerns, whatever the costs or risks. On the other hand, if they believe the War on Terror was in fact a self-obviating success, then they might wish to replace the AUMF with a new legal and administrative regime that acknowledges and learns from authentic successes – successful warmaking against a real and legitimate, not simply ideologically constructed enemy – as well as from errors.