In the last decade or so, one has frequently heard people express the sentiment that it is somehow “better” for powerful politicians to openly proclaim the evil things they do, because “at least it’s out in the open.” In my mind, this is profoundly and disturbingly misguided, as our present experience with Obama’s “kill list” shows. When Bush openly claimed excessive powers, his party embraced that position and it became part of the mainstream debate. Similarly now with Obama’s “kill list” — there are now liberal pundits who are openly defending the indefensible, simply because it’s their guy doing it. I don’t think any rational person can argue that this course of events has improved the chances of rolling back the Bush-Obama anti-terror policies.
What’s nice about hypocrisy is that it at least maintains some point of connection with morality. It keeps moral principles — like “you don’t torture people” or “you don’t send killer robots to murder people on your sole say-so” — enshrined as norms, meaning that there’s some kind of leverage for change. Actually committing the crimes is bad enough, but publicly proclaiming them to be the right thing to do is an even more horrific crime, because it closes down the possibility that the crimes may end in the future.
We have a “natural experiment” before our eyes right now of how the “at least it’s out in the open” strategy worked with Bush and Obama — once moral norms are dethroned, it just leads to further degradation. I know that one might be uncomfortable with such slippery-slope arguments given how often they’re used by conservatives, but that really is how it works. We just happen to think the moral norms they lament weren’t truly moral in the first place — it’s good that we’re on a slippery slope toward greater freedom to divorce, greater acceptance of gays, etc. It’s not good that we’re on a slippery slope toward greater acceptance of torture and assassination. (I hope this isn’t too complicated for anyone.)
So in conclusion, if I had to choose between Obama having a top-secret kill list that he’d disavow in public and the current situation, I’d chose the top-secret kill list every time — because say what you will of hypocrisy, at least it leaves open the possibility of an ethos.