Thursday, October 6, 2011

The killing of Anwar al-Awlaki

First of all, I am neither a pacifist nor an absolute opponent of the death penalty. But, I am a strict advocate of due process and the rule of law. Here are the main points as I see them.

1. Al-Awlaki was born here and hence was a U.S. citizen. As such, he had due-process rights guaranteed by our Constitution. As far as I know, al-Awlaki was never tried, in person or in absentia, for any crime.

2. Al-Awlaki made it clear by personal statements on many occasions that he was a member of, and fully supported, the terrorist group al-Qaeda. There is hardly any doubt that al-Qaeda was and is a perpetrator of lethal damage against the U.S. and other countries. There is little doubt that al-Awlaki advocated and encouraged these attacks.

3. The U.S. killed al-Awlaki in Yemen, in a surprise drone attack, an attack that killed several other people nearby. This is typical of recent American anti-terrorist activities in places throughout the world, including Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan -- and probably other countries as well.

4. We've known about al-Awlaki for at least a decade; there are FBI files dating back to before the 9/11 attacks. While his earlier activities may have been (deliberately) ambiguous, his advocacy for the al-Qaeda cause has been clear in recent years.

So, why couldn't al-Awlaki have been tried -- even in absentia -- for treason, and had his citizenship stripped from him? There was certainly no press for time, since he's been wanted for several years now. Obama and his National Security Council authorized his murder about a year ago. Even formally (without constitutional challenge) this would have been legal only if he were an "imminent threat" to national security. Why advocacy of the terrorist cause, hardly a new or strikingly effective action, would be an imminent threat is unclear. It was hardly a secret that we were after him. Why couldn't his case have been taken up legally years ago?

Unlike many cases of people accused of capital crimes (including treason), there is and was no doubt of guilt here: Al-Awlaki personally made public his support of al-Qaeda and its objectives, and publicly recruited for the murderous organization. Given this, why couldn't Obama's administration manage to go through legal channels instead having the President simply "authorized" his termination?

What's getting scarier and scarier is the power that a succession of presidents has been claiming. We are not at war with Yemen, or Afghanistan; in fact, we are not at war with any country at the moment. (We weren't at war with Libya either, BTW.) We are supposedly at war with "terrorism", though strict -- or even not so strict -- constructionists of the Constitution might wonder how that could come about. Presidents have the constitutional power to grant amnesty, but I've never heard of a constitutional power -- short of a declaration of war -- to grant a license to kill, especially to off an American citizen.

Nations have the right to defend themselves against horrible people who think nothing about putting deadly bombs in crowded public places. If they are caught in the act, they should be stopped by any means consistent with public safety -- and this may mean mowing them down with gunfire. However, absent the compelling need for immediate life-preserving action, we have to be governed by laws.

1 comment:

  1. In retrospect, it is unsettling that agent 007 had a license to kill. Somehow, it didn't bother me when as an adolescent I read the Bond books. Apparently, JFK was also swept up in the romance of it all. The "War on Terror" is somewhat similar to the War on Communism and is, perhaps, it's offspring. Perhaps Bond was progenitor of Jack Bower and Obama's drones.

    It is unsettling how a president who supposedly reveres the legal process seems so eager to follow the trend of circumventing the law. The next yahoo president will take it to frightening levels, I fear.