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Either way, it’s definitely disturbing, and (a term I don’t often use) un-American.

What is? The fact that the Obama White House has ordered the CIA to assassinate an American citizen, wherever and whenever he may be found. A man who’s been charged with no crime, much less convicted of one.

The ostensible reason? “Terrorism,” of course.

That this is absolutely unconscionable and inexcusable should go without saying. But apparently it doesn’t, since people I know to be smart, thoughtful liberals have been making excuses for it. So let’s talk about it for a bit.

The man in question is one Anwar al-Awlaki. He’s a Muslim cleric, born and raised in the U.S., who’s long been an outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy. He’s currently in hiding in Yemen. He’s advocated attacks on U.S. military targets… which in itself remains constitutionally protected free speech, whether we find it distasteful or not. He’s also corresponded with the perpetrators of the Fort Hood shootings and the attempted Christmas Day “underwear bombing,” but he denies active involvement in planning either attack.

However, our government now alleges that he’s become an active recruiter for an al Qaeda affiliate, and has thus crossed a line into being a “military target.” He now poses a danger that “is no longer confined to words.” How do we know this? Well, as the New York Times puts it, this is what “American intelligence officials… say they believe… on condition of anonymity.”

In other words, no one is willing to put any specific charges on the record, much less evidence to support them, nor has al-Awlaki been offered any opportunity to defend himself or confront his accusers. No court has had the chance to determine whether there’s so much as probable cause to believe any of this. He’s simply assumed to be guilty on the say-so of anonymous officials, despite the fact that his family vehemently denies the allegations.

This would be an appropriate time to remind ourselves of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. It guarantees that “No person shall… be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” There has manifestly been no due process here. Not a trace of it.

The policy allowing this sort of thing was put in place by the Bush administration, but it was never exercised. Until now. By Obama.

People concerned about civil liberties and abuse of power objected when the Bush administration spied on Americans without judicial warrants. We objected to our government kidnapping and disappearing people suspected of involvement with terrorism. We objected to imprisoning people without evidence or charge. We objected to torturing them. If all those things were unacceptable—and they manifestly were—then how much more extreme is it, how much more blatantly wrong is it, to kill people by executive fiat? Even our conservative Supreme Court, in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, held that a citizen deemed an “enemy combatant” must at the very least have access to judicial habeas corpus proceedings.

Yet many who should object are instead attempting to defend and rationalize this abominable policy.

“But we’re at war!,” people say. Well, no, actually we’re not. War is something that takes place between sovereign nations, as defined and constrained in very specific terms by binding international treaties and domestic law under the Constitution. You can’t conduct a war against a nebulous international network of conspirators, which is what al Qaeda is. What we’ve been doing since 2001 is using military force in a widespread (and poorly planned) multinational counterinsurgency effort. It’s a real distinction, however much the PTB have tried to fuzzy it up the last few years. (And it was a strategic mistake from the start, trying to force what should have been an intelligience and law-enforcement exercise into an outdated and short-sighted military paradigm.)

Moreover, legally, even if time of genuine war, the right to kill other people begins and ends “on the battlefield” (and/or in “enemy territory”). In a sense war is a large-scale expansion of the principle of self-defense: deadly force is only justifiable against someone who’s posing a clear and imminent threat. Yet even if al-Awlaki has done everything alleged against him, whatever “threat” he poses is anything but clear or imminent.

“But he’s the enemy!” Why should we believe this? We know that anonymous “officials” and the intelligence community have been disastrously wrong before. We know that the detainees held at Guantanamo, allegedly “the worst of the worst” captured “on the battlefield,” were often nothing of the sort, and that most of them have been released. We know that we’ve mistakenly imprisoned and tortured innocent cab drivers and scholars and sheepherders. All of this is undisputed fact. So why on earth should we now take the word of similar officials, completely anonymous and unaccountable, in this case? This is why due process of law exists: to hold the government publicly accountable for the way it exercises its power over individuals.

“He’s fair game: he’s using his keyboard as a weapon, so wherever he is is a battlefield!” This kind of argument was logically and legally specious when Bush made it, and it’s no better now. It turns the entire world into a battlefield, and thus reduces the term to meaninglessness. America isn’t facing any existential threat, and it certainly isn’t facing attack from the entire world. This is nothing but a handwaving excuse for government to do whatever it wants, wherever it wants, with impunity.

The CIA really shouldn’t be in the business of assassinations in the first place. Time was, allegations of this kind of behavior were controversial enough to prompt congressional hearings, and for years the agency (dishonestly) denied that it had ever done any such thing. Apparently times have changed: now it’s not only acceptable to have an official hit list, but it can include U.S. citizens without a shred of due process. The “war on terror” continues to debase our very concept of justice, as Dahlia Lithwick has written eloquently in Slate.

Over at Salon, meanwhile, Glenn Greenwald has done his usual exemplary job of dissecting everything that’s wrong with this policy, detail by excruciating detail. Keith Olbermann at MSNBC has spoken out against it as well. So it’s not as if there aren’t prominent criticisms being voiced. But what’s disturbing is that there’s even a debate. Indeed, opposition should transcend political boundaries: this is the sort of thing that paranoid right-wingers like Beck and Hannity and Limbaugh really ought to be raising the roof about, if there’s even a grain of integrity to their expressed concerns about excessive government power. But there isn’t, of course; Hating Terraists is far more important to them, so they’ve remained silent. That’s unsurprising… but what’s indescribably sadder is how many seemingly reasonable people are willing to accept this, as can be seen in the discussion threads on any of the links above, and as I’ve discovered in my own discussions with friends online.

What we’re talking about here is extrajudicial murder. Nothing more, nothing less.

Terrorism is a bad thing: stipulated. It suffers from a fundamental disconnect between ends and means, in terms both moral and logical. But so does this assassination policy. It isn’t just wrong ethically, it’s wrong pragmatically, if the goal is reduce the threat of terrorism. Did this kind of thing ever work for the British against the IRA? Did it work for the Soviets against Afghanistan? Has it worked for Israel against the Palestinians? In every case, and countless others, the answer is no. All it achieves is to undermine the moral authority of the more powerful country, and provide a rallying point for its opponents.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if al-Awlaki really is as bad as anonymous officials says. It doesn’t matter what he’s done or threatened to do. I don’t care if he’s the Muslim equivalent of David Koresh, Charles Manson, and John Gotti all rolled into one: it doesn’t matter.

What matters is that this is America, and this country’s very existence is based on certain fundamental principles of human rights and the rule of law. Those principles say that our government doesn’t get to kill people by executive fiat. Period. Full stop. If we abandon those principles, we abandon our very claim to legitimacy as a nation. And having Obama behind this doesn’t make it better, it makes it worse: if this sort of thing is deemed acceptable under a supposedly “liberal” Democrat, if this precedent is set, imagine what the right-wingers will try to get away with next time they’re in power.

When facing a moral conflict, what’s important is not “doing whatever it takes to win,” though some will always frame things that way. What’s important is holding on to principle and standing by what’s right. This isn’t it.

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8 Responses to “Orwellian or Kafkaesque? I can’t decide.”
  1. We have this little thing called the International Criminal Court nowadays.

    If the Obama Administration would care to make the case for an arrest warrant to them, I’d bet the volunteers from around the world for the arrest detail would be lining up around the District of Columbia’s borders.

  2. Interesting possibility. Yemen, although it doesn’t have an extradition treaty with the U.S. (or any other country, per its constitution), did ratify the ICC treaty, and would thus be obliged to accept its legal authority, if it’s not willing to bring charges against al-Awlaki on its own.

    Of course, taking that course would also require the U.S. to sign on and accept the ICC’s authority… and heaven forbid we do that, because it might interfere with our ability to do as we like with impunity. (Sense a theme here?)

    Heck, we don’t even know if the U.S. has asked Yemeni authorities to find and prosecute al-Awlaki. The news coverage doesn’t bother to say. Apparently we’d rather take things into our own hands in violation of the law, than trust anybody else to enforce it. That’s typical of the double-standards and cowboy mentality of the Bush/Cheney years, but it’s agonizing to see that kind of thing continued (and exacerbated!) now that they’re gone.

  3. The theme’s been noticed, believe me. Not that our current Prime Minister is completely opposed to freedom from impunity, mind you. (Look up “Afghan detainees”, “Stephen Harper”, “Harper government” et al. on your preferred search engine for more info on that.)

    Back to your main point: If Washington’s asked, and Yemen’s tried and failed to lay hands on him, that’s one thing. If Yemen’s refused, then depending on the reasons for the refusal, that’s any of several other things. It would be very interesting to learn the additional details that we’re not yet seeing here, whatever they turn out to be. If al-Awlaki’s actually up to Something Ugly, then we need to know as much as possible out here in the international public for our own protection. And just maybe, we might be able to save Washington and Sana’a some grief with the execution of that proposed arrest warrant.

  4. Addendum:

    Interestingly, latest reports are that even the Yemeni government has seen no actual evidence to support the allegations against al-Awlaki.

    ” ‘Anwar al-Awlaki has always been looked at as a preacher rather than a terrorist and shouldn’t be considered as a terrorist unless the Americans have evidence that he has been involved in terrorism,’ Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, the Yemeni foreign minister, said.”

  5. Weirdness factor climbing…and not in a good way.

  6. Andrew says:

    It would be intriguing if such stories would be something new, but as they have existed ever since civilisation was born I don’t belive we should be surprised when we hear about political assassinations.

  7. Very interesting post. I’ve been following this story with interest.

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