In 2008, we all whispered or shouted the slogan, “Yes, we can.” It was a mantra. It expressed all the hope for change of progressive Americans after eight dismal years of Bush-Cheney horrors. Now it is five years later and all those hopes and dreams lie shattered in pieces on the ground. All I can muster is a sardonic version of the old slogan: Yes, we can…kill Anwar al-Awlaki. Yes, we can put a bullet between the eyes of an unarmed Osama bin Laden. Yes, we can have a national security state that sacrifices all our constitutional rights. Maybe even, yes we can kill U.S. citizens on U.S. soil. How far we have come. And what a nightmare Obama’s counter-terror policy has become.
It appears that whenever Obama wants to polish his counter-terror credentials or faces harsh criticism of his kill lists and drone strikes, he turns to a few NY Times national security reporters to put out the fire. They were the ones who laid out the rationale for Obama’s secret kill lists. Now that Obama has faced scorching bi-partisan attack against his targeted killing regime from Rand Paul, he’s turned to these trusty journalists to flack the murder of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki.
The article is full of clever rationalizations and ‘definitive’ legal judgments based on questionable evidence. Among the more curious segments dealt with the two lawyers who managed the ‘brilliant’ legal outcome of laying out a defense for killing al Awlaki on terms that were supposedly less restrictive than the sweeping imperial arguments laid out by John Yoo during the Bush administration.
This is supposed to reassure Obama’s liberal base. We got the same result as Bush would’ve but we did it in a way that was kosher. That maintained the veneer of constitutionality about which Bush-Cheney hardly even cared. This soothes the troubled liberal mind. Interestingly, polls show that when the NY Times and Obama lay out the argument for drone killings liberals are much more inclined to support the very same killings they opposed when it was Bush-Cheney doing them.
There is a key defense of the murder of al-Awlaki which neither the Obama administration nor its trusty journalist assets have ever supported with hard evidence. Which is strange considering that if you want to murder a U.S. citizen without trial you’d expect the official murderers to offer some proof. The best they could muster until now was that al-Awlaki had transformed from being a cheerleader for Al Qaeda to being an “operational” figure. There was no definition of that term ever offered. Until now.
So here is the “proof” offered to justify murdering a U.S. citizen:
As dangerous as Mr. Awlaki seemed, he was proved to be only an inciter; counterterrorism analysts did not yet have incontrovertible evidence that he was, in their language, “operational.”
That would soon change. The next day, a 23-year-old Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried and failed to blow up an airliner as it approached Detroit. The would-be underwear bomber told F.B.I. agents that after he went to Yemen and tracked down Mr. Awlaki, his online hero, the cleric had discussed “martyrdom and jihad” with him, approved him for a suicide mission, helped him prepare a martyrdom video and directed him to detonate his bomb over United States territory, according to court documents.
…Mr. Abdulmutallab said he had been sent by a terrorist named Abu Tarek…He [later] admitted that “Abu Tarek” was Mr. Awlaki. With the Nigerian’s statements, American officials had witness confirmation that Mr. Awlaki was clearly a direct plotter, no longer just a dangerous propagandist.
“He had been on the radar all along, but it was Abdulmutallab’s testimony that really sealed it in my mind that this guy was dangerous and that we needed to go after him,” said Dennis C. Blair, then director of national intelligence.
Is it just me, or should we be nervous trying someone in a courtroom that takes the form of a newspaper, and accepting the murderer’s word that his act was justified? There seems something extremely perverse and troubling about this. But even if we accept the murderers word as truthful, what do we have? The American “discussed martyrdom” with the would-be bomber, “approved him” for his mission, helped him prepare a video, and told him to destroy the plane over U.S. territory. Frankly, I don’t see any direct “operational” connection between al-Awlaki and the crime itself. Who prepared the bomb? Who taught the bomber how to use it? Is there any link between al-Awlaki and these figures? I’m guessing if there was, we would’ve heard about it.
So the best we have here is that al-Awlaki is a co-conspirator in a crime that failed. No doubt al-Awlaki would be guilty and could be successfully prosecuted for his actions. But we never attempted to apprehend him. The article does make a reference to one attempt by Yemeni forces to find him in a raid. But that is quickly dispensed with, and there are no further references to such attempts to bring him to justice.
Think about someone attempting to commit murder. We surely want the would-be killed prosecuted. He’s the number one priority. The conspirator? Sure, he’s guilty too. But is he more important than the shooter? No. When do we target the planner of a murder as a higher priority than the actual killer?
We can argue that this isn’t an ordinary murder, but rather a war between the U.S. and Al Qaeda. In a war, so the argument goes, the usual rules don’t apply. But why? And is this really a war? Why should it be a war as opposed to an ordinary criminal prosecution of acts of attempted murder? Because 2,700 American’s died eleven years ago in the World Trade Center? This single crime justifies turning our constitution and judicial system upside down and declaring eternal war against Islamism?
If we can apprehend and try Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law (not even a U.S. citizen) in a U.S. court, why couldn’t we do the same with Anwar al-Awlaki? No doubt it has a great deal to do with the fact that Turkey apprehended the former, while Al-Awlaki found himself in a Yemeni no-man’s land in which he and the U.S. could operate at will and plot to do the worst to each other. Undoubtedly, Turkey extracted promises from the U.S. about how it would treat bin Laden’s son-in-law before it agreed to turn him over to us. al-Awlaki had no such protector. As a result, Obama showed him no mercy, constitution or no constitution.
The NY Times article closes with an account of the murder of al-Awlaki’s 16 year-old son only a few weeks after the murder of his father. In the article, Obama’s minions reveal they made an unfortunate error. They were seeking a veteran Al Qaeda operative who wasn’t even at the site where the attack occurred. Poor al-Awalki Jr. Collateral damage. Unfortunate accident. But an honest one. Just think, so they seem to want us to believe, if our target had been there. Then no one would be second-guessing us and al-Awlaki’s son would be a minor footnote.
But you won’t even read this in the article. No one in the administration expresses any remorse for murdering the teenager. This approach reminds me a great deal of the halachic treatise, Torat Ha-Melech, which permits Jews to murder Arab children on the premise that the latter will grow up to kill Jews. This indeed is the hidden premise behind the Obama approach to the killing of al-Awlaki’s son. His killing may’ve been an accident. But he was the child of our sworn enemy. He likely would’ve grown up to swear revenge against us. Better to kill him now before he develops the capacity to kill us.
Of course, those aren’t the words any administration official would state publicly. But the fact that they would express no remorse for the murder tells us all we need to know about their true attitude toward “mistakes” such as this.
Let me close leaving no doubt where I stand. Rand Paul was right (much as it hurts me to admit it). If Democrats were doing their job and upholding Democratic values of human and constitutional rights, Rand Paul wouldn’t be leading this charge. They would. But their president has swept the ground out from under them and turned them into Bush-Cheney Lite. Democrats around about this time might want to question where Obama’s counter-terror policies are taking them as a party. I can understand the attraction of closing the national security gap Dems have traditionally had with Republicans. This has been a prime factor in electing Republican presidents. But must Dems sell their soul to get elected? If so, what’s the party worth?
No American president has any right to kill any U.S. citizen anywhere in the world without a trial and due process. This is basic. This is elemental. Any president who does this doesn’t deserve to be president, because he’s betrayed the constitution and 200 years of jurisprudence.
Glenn Greenwald at his typical best in analyzing this issue. He gives a far more cogent example of what Pres. Obama could do in future if he found he was entitled to kill a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil. During Senate hearings Senators offered the outlandish hypothetical of assassinating a U.S. citizen while he was enjoying a latte at a cafe. A far more likely scenario might be the case of Jose Padilla. He was arrested on U.S. soil and declared an enemy combatant and held as such for nearly four years. He was deprived of rights that any other American citizen might expect.
But what if there was a future Jose Padilla who was deemed to be an enemy combatant engaged in a conspiracy against the U.S. Under this theory, what would prevent a current or future Obama from killing him instead of arresting him? Who gets to determine whether this suspect is a great enough danger to the U.S. that he may be summarily dispatched without arrest or trial? Are you prepared to leave such a decision to a president who arrogates as much power as this one does, to himself? I know I’m not.
Here are some words to live by:
Human nature means that once you vest a power in political leaders, once you acquiesce to radical theories, that power will inevitably be abused. The time to object – the only effective time – is when that power theory first takes root, not later when it is finally widespread.