If Barack Obama is going to bring the act of targeted killing to its acme during his presidency and take all the political credit, as questionable as it may be, then I believe we should saddle him with the full responsibility for it. That means calling this what it is: murder. And because Obama has embraced this killing whole-heartedly it needs to be called his murder, a killing carried out on his watch and with his approval. It was the cold-blooded murder of a U.S. citizen who is not bearing arms against his country, nor even in a war zone in which he threatens his fellow citizens. He was not a literal combatant, but rather a propagandist for a cause deemed hostile to U.S. interests by this president and his even more right-wing predecessor.
Michael Ratner called the assassination “a terrifying precedent.” Terrifying for those who value human rights and constitutional law. Not so terrifying, apparently, for our highest leaders who have other, far more political calculations, that guide their behavior.
Here is how Ratner characterizes the law and how it must be carried out in such cases involving alleged anti-U.S. terrorists:
Outside of a war zone, as Awlaki was, lethal force can only be employed in the narrowest and most extraordinary circumstances: when there is a concrete, specific and imminent threat of an attack; and even then, deadly force must be a last resort.
The NY Times published an eye-opening appraisal of Al-Awlaki in terms of how he is viewed in the Middle East itself. It shows that as usual, there is a huge disconnect between the views of U.S. policymakers and those of the Muslim-Arab world. In that world, Al Awlaki has barely been heard of, and the only reason he has been heard of at all is because of the demonic role we assigned to him:
“A dime-a-dozen cleric” was one response, by Gregory Johnsen, a Princeton professor who studies Yemen. Another: “I don’t think your average Middle Easterner knows who Anwar al-Awlaki is,” said Emad Shahin, a scholar of political Islam at Notre Dame University.
We, in a sense, created the bogeyman, Al Awlaki. Were it not for what we did and how we treated him he would be a two-bit player in the ongoing war between radical Islam and the west:
…Many [in the Middle East] saw Mr. Awlaki’s death as an essentially American story: here was a man who American attention helped create, and its Hellfire missiles killed, in a campaign born out of American fears of homegrown militancy.
…“When the Obama administration and the U.S. media started focusing on him, that is when Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula pushed him to the fore,” Mr. Johnsen said, referring to the group’s Yemeni branch. “They were taking advantage of the free publicity, if you will. And any stature he has now in the Arab world is because of that.”
In that sense, yesterday’s CIA targeted killing was as much a political, as a military decision. Al-Awlaki was much more a political threat than a security threat. While it’s true that several failed attackers were inspired by his rhetoric, the cleric himself had never engaged in any act of terror beyond possibly incitement. He’d never been tried in a court of law for any infraction. As Ratner says:
Yes, his language and speeches were incendiary. He may even have engaged in plots against the United States – but we do not know that because he was never indicted for a crime.
It was the threat he represented politically that was much more dangerous in the eyes of Obama than any imminent physical threat.
And that’s simply not kosher under the U.S. constitution or law. While it may be true that under the current defanged legislative and judicial system we have, our president’s actions will not be judged and he will not be held accountable, that doesn’t mean we oughtn’t to try, as I wrote yesterday. The ACLU correctly attempted to bring this case to trial before the U.S. killed Al Awlaki. They failed. Now that the U.S. has killed him, it should try again.
The failure of the earlier lawsuit, even though Ratner says it failed solely on “procedural grounds,” is disturbing because that was the chance to rein in executive action before the damage had been done. When the court threw out the case they essentially sealed Al Awlaki’s death warrant. Now, we’re left to close the barn door after the horse has already escaped.
I’m reminded of two seminal quotations from Malcolm X. He said that “violence was as American as apple pie.” And, when Pres. Kennedy was assassinated he said “the chickens had come home to roost.” Though these were extremely controversial statements at the time, there is great wisdom and foresight in each one and they apply to Obama’s murder of Anwar Al-Awlaki as well. I fear that in some form or other the chickens our president has let loose on the world will eventually come home to roost.
- As the West Celebrates Awlaki’s Death, the Mideast Shrugs (nytimes.com)
- Anwar al-Awlaki’s extrajudicial murder | Michael Ratner (guardian.co.uk)
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.