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)
And what if Al Awlaki was not an american citizen?
Interesting question, especially in light of the fact that most of the opinion pieces, pro and con, seem to focus on his being American, as if a non-American requires less, if any, moral consideration.
Richard Silverstein says
But he was. It becomes murkier when dealing with drone strikes against non-American citizens. I still oppose them as well. But constitutionally, there’s less (almost no) protection offered to non-citizens in an action like this.
And what if Al Awlaki was not an american citizen? . . . But constitutionally, there’s less (almost no) protection offered to non-citizens in an action like this.
I don’t believe that citizenship makes any difference, since both the US government and the UN Security Council have stated that the principles of international law contained in common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 are part of the customary Law of Nations that are binding on non-signatories in both international and non-international armed conflicts.
Let’s look at how the three bodies of US law apply to the subject, i.e. the Constitution, federal statutes, and international treaties like the Geneva Conventions. According to the Supremacy clause contained in Article VI, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution:
Article 1 Section 8(10) of the Constitution grants Congress the power to define and punish offenses against the Law of Nations.
The Congress did that by specifically citing violations of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions in Title 18 § 2441. “War crimes”. It states that whoever, whether inside or outside the United States, commits a grave breach of any of the international conventions signed at Geneva on 12 August 1949 commits a crime punishable fine under this title or imprisoned for life or any term of years, or both, and if death results to the victim, shall also be subject to the penalty of death.
Murder is one of the acts that are specifically prohibited under the heading “(d) Common Article 3 Violations.”
The Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 (DTA) permitted the imposition of the death penalty or imprisonment, but the Supreme Court ruled that:
The Court ruled that whenever armed force is used against the territory of a High Contracting Party, the prohibitions in common Article 3 apply. It also ruled that the President does not have the authority to use classified information to make a determination that designates a person as an enemy combatant and denies them the due process right to challenge that determination.
In the case of the Guantanamo detainees, that required the establishment of a Combatant Status Review Tribunal (CSRT). It conducted 581 tribunals between July 30, 2004 and February 10, 2009. The tribunals made a preliminary determination that 539 detainees were properly classified as enemy combatants and 39 detainees were “found to no longer be classified as enemy combatants. (oops!). In many cases the only evidence against the “combatants” were rather dubious confessions obtained by torture.
Whatever procedure the President used in the case of Al Awlaki, it suffers from the same insurmountable difficulties as the procedures used by the original Bush era military commissions. It allows the use of classified information that is not subject to challenge by the accused and his counsel; it permits the passing of a sentence and its execution in violation of common Article 3 without first obtaining a judgment from a regularly constituted court that provides all of the necessary protections recognized by civilized peoples.
Killing civilians located far from a battlefield in this manner is a flagrant violation of the Law of Nations. It is ludicrous to suggest that the President can overcome his lack of authority to detain and prosecute an individual using procedures that violate the law by murdering them in violation of the same law.
Ike Hall says
It doesn’t matter whether al Awlaki was a citizen or not. The restrictions in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights apply to the government. They are not privileges granted to citizens. Most people either forget this or deliberately choose to ignore it. All extrajudicial killings in this undeclared “Global War on Terror” are murders, plain and simple.
What ever happened to Due Process? In the 70’s college students like myself involved in Amnesty Chapters railed against extra-judicial killings in third-world dictatorships. Now we have become them.
Yep. Credit rating down. Big debt. Protests in the streets (Wall Street) and now killing citizens by order of the Great Cahuna. This is a familiar story.
I do hope Obama is gathering votes by appealing to conservative voters because he is losing them on the left in groves I am sure.
And what about the other guy, the editor, who’s crime was his expression of opinion? Was he just collateral damage or a real target as well? If a real target, Obama has to be nuts to dismiss the protections granted US citizens.
Zhu Bajie says
Gone, baby, gone. Bush = Augustus, Obama = Tiberias.
John Farbarik says
Your article allows me to view the killing from a different perspective. Thanks.
The legality of the issue, in my opinion, takes a strong back seat to another, more pressing issue: who was afraid of bring Al-Awlaki in for due process, a fair and public trial, where he could be cross-examined, provide testimony and more? After all, it is not hidden that he attended a Pentagon dinner after 9/11: http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/Blotter/al-qaeda-cleric-awlaki-invited-pentagon-911/story?id=11935006
What was Al-Awlaki’s purpose? Well, we can believe what we read in the New York Times and pretend Operation Mockingbird* is not yet another reality, or we can try some real news 🙂 Other sources provide a preponderance of the evidence that he was not influential whatsoever in Yemen, but more so, pandered to Western audiences in English. Curiously, the only “Western Jihadists” who even gave him any clout were found on forums run by the SITE institute, which we know is run by 3-4 Likudophile, likely Mossad-connected, individuals. More realistically, he was a CNN headline for American audiences.
So, what made this guy jump the ranks to the top of Al-Qaeda, leapfrogging others in line, without killing anyone? What ties did he have to the Nigerian crotch bomber who helped make Michael Chertoff, former Homeland Security Director, millions of dollars selling cancerous security devices to airports? The “fertilizer bomb” neophyte who tried to blow up Times Square with Big League Chew and Gatorade?
Why did he preach at a Mosque near Langley? Why are the CIA and Pentagon playing musical chairs? Who flew the drone planes that killed Al-Awlaki?
Did they kill Al-Awlaki?
Hard to trust these stories when they know well you won’t step foot over there to find out. What we do know is that Yemen is falling to populism like the other countries in the region, and the US/Saudi Arabia/Israel are desperately trying to help keep their puppet in Yemen alive.
I am amused.
Yes, because when all of the facts from A->Z are spelled out for you succinctly, when there is no defense to make and no reply to be had, you will still be standing there, pretending that it’s all a theory… while the world moves on past the charade yet again.
Welcome to the age of populism. You’re either on the ride or you’re going to get run over by it.
Mudder asked above “What ever happened to Due Process?”
Well, after being extraordinarily rendered, it seems to be languishing in Guantanamo.
Sorry for my banality, but after being long ignored regarding foreigners, it’s now ignored regarding American known terrorists and will likely proceed to be ignored regarding suspected terrorists, then suspected terrorists’ sympathisers, then suspected sympathisers’ associates, then their families, then their neighbours, then you, Mr and Ms AllAmerican … — that’s the nature of “Wars on Terror”.
Exactly! Remember this….
“First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.”