Not that I necessarily believe every accusation leveled at Anwar al-Awlaki in this Washington Post piece, but assuming most of it is accurate I can’t see much of a difference between what he has been doing and what Usama bin-Laden was doing in the lead-up to 9/11. The only difference is that al-Awlaki was an American citizen. And because he was an American citizen he presumably had some rights that bin-Laden did not. In the eyes of the administration he forfeited those rights. They killed him this morning with a predator drone strike somewhere in the hills of Yemen.
On the one hand, I can’t help but feel a sense of relief. He has been linked to several attacks and plots against the West, including in Canada. He was an inspiration for many more plots and attacks he was not directly involved in. He actively called for Muslims to attack American citizens, which does raise serious questions about whether we should honor his citizenship.
On the other hand, this is very problematic. An American citizen has been killed by the U.S. government without any judicial process. The evidence against him has not been tested in any court. Some of the evidence is available to the public, such as recordings of his sermons and videos he posted on the Internet. There’s no doubt that he incited violence against U.S. interests and innocent civilians. But the more damning evidence, such as his role in the Christmas bombing plot, is circumstantial and based on the say-so of our intelligence agencies.
Here’s my problem. Based on what the government says it knew, I can understand that they did not want to leave this man free to continue his activities. It’s our government’s responsibility to keep us safe, and this man was quite dangerous. I also understand that capturing him was impractical. It’s a highly unusual situation that our laws are not presently designed to address. I don’t know if a similar situation will ever present itself again, but we need to craft our laws in a way that can account for this type of situation so that there is some legal review of some sort before a U.S. citizen can be assassinated by his own government.
Because, let’s face it, without any legal process, the government could manufacture evidence against a U.S. citizen who is a harsh critic and who gives sermons that incite people against U.S. policies. We don’t know what the line is where the government can disregard a citizen’s rights, declare him an enemy of the state, and kill him. Even if we agree that al-Awlaki crossed it, we don’t know at what point he crossed it. And it’s not a simple question to answer.
Is the only reason it was permissible to kill him because it was not practicable to capture him? Can we codify that in law? Or, was it permissible to kill him because of things he said? If I lose my temper and call for the killing of some U.S. citizens, can my citizenship be stripped? Can the government drop a bomb on my house? Do I have less right to the courts if I’m living in Amsterdam instead of Pennsylvania? Shouldn’t there be a legal review for stripping people of their citizenship before they can be treated extrajudicially?
Remember that we are relying heavily on the government’s story here. It may be convincing in this case, but nothing prevents the government from lying or exaggerating or telling us things that would never stand up in court.
Congress should not just applaud this successful elimination of a deadly enemy. They should get to work figuring out a legal process that can account for a situation where a U.S. citizen is making war against us and cannot be captured and brought home for trial. I would advise some criterion be created for first stripping someone of their citizenship, and it should be a very high bar that must be met to the satisfaction of a panel of judges. Because, if we don’t create something like that, this action this morning will create a terrible precedent that can be abused by future administrations.