Anwar al-Awlaki is dead. Good news? Bad news? It’s complicated.
Al-Awlaki was a major figure in Al Qaeda in Yemen, where he was killed on Friday by a missile fired from an American drone aircraft. But he was also born in America and still held American citizenship.
He was a radical Muslim cleric whose followers might have included Major Nidal Malik Hassan (who killed 13 people in the Fort Hood Massacre of 2009) and Faisal Shahzad (who unsuccessfully planted a car bomb in Times Square in 2010). Maybe. At least, we know Major Hassan regularly corresponded with al-Awlaki and Shahzad found his writings inspiring.
And that points to the second complication: Al-Awlaki was an idea guy, a religious leader whose teachings inspired and justified the violent actions of others. An anonymous American official said, “We’ve been looking at his important operational role.” But looking is not exactly finding, much less proving. Glenn Greenwald comments:
Despite substantial doubt among Yemen experts about whether he even has any operational role in Al Qaeda, no evidence (as opposed to unverified government accusations) was presented of his guilt. When Awlaki’s father sought a court order barring Obama from killing his son, the DOJ argued, among other things, that such decisions were “state secrets” and thus beyond the scrutiny of the courts.
In short: Al-Awlaki is dead because the President signed a piece of paper saying that he was a bad man. I suspect he probably was a bad man, so it’s hard to be all that broken up about his death. But in theory, the President (or some future president) could sign a piece of paper saying that I’m a bad man too. Wouldn’t it be nice to have some due process about that?
Because drone-fired missiles are a crude way to kill people, we also killed some of al-Awlaki’s bodyguards, plus Samir Khan, described by the NYT as “an American citizen of Pakistani origin who was the editor of Inspire, Al Qaeda’s English-language Internet magazine.” Was Khan a bad guy? Maybe. Did he have an operational role too, or did he just Inspire the wrong people?
Rachel Maddow, in a piece Wednesday about the death penalty and prisoner abuse in American jails, summed up the political problem like this (around the 7 minute mark):
This is why it’s hard for anybody to make political hay, to get political traction, out of alleged bad treatment of allegedly bad guys. … The political defense against claims that you are badly treating criminals or suspects or protesters or prisoners has always been to point at those people and say: “You’re taking these guys’ side? These are the bad guys. You’re going to take their side?”
If that’s true for domestic criminals, how much more does it apply to suspected terrorists? If they really did what they’re suspected of doing, then yes, they are the bad guys. If al-Awlaki really was trying to figure out how to park car bombs in Times Square, then who can be sad that he isn’t doing it any more?
I think I’ll let Thomas Paine answer that one. He concluded his Dissertations on First Principles of Government (1795) with this:
He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.
If Anwar al-Awlaki can be executed without trial, in a place nowhere near a battlefield, in a country with which we are not at war, then so can I and so can you. It’s that simple.
“But President Obama would never do that to you or me,” I imagine you thinking. And you’re almost certainly right. But I don’t want my life to depend on the President being a nice guy or believing that I’m a nice guy. I want to have rights that are defined by law rather than by the good will of government officials.
I don’t see how to claim those rights without granting that Anwar al-Awlaki has them too.
Or at least he did until Friday.