Execution Without Trial

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.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Scott Harrigan  On October 3, 2011 at 2:43 pm

    As you said, I am finding it hard to be concerned about this. If you are committing treason, aiding and abetting the enemy, then you are a legitimate battlefield target. So, if a soldier runs over to the other side, then they become a legitimate target, in fact a prime target given the information they may have of operations. Although this is not the specific case, it is certainly close enough of an analogy. I find it interesting that somehow being an American is some sort of magic pill. Giving Americans some sort of immunity in actions against the US, like some sort of beyond a reasonable doubt. It is enough that he advocated for Al Qaeda and violent jihad against America in the context of a fighting war. Ideas are often more powerful than guns. Are you saying we couldn’t kill Osama Bin Laden if he was an American? I think it boggles the mind that if an American went over to the enemy and became one of their biggest propaganda machines, we couldn’t consider them a legitimate target. Consider Tokyo Rose. She would have definitely have been a legitimate target. I think given the circumstances this fellow was given all the battlefield analysis that he deserved. The people killed with him only prove that the decision was a correct one.

    • Scott Harrigan  On October 3, 2011 at 2:45 pm

      I see I have a sentence fragment.

      “Giving Americans some sort of immunity in actions against the US, like some sort of beyond a reasonable doubt”

      is not reasonable.


  • By Changing the System « The Weekly Sift on October 3, 2011 at 1:30 pm

    […] Execution Without Trial. Anwar al-Awlaki was an American citizen who supported al Qaeda and may have been actively plotting to kill Americans. Friday he was killed by a drone missile, despite never having been indicted or convicted of any crime. How should we feel about that? […]

  • […] Last week I reacted to the drone attack that killed unindicted American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki. This week we began to hear about the process for putting Americans on the government’s “kill list”. […]

  • […] As unsympathetic as he was in many ways, Anwar al-Awlaki exemplified all those issues. He wasn’t on a traditional battlefield when we blew up his car, and while he undoubtedly had some relationship to Al Qaeda, the government never had to back up its claims that he had an operational role in terrorism. Here’s what I wrote at the time of his death: […]

  • By Violations « The Weekly Sift on February 11, 2013 at 12:29 pm

    […] (or sometimes even expanded) Bush’s policies. I came back to the topic now and then (Execution Without Trial when Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in 2011, and again last June in Who Can Obama Kill?), but never […]

  • […] [excepting for the fact that the government already HAS executed a citizen without trial] it HASN’T happened overnight. It’s BEEN happening.  Most Jews have just been too busy […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: