But we have failed to do so, and now we are enduring the consequences as the Obama administration draws up a list of American citizens to be targeted for premeditated, extrajudicial killing that is part of no conventional military campaign, which brings us to two destructive illusions that must be shed: First, the War on Terror is not a war — not in the conventional sense of that word. Like the War on Drugs (but infinitely more serious and more important), it is a metaphorical war that sometimes has the characteristics of a real war. Awlaki is not a soldier or a man at arms: He is an author of invective and a preacher of sermons — it was not until the administration had been castigated for its assassination plans that it retroactively promoted the hateful homilist to “commander.” His crimes are real, and there is precedent for punishing them — we hanged Der Stürmer editor Julius Streicher at Nuremberg, but felt the need to conduct a trial first: Even a Nazi got more due process than we today are willing to extend to U.S. citizens. Awlaki is a traitor, to be sure, but hanging American traitors is a job for the American federal courts, not for assassins.
Second, and equally important: We are not going to win. Neither is al-Qaeda. Here, Mr. McCarthy is dead on: “There will be no treaty, no terms of surrender, no conquering enemy territory. Instead, there is only vigilance.” The War on Terror is not a military campaign, but a risk-mitigation project — a dangerous, bloody, and often thankless one. Jihad is and will be a constant low-level menace that may from time to time produce a spectacular attack. Al-Qaeda and its sympathizers will try to kill Americans, and we will try to stop them. If Awlaki happens to find himself on the wrong side of an American munition during the course of combat, he will not be missed.
But combat is a different thing from assassination, and regular combat is increasingly rare in the War on Terror, now that the actual war part — in Iraq and Afghanistan — has mostly wrapped up. And that is why the war model, and all of the lawlessness that flows from it, is defective: When the war is a metaphor, the battlefield is everywhere, and the timeline of operations is history’s horizon, we invite the creation of a state of “permanent emergency” by acquiescing to the growth and glorification of the state in arms. The defect in our pre-9/11 antiterrorism program was not that it was based on a law-enforcement model or that it lacked sufficient martial vigor, but that it was incompetently executed, a low-level, back-burner priority for a fat and happy nation cruising toward the millennium with very little on its mind beyond investment returns and Bill Clinton’s sexual shenanigans. That much changed on 9/11, but this did not: Decent governments do not assassinate their own citizens.
— Kevin D. Williamson is a deputy managing editor of National Review and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism, just published by Regnery. You can buy an autographed copy through National Review Online here.