This is very welcome news. Born in the United States to Yemeni parents, al-Awlaki went to college here and was an imam at a Falls Church, Va., mosque at the time of 9/11. He had contacts with the hijackers and left the country under a pall of suspicion, eventually ending up in Yemen. With his knowledge of American culture, al-Awlaki became a uniquely talented al-Qaeda recruiter who had the ability to inspire a lone wolf such as Maj. Nidal Hasan within the U.S. This made him one of the most dangerous figures in al-Qaeda. He was connected to numerous plots, including the attempted underwear bombing in 2009. His death makes us safer. But does it also soil the robe of justice?
That is the contention of critics who believe al-Awlaki shouldn’t have been targeted, because he’s a U.S. citizen. But as a member of a hostile force at war with the United States he deserved no more consideration than any other member of al-Qaeda. The 1942 case of the Nazi saboteurs, including one U.S. citizen, Herbert Hans Haupt, who snuck in to the United States is exactly on point. They were arrested by the FBI. But FDR detained all of them, including Haupt, as enemy combatants, tried them before a military commission, and executed them. The Supreme Court unanimously upheld the president’s right to treat Haupt like his comrades.
The conduct of warfare, including targeting decisions, is inherently an executive function. In this instance, moreover, executive war powers are bolstered by a sweeping congressional authorization of military force that contains no limitations based on citizenship or geography. We don’t ask the courts to evaluate every strike we make against Taliban or al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan or Iraq, nor do we inquire about their citizenship.
If al-Awlaki had been falsely accused, he could — for starters — have professed his innocence. He could have surrendered to U.S. authorities and tried to explain how it was all a misunderstanding. Instead, he taunted us for our inability to find him. As legal analyst Benjamin Wittes asks, what process is due a terrorist on the lam in an ungoverned portion of Yemen?
Given that he was beyond the reach of our courts and very difficult to capture, our options as a practical matter were to kill him or to let him go on his way. Many of the critics, who ten years later still consider the War on Terror a police action or an elaborate metaphor, would be happy with the latter — consequences be damned.
President Obama is to be credited for rejecting this line of thought and specifically authorizing the targeting of al-Awlaki. But it highlights the rank irresponsibility of his once-upon-a-time attacks on the Bush administration. If it’s permissible for the president to kill a U.S. citizen with no judicial proceedings whatsoever, why is it an offense against the Constitution and all we hold dear to capture foreign terrorists, interrogate them (in some cases, harshly), and detain them? All of these things constitute acts of war in a fight that is advanced by the death of Anwar al-Awlaki.