There has been much discussion lately of the legal questions surrounding the Obama administration’s plan to assassinate U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qaeda goon, Islamist propagandist, and general bum. The Christian Science Monitor has a pretty good discussion here, arguing that the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials established a “gold standard” for governments’ conduct, and makes a due-process argument as well. Glenn Greenwald remarks on the lawsuit brought by Awlaki’s father and the state-secret aspects of the case here.
For what it’s worth, the Nuremberg template seems inappropriate to me; Awlaki is not a agent of a government or a member of a regular army, and there is no reason to charge him with “war crimes” when he could be charged with regular old crimes. But that’s neither here nor there.
These legal arguments are bloodless, though I suppose they have to be made. And I am sure that equally bloodless legalistic arguments will be made in favor of Obama’s policy of assassination, and that some of them will be persuasive.
I am not a lawyer, but it seems clear to me that the state of our law is such that anybody with sufficient legal training can make a reasonably strong-sounding argument for any policy he chooses, and that if his argument is wrong, it is likely to be wrong in ways that are non-obvious. The respectable legal world is large enough to contain both Glenn Greenwald and Andy McCarthy, Antonin Scalia and Craig Becker; in the vast space that separates their thinking, anything could crop up — it’s the legal equivalent of one of those blank spots on medieval maps labeled “Here Be Monsters.”
So, set aside the legal questions for a second. The Awlaki case speaks to something even more fundamental than law: Decent nations do not permit their governments to assassinate their own citizens. I am willing to give the intelligence community, the covert-operations guys, and the military proper a pretty free hand when it comes to dealing with dispersed terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda and its affiliates. But citizenship, even when applied to a Grade-A certified rat like Awlaki, presents an important demarcation, a bright-line distinction in our politics.
If Awlaki were to be killed on a battlefield, I’d shed no tears. But ordering the premeditated, extrajudicial killing of an American citizen in Yemen or Pakistan is no different from ordering the premeditated, extrajudicial killing of an American citizen in New York or Washington or Topeka — American citizens are American citizens, wherever they go. I’m an old-fashioned limited-government guy, and I am not willing to grant Washington the power to assassinate U.S. citizens, even rotten ones. The three most powerful people in government at this moment are Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid, a fact that should give pause even to the most hawkish conservative. I would hope that other conservatives see this at least as a matter of prudence, if not a burning moral question.