Re: Andy et al. and Assassinations

by Kevin D. Williamson

There is a first time for everything: Strange things indeed are afoot at the Circle K when Andy McCarthy bases an argument on an implausibly generous interpretation of the Obama administration’s motives.

Andy — who has argued from time to time that the administration shares much of our enemies’ worldview, operates a DOJ stocked with white-shoe Islamist sympathizers, and may have already engaged in more than one “grave violation of the law” in the service of a narrow ideological agenda — takes a look at Obama’s hit list and says, in effect, “Nothing to see here!”

Andy is arguing that the Obama administration’s decision to put an American citizen on an assassination list is not what it seems, only a prudent, sober, tactically sophisticated precaution to ensure that nothing impedes U.S. military action should Anwar al-Awlaki turn up at a jihadi confab we’re about to drop a firecracker on. I think Andy is telling himself a just-so story here. If operational license were the concern, it would be much easier, much more effective, and much less worrisome if the administration were simply to articulate a general principle along these lines: “The blast radius of an MOAB is about 450 feet, so you don’t want to get any closer than that to a meeting of the al-Qaeda Executive Committee. That goes for U.S. citizens, foreign nationals, friends and family, camels, chickens, and goats.” It would not have been any different from John Walker Lindh getting killed on the battlefield in Afghanistan — our military would have needed no special permission.

Andy also makes an odd “empirical” argument: that we ought not worry about assassination lists, since, as far as we know (no thanks to Andy, who thinks this should all be happening in utmost secrecy!), the administration has conducted no actual assassinations of U.S. citizens. Let me make an empirical argument of my own: The fact that the Obama administration has put a U.S. citizen on an assassination list is all the evidence I need that the Obama administration has put a U.S. citizen on an assassination list — which is in and of itself worrisome enough, regardless of whether actual assassinations occur.

Conor Friedersdorf weighs in on the discussion at Forbes. The American Spectator takes me to task here, writing:

Williamson posits that “citizenship, even when applied to a Grade-A certified rat like Awlaki, presents an important demarcation, a bright-line distinction in our politics.” Drawing this bright line might make sense in a world where treason and/or war did not exist, but in the world we live in, it’s an unworkable idea.

Whatever kind of conservatism is arguing that we should invest the president with sole, secret, unreviewable authority to order the assassination of U.S. citizens because the alternative is unworkable (!) in the considered view of John Tabin, because war exists (!) — I am not that kind of conservative, I suppose. I propose we call that school of thought ahistorical, morally illiterate conservatism.

We’ve had wars for a long time without authorizing the premeditated extrajudicial killing of U.S. citizens. Treason is a crime. You get charged with it, dragged into court, tried by a jury of your peers, etc. The penalty for treason is not assassination without trial, and there is nothing in our Constitution or tradition to suggest that it is. This seems to me a deeply foolish and ill-considered argument.

It’s also worth noting that al-Awlaki mostly is accused of being a propagandist — giving sermons, writing articles, and otherwise behaving as “the bin Laden of the Internet,” as he is known. You want to try him for treason or inciting terrorist violence, I’m content to see him hang. If our covert-ops guys light up some al-Qaeda redoubt in the mountains and al-Awlaki bites the dust, no tears from me. But those are very different things from having the U.S. government draw up a list of its own citizens to be targeted for assassination. The fact that the Obama administration went out of its way to make this fact public tells us something interesting, too: It is making a specific political point, and establishing a specific precedent. It is crossing an old and important line, and conservatives should never let the rule of unintended consequences be very far from our minds.  

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