The Corner

Assassinating Awlaki

I hate to play the squish, but am I the only one who is just a little bit queasy over the fact that the president of the United States is authorizing the assassination of American citizens? Andy writes that this is “obviously the right call.” I might be persuaded that this is, in fact, the right call. But obviously? No hesitation there? It seems to me that the fact of U.S. citizenship ought to be a bright line on the political map.

Surely there has to be some operational constraint on the executive when it comes to the killing of U.S. citizens. It is not impossible to imagine a president who, for instance, sincerely believes that Andy McCarthy is undermining the Justice Department’s ability to prosecute the war on terror on the legal front. A government that can kill its citizens can shut them up, no? I ask this not as a legal question, but as a moral and political question: How is it that a government that can assassinate Citizen Awlaki is unable to censor Citizen McCarthy, or drop him in an oubliette? Practically every journalist of any consequence in Washington has illegally handled a piece of classified information. Can the president have them assassinated in the name of national security? Under the Awlaki standard, why not?

Odious as Awlaki is, this seems to me to be setting an awful and reckless precedent. Consider how ”interstate commerce” has been redefined over time to cover that which is neither interstate nor commerce, for the sake of political expediency. It is easy to imagine “national security” being treated the same way, particularly in an open-ended conflict against a loosely defined enemy. And we aren’t assassinating U.S. citizens under the rubric of interstate commerce.

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