The Corner

Re: Assassinating Awlaki

Andy makes many persuasive points, but I think there’s a little question-begging going on, too — specifically, this:

If we have American citizens who are fighting for the enemy in a war, some official of the government has to be responsible, in an ultimate way, for how we deal with that. In our system, that is the president.

If Awlaki were encountered on a battlefield in Afghanistan or killed in a shootout in some godforsaken Pakistani frontier district, that would probably be unremarkable. But “fighting for the enemy in a war” in this case means, so far as I can tell, making speeches and writing articles. I’m not going to be coy –  Awlaki is a bad guy and he is on the other side in a big, big way — but the question of whether Awlaki’s actions constitute “fighting for the enemy in a war” is precisely the sort of thing that we have trials to sort out, at least when there’s an American citizen involved. We aren’t talking about killing Awlaki in a pitched battle; we’re talking about ordering an assassination.

Because the power to determine who is an “enemy combatant” is vested in the same executive charged with carrying out military and intelligence operations, the present policy is an invitation to abuse. This is especially worrisome if we concede Andy’s very broad theory of executive power, which, if I understand it, holds that the president and his appointees are empowered to ignore the law (“congressional statute”) if they believe that the law interferes with their constitutional national-security mandate.

To repeat: Awlaki’s American citizenship is what interests me here. I think it is legitimate to target the intellectual infrastructure of al-Qaeda, even if that means killing people who have not engaged in any violent act. Words have consequences, which is why one of the first people we strung up at Nuremberg was Nazi newspaper editor and book publisher Julius Streicher (after a trial, though I think it would have been legitimate to target him during the fighting).

But the fact of American citizenship seems to me to be a significant one; the prospect of putting American citizens on a government hit list should give us pause as conservatives: not for what this administration might do with such power, but for what an administration 50 years down the road might do with it.

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