*** This is the first article I’ve ever submitted to the Huffington Post that they have refused to publish. I await their response as to why. Meanwhile, I am delighted to be able to post it here. ***
Most comments of those who disagree that the manner of killing of Al-Awlaki should not be acceptable to Americans assume two things: first, that the killing was necessary to keep us safe, and second, that the executive branch of government can be trusted to make that assessment without legal constraint.
The issue is not the killing of an American person per se. I recognize the legitimacy of killing as punishment for capital crime after presentation of evidence, due process and a jury trial. I recognize the legitimacy of killing in self-defense, which is a killing by someone likely to be harmed by an aggressor. I recognize the legitimacy of killing in the course of securing a military objective in a just conflict that is being waged in self-defense. Moreover, I do not believe in a moral duty to respond “proportionately” to an intrusion or attack, and I do believe in a military than can deliver crushing force in defense of the nation.
That said, let’s look at the assumptions on which the argument of those who support the killing of Al-Awlaki rest.
The first is that it was necessary to keep us safe.
It was necessary only if Al-Awlaki was in the process of committing a violent crime against the USA with a “detectable” probability of harming American civilians. Was he? We only have the word of the executive branch. Is that word enough? If you find the President trustworthy, then it is enough for you. If you do not, then it is not. But the institutions of a democratic republic are designed to protect us from abuse by leaders we do not trust.
In my last article, I drew a comparison between Bush’s invasion of Iraq and the killing on Al-Awlaki. The point was that in both cases, all we had to go on regarding the imminent threat posed by the target was the word of a president, which turned out to be wrong. This is why I stated that the extra-judicial killing of Awlaki can be justified only if Obama goes to pains to present evidence of the imminent threat posed by Al-Awlaki — and that evidence must be orders of magnitude stronger than that used to go to war in Iraq, which was wrong and led to the deaths of 100,000s of innocent people.
We should demand some evidence because 1) the US has something of a history of being wrong on who to support and who to kill in so-called self-defense 2) many non-American commentators, including in Yemen, seem very unconvinced by the fact that Al-Awlaki was operationally significant in Al-Qaeda and 3) the US government has a vested interest in keeping the American nation believing that we are under immediate threat from people in the Middle East — as a justification for continued projection of power around the world. If you like Obama and can’t imagine that the current administration could have such a murky motivation, just imagine that Bush had ordered the killing.
I did not claim that the killing of Al-Awlaki was wrong ipso facto. I claimed that the cost of the manner of his death in reduced American liberty and increased executive reach requires that we know on what evidence and on what principles (that maintain preserve our liberty and Constitution) was the decision made: is the presidential killing of an American on US soil acceptable if it is decided that he is part of a group that is regarded as “terrorist”? If not, why not? Can location legitimize killing? Was the basis for the decision the commission of a specific crime? If so, what was the crime? If not, then what was the basis? Was it a simple declaration of membership of an identified group (Al-Qaeda)? If so, what then of the first amendment? And if membership of a group deemed to be threatening can alone justify killing by the executive branch, then shouldn’t the judicial branch have input to the determination of membership and threat posed? Else, what stops the executive designating groups and members as a way to punish or kill anyone anywhere without any process?
It may turn out to be the case that the killing was necessary and legal, but the case is not close to having been made; and it cannot be made without an honest treatment of the above questions.
Some, including friends whose opinions I deeply respect, see little worth discussing, saying that Al-Awlaki was a “traitor who joined enemy combatants intent on and committed to doing our country and our people harm“. But that begs my question. Who determines that? And did Al-Awlaki have an intent that he was acting on and had the ability to see through to some terrible result? Does threatening American justify pre-emptive killing? Surely not. What about incitement? That takes us back to the first amendment… So, then, what did we kill him for?
Al-Awlaki had certainly stated his support of those who would do harm to the USA. But millions of people on the receiving end of American foreign policy have done that. Despicable as Al-Awlaki may have been, he was exercising his first amendment right. Moreover, there is a great deal of difference between violent sentiment against a power (in this case, the USA) that is in the process of occupying nations and conducting wars that result, however “unintentionally,” in the loss of innocent life, and violent sentiment against a power that is conducting no action that could be reasonably be interpreted as threatening or violent. Put crassly, the provocation defense that Al-Awlaki has already made for his actions is not dissimilar in principle to the one that USA uses in taking the lives of its opponents abroad. (For the record, this is a not a claim of moral equivalence.)
This brings me to the most important point.
We should only believe that our government can claim that it is killing as a last resort to protect us if at the same time it is doing nothing that it has reason to believe is contributing to the very threat from which it claims to be protecting us.
That standard is not being met.
The most effective terrorism — including that on 9/11 — is suicide terrorism. The average suicide attack kills 12 times as many people as the average non-suicide attack.
According to a study funded by our own Department of Defense, over 95% of all such attacks are to compel a democratic state to withdraw combat forces (not advisers — but actual military assets) from territory the terrorists consider to be their homeland or otherwise prize greatly, and every identifiable suicide campaign has been waged by terrorist groups for that strategic objective.
Al Qaeda’s attacks against us started in 1995, after it became clear that the American forces that had been transported to the Arabian peninsula to fight Saddam were staying indefinitely. Consistent with the DoD’s findings, almost all anti-American terrorists have been from the Arabian peninsula, acting in response to the perceived occupation of territory.
If, instead, the US was really a victim of “Islamic fundamentalism,” independently of American actions, some of the terrorism against us would have come from Iran, with an Islamic population three times that of Saudi Arabia. But there has been no Iranian suicide attacker. Or perhaps from Sudan, which has same population as Saudi Arabia, and a brand of fundamentalism so congenial to Osama that he lived there for three years. But we have not been hit by Sudanese terrorism. Or perhaps from Bangladesh, with the largest fundamentalist Islamic populations on the planet. Again, nothing.
Does Obama (and did Bush) listen to the people he is (was) trying to protect us from?
Here are a few representative quotes from videos by Al-Qaeda suicide terrorists.
“Until we feel security, we will …”
“If America wants to feel safe, then it must withdraw forces from the Muslim lands and depart from all our countries”
“Among the major calamities that has struck the Muslim nation is the occupation of the land of the two Holy Sanctuaries”
“Blatant occupation… in the land of the two Holy Mosques”
“Attacks will intensify…until you pull all of your troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq”
None of the above should be surprising. Human beings have a lot in common. As anyone who reads political commentary from outside the USA, and especially from countries that are on the sharp end of American military policy, knows, nearly all non-Americans share something in common with nearly all Americans: we get violent only against those by whom we feel threatened.
Perhaps that’s why the Americans in uniform who are actually fighting the war on terror donate more to the presidential candidate who wants to bring them home than to all his Presidential challengers put together (including Obama). Our troops aren’t cowards. They see first-hand the damage caused to America by unwanted American military presence abroad and a “war” against a methodology (terrorism).
Muslims are no more likely to form their worldview around the death-to-the-infidel lines in the Quran as American Christians are to form theirs around the death-to-all-kinds-people lines in Leviticus. But what would you do if the Chinese had armed troops in Texas? Perhaps something similar to what some Saudis, Iraqis, Afghans do with American troops in their countries.
If we keep ignoring what is known about the true cause of terrorism against us, we will continue in policies that not only will be unhelpful — but will make the problem worse. Indeed, the killing of Al-Awlaki involved the use of US military assets abroad — the one thing that consistently correlates with 95% of the most effective acts of terrorism against us. How, then, can the only acceptable justification for Al-Awlaki’s death — that innocent American lives could be saved only if Al-Awlaki was killed — be accepted?
Acceptance of the killing without a demand that the issues herein be addressed seems to me to display a naivete or partisanship that threatens not only American values but also American lives.