Assassinating Awlaki

The Awlaki killing can only be interpreted and assayed meaningfully if placed in the context of the ‘War On Terror.’  For America today is not the same country that it was before 9/11.  Our ethical standards, our sense of danger and vulnerability, our understanding of right and wrong, our readiness to place enormous discretionary power in the hands of our rulers – all have been qualitatively altered.  The subtle balance between personal liberties and raison d’etat has markedly shifted in the latter direction. Moreover, we have yielded to our government leaders the right to define the ‘necessities’ that justify arbitrary actions that contravene tradition, principle and even law.  The trauma of 9/11 made Americans scared, vengeful and desperately needy for protection – physical and emotional.  Hence, a climate emerged that is favorable to the abuse of power.  That same climate fed the imagining of enemies of mythic proportions.  Osama bin-Laden (with reason) was evil incarnate – with a coterie of diabolical associates like Zawahiri, Zarqawi and more recently Anwar al-Awlaki (with less reason). A marginal figure, Awlaki figured ominously in the American mind as an apostate to the national creed, a traitor to Americanism who was born in Las Cruces (The Crosses) New Mexico. It is as if Americans’ fearful mood has to have a specific, personalized point of reference; otherwise it would turn into debilitating, free floating dread.




A brief recitation of the innovations associated with the ‘War On Terror’ reminds us how far we have travelled from being a polity that held fast to legality, individual freedoms and fairness as the pillars of our civic union.  This now is a nation where state organs actively spy on its citizens, by means electronic or otherwise, with either the flimsiest of judicial review or none at all.  Our communications, our bank accounts, our associations have been declared the legitimate object of attention for a multitude of agencies who arbitrarily decide what is just cause.  American citizens in the United States (and many more with resident status) have been held in detention under terms that contravene the principle of habeas corpus.  The right of assembly has been abridged. The Central Intelligence Agency itself engages in these practices domestically in violation of specific legal prohibitions.  The CIA has gone so far as to collaborate with the New York City police department so as to enable the latter to operate outside of its jurisdiction as the Agency’s sub-contractor.  The NYPD, the FBI and several other local police forces have placed under surveillance residents of entire neighborhoods based solely on their ethnicity/religion and have made a permanent record of their daily activities.  The White House and Justice Department use the long forgotten Espionage Act of 1917 aggressively to prosecute as traitors those who reveal official ‘secrets’ – even if the only damage is to the leaders whose deception and mendacity are exposed. None of this conduct conforms to past practice.  They certainly were expressly prohibited in the period between revelations of the Church Committee about CIA domestic activities in the mid-1970s and 9/11.  These assaults on civil liberties far exceed in magnitude and perniciousness the impeachable offenses of Richard Nixon.


In effect, the United States’ leaders have twisted the meaning of the term ‘threat’ so as to render it a catch-all phase referring to dangers conjectured as well as actual, maturing at some indefinite time in the future as well as in the near term, and covering persons unwitting of their associations who provide even intangible forms of ‘aid and comfort’ to anyone who may be placed in the former broad categories.  Preventive action in the police and intelligence realm is the norm every bit as much as it was the excuse for invading a non-threatening Iraq.  Preventive action is also the reason given for attacks on militant Islamist groups from Chad, to Somalia, to Palestine, to Thailand, to Tajikistan to Pakistan who have no intention or capability of striking the United States. But – according to this mindset – they may contribute, by some means or other, to some sort of menace that may surface at some time in the future.  Therefore they are legitimate targets.




The Awlaki killing is more readily comprehensible set in these frames of reference.  An Islamic militant, tied to the formation popularly call al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, one who preaches hatred of America, one who calls for violent acts against Americans, and the man who sponsored the Christmas shoe bomber two years ago, Awlaki fully qualifies to be put on Washington’s hit list – according to the criteria sketched above.  Legal niceties count for little if anything when someone like Awlaki is in the cross-hairs.  Obama’s Justice Department under Attorney General Eric Holder seemingly fashioned some document that made the case for the legality of the killing.  It is reported to have been agreed unanimously by a panel of government lawyers.  Can we doubt that the conclusion preceded the legal reasoning that supposedly justified it?  In this sense, Holder et al are behaving in a matter little different from John Yoo et al who cobbled together a pseudo-legal scaffolding that supported a dedicated program of torture, indefinite detention of tens of thousands, and related scandalous behavior.  Yoo thought laws, rules and treaties ‘quaint.’  Obama and Holder evidently view them similarly.  And that is the key point.


There has been no legal process that found Awlaki guilty of a capital crime AND there was no legal process worthy of the name that made the determination that his killing could be reconciled with U.S. law and the U.S. constitution.  Let us be clear exactly what has been done.  President Obama publicly declared more than a year ago that his administration had the right to kill any American citizen residing outside the country who he decided was a threat to national security.  The White House has stated unequivocally that an American citizen can be liquidated any place and any time based on an arbitrary judgment made by unidentified persons using unidentified criteria that such an individual posed some manner of threat to Americans anywhere in the world at any time now or in the future.


The profound implications of this policy are in no way affected by Mr. Awlaki’s words, actions or affiliations. Whatever magnitude of threat he represented* that should not short circuit the legal safeguards that historically have distinguished America as the cynosure of civil liberties secured against the abuse of arbitrary state power.  Nor should the psychological need for a diabolical personality who embodies “the worst terrorist threat out there” deprive us of our ethical bearings. That ultimately is what this is about.


A successor to Awlaki will soon be found to fulfill Americans’ emotional needs, the calculated electoral needs of politicians and to benefit the public-private partnership that is the terrorism industry.  The Haqqanis already have passed their audition. Necessity is the mother of invention.




*That is debatable since his only ‘terrorist’ action was to send one callow, poorly trained Nigerian with a Rube Goldberg explosive device defeated by his flammable underpants.  If indeed that is the worst threat we face, then we should thank our lucky stars rather than alternate between fearfulness and exuberant celebration of inflated triumphs.

Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.



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Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

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