Anwar Awlaki's killing: Why it doesn't feel like a victory [The conversation]
Anwar Awlaki's killing in Yemen on Friday has reignited two debates that are sure to dominate this weekend's conversation. While many Americans cheer the blow to Al Qaeda, civil libertarians, including Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, are taking President Obama to task for his role in the assassination.
Regardless of Awlaki's tie to Al Qaeda, or that he was a radical Islamist cleric, libertarians argue that he was a U.S. citizen and therefore privy to protection under the 1st and 5th amendments; in other words, he had the right to freely express his opinions, and he should have had his day in court.
The other debate taking place is whether, as Obama put it, Awlaki's death really "marks a significant milestone" in the effort to disable Al Qaeda. What did his death really accomplish? Here’s the conversation.
Did Obama have the right to assassinate Awlaki?
If Awlaki was in fact the architect of terrorism attacks inside the United States, as officials maintain he was, then perhaps his demise is to be welcomed. But we don't really know, do we? There was no transparent, legal, reviewable process by which he was placed on the list of those targeted for killing by the U.S. government. There was no judicial procedure, nor any public airing of the charges against him. He had no opportunity to respond to specific allegations. [...]
The war on terror is not a free-for-all in which the United States may behave as it wishes without accountability or adherence to principle. We would have been pleased if Awlaki could have been captured and brought to this country for trial, because the promise of due process is a fundamental, bedrock American value.
That debate may not bear so directly on the Awlaki killing, which presents a (hopefully) rare set of questions about presumed terrorists who also happen to be Americans. But it's an occasion for Washington to debate some basic questions about our targeted killing campaign. Maybe it's time, as John Bellinger argues, to revisit Congress' September 2001 authorization of military force in response to the 9/11 attacks and provide clearer legal guidelines for our ongoing counter-terror campaign. And what about the argument that drone strikes, on balance, make us less safe? As the country cheers the demise of a hateful anti-American, it's worth pausing to consider the implications of America's high-tech hunt for enemies around the globe.
What's most striking about this is not that the U.S. Government has seized and exercised exactly the power the Fifth Amendment was designed to bar ("No person shall be deprived of life without due process of law"), and did so in a way that almost certainly violates core First Amendment protections (questions that will now never be decided in a court of law). What's most amazing is that its citizens will not merely refrain from objecting, but will stand and cheer the U.S. Government's new power to assassinate their fellow citizens, far from any battlefield, literally without a shred of due process from the U.S. Government. Many will celebrate the strong, decisive, Tough President's ability to eradicate the life of Anwar al-Awlaki -- including many who just so righteously condemned those Republican audience members as so terribly barbaric and crass for cheering Governor Perry's execution of scores of serial murderers and rapists -- criminals who were at least given a trial and appeals and the other trappings of due process before being killed.
Awlaki, however, is no ordinary criminal defendant. He is accused of being a senior leader in a terrorist organization that has attacked the United States and its citizens on numerous occasions. He has been "linked" to both Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, and Faisal Shahzad, the would-be Times Square bomber. And he was residing in Yemen in the midst of an al-Qaeda stronghold.
Had his Yemeni parents not been working in New Mexico at the moment he was born, few would question the authority of the U.S. government to conduct this operation. Since they were, however, Awlaki is a United States citizen and entitled to the same protections as any of the rest of us. What, precisely, those protections are is not quite clear in this case.
Awlaki's killing can't be viewed as a one-off situation; what we're talking about is the establishment of a precedent by which a US president can secretly order the death of an American citizen unchecked by any outside process. Rules that get established on the basis that they only apply to the "bad guys" tend to be ripe for abuse, particularly when they're secret.
What did the killing accomplish?
The pressing question is not whether killing Awlaki was the right thing to do -- it was -- but what impact his killing will have. That's a tougher call. Other terrorist organizations have been able to survive, even thrive, after the deaths of important leaders. [...]
The challenge for American policymakers is to figure out how to fill the security vacuum in Yemen. That's much tougher than using a Predator to fire a Hellfire missile, but unless we come up with some way to bring a modicum of stability to this turbulent land, the death of Awlaki is likely to be a fleeting victory.
Over the past decade of its fight against al-Qaeda, the U.S. has too frequently mistaken successful tactics for strategic gains. If we are to turn the killing of important jihadi leaders like Awlaki into sustainable strategic success, we need to understand how the enemy's network functions and how our operations change it. Until then, we might be firing in the dark.
The killing of Anwar al-Awlaki changes everything -- and changes nothing. Yes, the ability of the U.S. to reach across continents to eliminate senior terrorist leaders has proven the ultimate game-changer in the war on terrorism. Today, every breath al-Qaeda terrorist leaders take is a sigh of relief; another day that a missile has not rained down upon them. The time they can devote to plotting attacks is now consumed by staying alive and staving off an inevitable Hellfire missile strike.
Photo: Anwar Awlaki holds an assault rifle in an unknown location in this undated photograph provided by Site Intelligence Group. Credit: EPA