Just a few months ago, jubilation was unleashed when Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden. Pundits and legal experts, myself included in the former, questioned this act of targeted killing, and were more or less skeptical of the decision to forego American principles of due process.
That skepticism, though, was largely kept quiet. After all, this was Osama bin Laden, the face of global terrorism and a long-time U.S. target. To some degree, we had to do it, for our confidence, if not for our security.
President Barack Obama enjoyed that “national security shield” in the case of bin Laden. But such will not be the case in the coming months, when he will once again bear the burden of defending the assassination of a another criminal, Anwar al-Awlaki, without due process.
Of course, much of the questions in the wake Awlaki’s death have to do with the fact that he is a U.S. citizen. No doubt this makes the claim for judicial action more compelling. But I question those who argue that U.S. citizens deserve more rights than non-U.S. citizens. After all, if we are only willing to promote our values within our borders, how can anyone take them seriously?
My questions regarding this act of warfare are not so much about justification. Although Awlaki has never been directly charged with attempting to attack U.S. citizens, it is difficult to make a case that he does not pose a significant threat to our national security. Instead, I wonder about the direction of our country, and our values that are becoming harder and harder to decipher.
As Yasir Qadhi, an American Muslim cleric and doctoral candidate at Yale, points out in the New York Times, the U.S. is always quick to condemn other countries when they are the ones making “extrajudicial” decisions. “We most certainly don’t approve the regimes of Syria or Iran eliminating those whom they deem to be traitors,” he writes. The killing of Awlaki, however justified, only “blurred the lines between [our] own tactics and the tactics of [our] enemies.”
In fact, even history’s most viscous villains were recognized as global citizens worthy of American principles. Nazi war criminals, despite their clear and unrivaled guilt, were put on trial at Nuremberg following World War II. Robert H. Jackson, the chief prosecutor for the U.S. at Nuremberg, eloquently stated that to “submit [one’s] captive enemies to the judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that Power [can] ever paid to Reason."
Make no mistake, the U.S. is powerful enough to eliminate all its worst enemies. However, that is not the road we have chosen throughout history. We have valued our principles in every context not only because we believe they are right, but also because we believe they work.
Jack Goldsmith writes in the New York Times that “it is not accurate to say that [Awlaki] was targeted without due process” because “what due process requires depends on context.” That sentiment, that we are to choose where our principles apply, is what most worries me. We can justify the death of bin Laden, and, with less certainty, Awlaki. But what about the next targeted assassination that is one step below Awlaki? Are we now living in an America that has the power to strip other citizens of their constitutional rights? Are our lives now subject to the determinations of the executive branch?
For now, we can leave Obama off the hook. The question still lingers, though, about the integrity of our values and our willingness to defend them. We certainly did during our darkest days in World War II, and we should continue to do so today, especially when so many abroad question our belief in our own values.
Sure, this world is safer without bin Laden and Awlaki. But maybe it’s safer without this guy, and that guy, and that other guy, too.
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