It’s hard for me to fathom the bloodthirsty vengeance capitalism’s journalists have when it comes to handling the summary executions of US citizens. Perhaps it’s a New York thing. Journalists are not really supposed to have beliefs and biases, but at least when they do, they should understand them, calibrating their views accordingly, even when formulating opinions. That’s a big part of what it means to be an adult, psychically human, individual. Anything else is just tribalism with a patina of rationalism. Bloomberg’s View is no better than the Wall Street Journal’s Review and Outlook at beating the war drums for capitalism. Here’s their take on the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki.
The killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born radical Muslim cleric, by a drone strike in Yemen was a minor U.S. victory that raises major questions about the evolving fight against global terrorism.
These include: How important was al-Awlaki? Is the U.S. justified in targeting its own citizens if they are deemed an immediate threat to national security? Is cooperating with the teetering government of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the U.S.’s long-term interests? And does the 2001 congressional authorization to use force against those behind the Sept. 11 attacks extend to groups that had no role in them, such as Yemen’s al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al-Shabaab in Somalia?
We’ll take those one at a time. Al-Awlaki was a dangerous man with the dubious distinction of landing on the CIA’s “kill or capture” list. His Internet orations stirred popular resentment against the West and inspired isolated actors like Faisal Shahzad, the would-be Times Square bomber. He is thought to have played a role in an effort to blow up an airliner over Detroit on Christmas 2009. And he exchanged e-mails with Major Nidal Hasan, who is accused of killing 13 people at a Texas Army base in 2009.
So the killing of Awlaki was justified because he was dubiously listed by the CIA as one who should be killed or captured? This is circular reasoning at its worst. To whom does the CIA answer? Is it limited in any aspect by the US Constitution which it purports to serve? And please, Awlaki is not claimed to have personally done anything that would even be indictable in a court of law, which I suppose explains the necessity for circumventing judicial process in carrying out his execution.
Although al-Awlaki’s significance in the terrorist pantheon may have been overinflated — his value as a propagandist stemmed from his American citizenship and fluency in English, not from any influence as a religious thinker — the U.S. and the world are somewhat safer places without him and the other American killed in the attack: Samir Khan, the editor of al- Qaeda’s English-language Internet magazine.
So now we kill American citizens because they are American citizens who happen to disagree with the mainstream views of the American government and are capable of doing so in idiomatic English, and because the US and the world would be somewhat safer places without them? And we throw in an extra American because, well, he was probably bad, too? It might be pointed out, that Bloomberg View is probably also staffed by American citizens with a reasonably good command of idiomatic English. What happens when some future administration decides the world would be somewhat safer without them?
Was the U.S. justified in going after the cleric? There is no question that killing an American risks undermining domestic support for antiterrorism efforts. But we agree with the Justice Department that such strikes are legal and justified to safeguard national security. An enemy combatant is fair game, no matter where he was born.
Awlaki was an enemy combatant because he disagreed with the American government’s views? He’s not claimed to have done anything more than that. And though he wasn’t killed because of his influence as a religious leader, nor for actions he had taken against the US, it is still okay to disregard his status as a US citizen in depriving him of life without the due process of law?
And Yemen’s president? Saleh, grasping at straws in an effort to stay in power, will no doubt use the operation as an argument for new support from the U.S. He should be ignored. As an ally in the fight against extremism, Yemen has been slightly more reliable than Pakistan, which is faint praise indeed. Any successor government would be just as eager to see al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula shut down, and might be a more efficient partner. Even a civil war wouldn’t much change the status quo — the terrorists in Yemen have long enjoyed a free hand. The last thing the U.S. needs to do is prop up another corrupt dictator.
So, no matter what happens in Yemen, al Qaeda will survive? How convenient for justifying perpetual US presence in the country; conjure a perpetual foe in a perpetual war, and voila, America has manufactured its own raison d’etre across the globe!
Finally, debate over extending the war on terrorism beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan had been heating up in recent weeks. It was a well-known secret that, on one side, the Defense Department’s top lawyer, Jeh C. Johnson, argued that the U.S. has a legal right to strike at suspected terrorists in nations unwilling or unable to suppress the threat. He had faced opposition from the top legal adviser to the State Department, Harold Hongju Koh, who reportedly argued that the U.S. could strike only in self-defense — that is, at people (al-Awlaki included) known to be planning a direct attack on the U.S. homeland.
And here we get to the nub of the issue: How much offense is allowable in the interest of self-defense? It must first be clarified that Awlaki presented no existential threat to the US in any way, shape or form, and it has nowhere even been alleged that he was plotting a direct attack, meager as it might have been, on US soil. Neither does al Qaeda in any of its present configurations represent anything in the way of an existential threat to the US. In fact, there are at present in the world, no existential threats to the US, but any decent historian knows that empires will conjure purposes for expansionism, i.e., reasons for being, when none otherwise exist.
How lost and forlorn would be the American Empire if al Qaeda were suddenly to disintegrate? It would then be required to conjure a new purpose for all its fancy military hardware and all its legions dedicated to its “defense”. If the threat of attack from a bunch of ne’er do well Muslim malcontents were to evaporate, the US would then face a true existential threat. It would need to go seeking new enemy phantoms from which it could burnish its reputation as protector of all that is good and worthy, employing, of course, that cool new pilotless drone technology that allows for bloodless assassinations. The US needs al Qaeda even more than al Qaeda needs the US.
The question was seemingly resolved in a speech given by National Security Adviser John Brennan at Harvard Law School on Sept. 16. Brennan insisted that the government had the “authority to take action against al-Qaeda and its associated forces without doing a separate self-defense analysis each time,” but he said efforts would “focus on those individuals who are a threat to the United States, whose removal would cause a significant — even if only temporary — disruption of the plans and capabilities” of the terrorist groups.
How convenient! A speech by an individual whose position ensures it was riddled with conflicts of interest is all that is necessary to clear up the question of whether the US is limited in any manner in its killing of those it deems to constitute a threat in some shape or form, and it gets to decide, without recourse, who it is that constitutes a threat.
This conclusion to claim broad legal authority for the use of force combined with a restrictive policy for actually using it seems to strike the right balance. The administration’s remarkable transparency on counter-terrorism — explaining in detail the mission that killed Osama bin-Laden (and correcting its initial miscommunications in that account); allowing Brennan to lay out its policy thinking in public; and now divulging specifics on the al-Awlaki strike — should earn it increased public trust.
Public trust from whom? I doubt it has earned much in the way of public trust from Awlaki’s father.
The decision to mount a mission to kill a terrorist outside the battlefield, whether a U.S. citizen or not, should always be scrutinized as both policy and military strategy. But those who insist such operations are unambiguously against the law have little to stand on. And in this case, the Obama administration has given us reason to trust its judgment.
This wasn’t a mission to kill a terrorist outside the battlefield. For one, there conveniently is no battlefield when it comes to fighting terrorists, because terrorism is a tactic, not a foe. And Mr. Awlaki was a US citizen who is not even accused of having engaged in terrorist activity. Mr. Awlaki may have had views that were rather troubling to the American defense establishment. That hardly makes him a terrorist. Whom did he terrorize? I, for one, had no fear of him, not because I agreed with his views, but because I don’t much care what people think, rather preferring instead to concern myself with what they do. To allege Awlaki, a US citizen, is worthy of execution solely because of his views harkens to the bad old days of the Cold War, when Joe McCarthy excoriated US citizens with the question of whether they were now, or ever had been, a member of the Communist Party. Of course McCarthy didn’t advocate summary executions for the targets of his inquiry; because terrorism is in fact much less an existential threat to the US than was the old Soviet Union’s brand of communism, the unambiguously illegal actions taken to defend against it have to be much more severe. Without summary executions of US citizens claimed to be terrorists, the true puniness of the threat might thereby be revealed. The gravity of the situation is only revealed (according to the Romantic ideal) by the extent to which beliefs are abandoned in order to protect its citizens (well, at least some of them) from peril.