There is something very sad—or perhaps I should say obscene—about the President of the United States standing before the press corps and personally taking credit for another death. It is as if he was bragging about a basketball score after his side had won. Worse, by rubbing out Anwat-al-Awaki with a drone over Yemen on Friday, the president seems to be replaying the we-killed-Osama card, reaching for one more nudge up in the polls as poverty and unemployment rise.
Let us imagine that a few years from now Iraq has a stable government, the 10,000 American troops still there are encamped outside Baghdad, and the Iraqi president and his advisers feel it is time to punish those responsible for the war which decimated their country, causing an estimated one million deaths. They have also bought some drones, and, with the cooperation of Arab neighbors, have the skill and technology to deliver a payload. They compile a list of those U.S. leaders most responsible for the killings and destroy them, their families and neighbors.
Our reaction, of course, would be that this is outrageous! A violation of international law! How dare they? If they had evidence that U.S. leaders were war criminals they should present the evidence, indict them, bring them before an international court, and punish them according to the rule of law. No?
While reading the New York Times and Washington Post on Saturday and Sunday, I did not come across a single editorial or columnist willing to criticize the United States decision to murder Awlaki. Only the New York Daily News gave op-ed space to Ron Paul, who argued that one is never justified in violating the U. S. Constitution, for any reason, when the Constitution guarantees every citizen—even an Arab who had grown to hate America and now leads propaganda campaigns against us—the right to a fair trial and due process of law. Meanwhile the Times and Post buried the weaknesses in the government’s case in their news stories. The Post blessed the killing as legal and moral, the news report couched the case against Awlaki in jargon like “has been implicated in helping,” and “is believed to have inspired” and “has been linked to an attempt.” At least seven people were killed, including one young American blogger, Samir Khan, editor of a jihadist magazine Inspire, who had also turned against his homeland. For this he must die? The other five are nameless Arabs. What do our country’s actions say to them? They should know better than to hang out near Awlaki? Their tough luck?
For another perspective on our killing, we must turn to the British press—The Independent and The Guardian. Several writers suggest that the attack took place right after their president Saleh returned from hospital leave in Saudi Arabia after having been injured in a bomb attack, so that by helping the Americans in the killing he might get a reprieve; the U.S. had urged him to step down. Another pointed out that the claim by the American press that Awlaki was head of the Al Qaeda in Arabia (AQAP) is untrue and that his killing will not reduce the terrorist attacks coming out of Yemen, and that he played no operational role in AQAP.
But the strongest commentary in The Guardian (Sept. 30) comes from Michael Ratner, speaking for the Center for Constitutional Rights and the ACLU. “Is this the world we want? Where the president of the United States can place an American citizen, or anyone else for that matter, living outside a war zone on a targeted assassination list, and then have him murdered by drone strike.” Awlaki may be engaged in plots against the United States, he writes, “but we do not know that because he was never indicted for a crime.” Furthermore, while the U.S. knew where he was for the purpose of a drone strike, why was no effort made to arrest him in Yemen, which is supposedly our ally? Even if Obama’s claim has some validity, “unless Awlaki’s alleged terrorist actions were imminent and unless deadly force was employed as a last resort, this killing constitutes murder.”
His conclusion should chill our blood: “There appears to be no limit to the president’s power to kill anywhere in the world, even if it involves killing a citizen of his own country. Today, it’s in Yemen; tomorrow it could be in the U.K. or even in the United States.”
Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.