The Obama administration has targeted Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Muslim cleric, for assassination. Al-Awlaki has been linked to both the “underpants bomber” and the shootings at Fort Hood.
There’s no doubt that Americans would be safer in a world without al-Awlaki, but that’s not the only question we should be asking ourselves.
Al-Awlaki was placed on the “kill or capture” list after the White House concluded that he had gone beyond inciting attacks to actually participating in them.
Since al-Awlaki is currently in Yemen, the “kill” option is the most likely. And the most likely way of killing him is using a Predator drone, the kind used in Pakistan and Afghanistan against Al Qaeda and Taliban targets.
As one official told the New York Times, “None of this should surprise anyone.”
Well, my gut reaction is to applaud this resolution—kill the bad guys. But my gut instincts, like everyone else’s, are fallen. That’s why we need to ask what principles are involved in this kind of assassination.
For starters, al-Awlaki is an American citizen. We’re talking about executing an American citizen on the basis of evidence that has never been presented in open court, or any court for that matter.
Killing him would be satisfying, and it may make us safer, but it also sets a troubling precedent about the due process every citizen is guaranteed. There’s nothing in the reasoning being employed here that limits extra-judicial executions to people outside the United States—the next time those suspected of participating in alleged terrorist activities might be in Michigan or Idaho.
Then there are the just war implications of targeting al-Awlaki. The legal justification for the assassination is the September 12, 2001, congressional authorization of force against al Qaeda. This makes going after him an act of war and, to Christians at least, something that must be judged by just war criteria.
While this case clearly meets the “just cause” requirement, there are other considerations. Historically, the just war tradition has looked askance on assassination. Among other things, it has viewed assassination as treacherous and even cowardly because it doesn’t give the target a chance to defend himself.
It has also been concerned about what today is called the “collateral damage.” Drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan have not only killed the bad guys but also their families and neighbors, a violation of non-combatant immunity.
Then there’s the way that assassinations can devolve into a kind of “tit-for-tat” that undermines order. A world where warfare is increasingly irregular is a world without meaningful limits on the way we conduct war.
Apart from some voices on the left, coverage of this story seems to assume the legality and rightness of the policy. But I make no such assumption, nor should you.
I don’t really know how I come out on this. The “kill or capture” decision may pass muster or it might not. But I do know that the rule of law and the just war tradition are two of Christianity’s great contributions to Western civilization. And I know also that, in a fallen world, a ruthless leader might rely on this precedent to kill Americans for the wrong reasons.
This is a tough—yes, dubious—call. No matter what our gut tells us.