Anwar al-Awlaki, and a Goldblog-Greenwald Convergence

Some unfinished business. I was talking a couple of weeks ago to Nick Baumann of Mother Jones Magazine--he called to ask me to describe what I thought a proper airport security system should look like--and somehow we turned to the subject of Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical Islamist propagandist and American citizen. President Obama, as you know, has authorized al-Awlaki's assassination, and this doesn't sit well with me, not because I like al-Qaeda propagandists, but because I think it is a fairly momentous step for an American president to take it upon himself to kill other Americans. Baumann found it interesting that a bloodthirsty warmongering neocon dual-loyalist (a BWNDL, for short) such as myself had such strong feelings about al-Awlaki's right as an American not to be killed by the President of the United States without substantial review, and he wrote up our conversation:

Goldberg launched the discussion of al-Awlaki's fate by telling me he was surprised there wasn't more public debate over the Obama administration's stance. "It's amazing to me," he said. "You're telling me that the President can decide to go kill an American without judicial or congressional oversight?" There's a "continuum," Goldberg said, between the al-Awlaki case and another pet peeve--that the "government has decided it's going to grope the genitals of American citizens."

I also said I admired the purity of Glenn Greenwald's position on al-Awlaki, which prompted some hostility directed at me from Goldblog readers (I don't think we share much of a similar reader base). As I tried to explain privately to some of these readers, my sympathy for Greenwald's position on assassination has nothing to do with his understanding of Islamism or America's role in the world, just as my belief that it should not be so easy for an American president to order the killing of a fellow American is unrelated to al-Awlaki's rhetorical heinousness (I say "rhetorical" because I haven't seen any definitive proof that he does anything more than talk evil trash).

Baumann wrote -- in an effort to start-up an intra-Atlantic blog war, I guess (like that would ever happen!) -- that my position on this question "seems to clash with that of Andrew Sullivan, his fellow blogger and Atlantic colleague. Sullivan doesn't seem to have many serious qualms about the government killing al-Awlaki." Baumann linked to this Andrew post on al-Awlaki (a post in which Andrew criticized Greenwald for refusing to acknowledge that al-Awlaki is an active combatant in a war against Americans)

Awlaki is not imprisoned; he has not been seized extra-judicially and tortured. What makes this different from defending the rights of terror suspects who are already under our physical control and in our custody (which I have not stinted in doing) is that Awlaki isn't. He is currently a core member of the faction of al Qaeda that is actively trying to murder us. You will find no such account of Awlaki's record of despicable Jihadist terror in Glenn's post. As for "imminent" and "immediate" threat, maybe Glenn could have a word with the cartoonist for Seattle Weekly who, even now, is living in hiding and has had to change her name because of Awlaki's fatwa of death against her. I'm sure she regards the threat as imminent.

Andrew's position, as he himself later pointed out, is not so different from mine:

I'd prefer an open administration argument as to the evidence linking Awlaki directly to terrorist murder. Baumann then writes that Goldblog's "position seems to clash with that of Andrew Sullivan, his fellow blogger and Atlantic colleague. Sullivan doesn't seem to have many serious qualms about the government killing al-Awlaki. " I have many qualms, and would prefer evidence against Awlaki to made public in court. Which I think is Jeffrey's position.

This is the bottom line, for me, at least: I don't think an American president (any American president) should be allowed to order the assassination of someone who holds American citizenship without judicial review, except in cases in which that American citizen is imminently going to try to kill -- not merely argue for the killing, but kill -- innocent people, of whatever nationality. I don't think we want to invest such awesome power in the Executive Branch, which has a pretty awesome set of powers already.

UPDATE: I just saw this link on Andrew's blog to this very interesting post raising important questions about just exactly what Awlaki has done.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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