Anwar al-Awlaki, Cont.

Spencer Ackerman picks up the phone and talks to some experts on whether the killing of Anwar al-Alwaki. It's too complicated to excerpt or summarize, so I highly recommend you reading it yourself. The short answer seems to be, Maybe, but (effectively) probably not.


At any rate, I was basically inarticulate in voicing my opposition, yesterday, to al-Alwaki's murder.

Adam Serwer bears down on what really bothers me here:

[W]hat we're talking about is the establishment of a precedent by which a US president can secretly order the death of an American citizen unchecked by any outside process. Rules that get established on the basis that they only apply to the "bad guys" tend to be ripe for abuse, particularly when they're secret...

Uncritically endorsing the administration's authority to kill Awlaki on the basis that he was likely guilty, or an obviously terrible human being, is short-sighted. Because what we're talking about here is not whether Awlaki in particular deserved to die. What we're talking about is trusting the president with the authority to decide, with the minor bureaucratic burden of asking "specific permission," whether an American citizen is or isn't a terrorist and then quietly rendering a lethal sanction against them. 

The question is not whether or not you trust that President Obama made the right decision here. It's whether or not you trust him, and all future presidents, to do so--and to do so in complete secrecy.

It's the unchecked authority, combined with the secrecy that really bothers me. How do you know that I will responsibly employ my new powers in the future? Because I say I will. 

David Cole, tackling the broader question of using lethal force against alleged threats across the whole of battlefield earth:

Killing Osama bin Laden in Pakistan--whose tribal areas are for all practical purposes part of the theater of war--was the justified targeting of the enemy's leader. But are al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or al-Shabab the same "enemy," or merely sympathetic adherents of a terrorist philosophy? They certainly did not attack us on September 11, nor are they harboring those who did. Can we summarily execute all terrorists who we fear might someday commit a terrorist act against us? Brennan's speech offered no answers. 

 And that makes it especially disturbing that the contours of US policy and practice in this area remain largely secret. Presumably the administration has developed criteria for who can be killed and why, and a process for assessing who fits those criteria and when their targeting is justified. But if so, it hasn't told us. Instead, it exercises the authority to kill, not only in Afghanistan and the border regions of Pakistan, but in Yemen,Somalia, and presumably elsewhere, based on a secret policy.

I have not been one for the Obama-Bush age talk. But how is unbounded lethal power employed under the cloak of secrecy not Cheneyism? 

Cole points out that there's more at stake here then simply what happens at home:

In international law, where reciprocity governs, what is lawful for the goose is lawful for the gander. And when the goose is the United States, it sets a precedent that other countries may well feel warranted in following. Indeed, exploiting the international mandate to fight terrorism that has emerged since the September 11 attacks, Russia has already expanded its definition of terrorists to include those who promote "terrorist ideas"--for example, by distributing information that might encourage terrorist activity-- and to authorize the Russian government to target "international terrorists" in other countries. 

It may seem fanciful that Russia would have the nerve to use such an authority within the United States--though in the case of Alexsander Litvinenko it appears to have had few qualms about taking extreme measures to kill an individual who had taken refuge in the United Kingdom. But it is not at all fanciful that once the US proclaims such tactics legitimate, other nations might seek to use them against their less powerful neighbors.

Andrew argues that on national security, Obama is the man Bush thought he was:

This administration actually is what the Bush administration claimed to be: a relentless executor of the war in terror, armed with real intelligence and lethally accurate execution. Sure, Yemen's al Qaeda is not the core al Qaeda of Pakistan/Afghanistan - it's less global in scope and capacities. But to remove one important propaganda source of that movement has made all of us safer. And those Americans who have lived under one of Awlaki's murderous fatwas can breathe more easily today. I understand why Andrew would applaud an effective (in the short term) prosecution of the War on Terror. I have always been in favor of bringing to justice those responsible for 9/11, but skeptical of war on "Terror." 

The central point is undeniable--Obama has been much more effective at destroying al Qaeda. But while I have always believed in bringing the people who committed 9/11 to justice, I have also been skeptical of a war on something as diffuse and amorphous as "Terror." Witness our alliance with the Big Man of Yemen in pursuit of terrorists, while the Big Man himself inflicts terror upon his people.

We have moved beyond 9/11 and into an open-ended global mandate to eliminate alleged threats, identified through unknowable means. I'm sure Andrew is right that I am now "safer." I wish I knew, specifically, from what.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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