But We've Been Wrong Before

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy



I think Andrew hones in one of the reasons why you won't hear much outrage referencing the killing of Al-Awlaki:

My response is to note what the Obama administration seems leery of saying out loud - in line with its general response to al Qaeda which is to speak very softly while ruthlessly killing scores of mid-level and high-level operatives. 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. 

The same goes for al Qaeda more generally. Obama has done in two years what Bush failed to do in eight. He has skillfully done all he can to reset relations with the broader Muslim world (despite the machinations of the Israeli government) while ruthlessly wiping out swathes of Jihadist planners, operatives and foot-soldiers in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has thereby strengthened us immeasurably both in terms of soft and hard power.

There are those of us who were opposed to the War on Terror on philosophical grounds, and then those who were opposed on grounds of competency. It was not simply a matter of declaring war on terror, it was a matter of being bad at it. I understand why Dick Cheney wants an apology; Obama is the man Cheney thought he was. 

There is deep temptation to take unreserved and uncritical pride in the fact that the allegedly soft, Muslim, professor from the Ivy Leagues is, in the business of eliminating those who would usher us back into the 8th century, a straight-up killer. 

But for those who do not simply think Iraq was wrong because it was poorly executed, who object to machine-gun democracy, it's worth considering Conor Friedersdorf's point:

What is important to add, now that the American government is assassinating citizens without trial or due process of any kind, is how frequently it wrongly asserts that someone is an enemy of the United States. Ponder the track record of the entity that is now judge, jury and executioner. As far back as the 1996 bombing at the Atlanta Olympics, a bungled FBI investigation and a news media indulging its worst impulses turned heroic security guard Richard Jewell into a prime suspect. 

During the espionage case against Wen Ho Lee, the nuclear scientist found himself held in extremely harsh conditions, including a long stint in solitary confinement. As the judge overseeing his case would later say in a formal apology to the defendant, "During December 1999, the then-United States Attorney, who has since resigned, and his Assistants presented me, during the three-day hearing between Christmas and New Year's Day, with information that was so extreme it convinced me that releasing you, even under the most stringent of conditions, would be a danger to the safety of this nation." 

As it turned out, that information was inaccurate, as evidence uncovered later proved. And Lee ultimately won $1.6 million in a civil suit against the federal government and several news organizations complicit in its wrongful behavior. 

Remember the anthrax attacks on government buildings, media outlets, and the U.S. mail system? "As the pressure to find a culprit mounted, the FBI, abetted by the media, found one," David Freed wrote in a May 2010 Atlantic feature story. "This is the story of how federal authorities blew the biggest anti-terror investigation of the past decade--and nearly destroyed an innocent man." His piece is about the persecution of Dr. Steven J. Hatfill. It's necessary to say so because Army defense researcher Bruce Ivins, who the FBI later fingered as the guilty man, might not have been the culprit either.

There's some sense that killing American citizens on foreign soil  is somehow different than killing American citizens here. In fact no such distinction really exist in the law. I recommend the above episode of Maddow for how she teases out the liberal tensions over assassination, but also for this important point made by Spencer Ackerman in response to whether citizenship protects you from assassination:

Ackerman: Under the authority to use military force passed right after 9/11, no. There's no carve-out, there's no mention of American citizenship. It's an exceptionally broad mandate giving the president any power he wants to wage war anywhere around the globe. It's Battlefield earth.

Maddow: How close is this to the government claiming the right to kill first and ask questions later of U.S. citizens here in the United States?

Ackerman: I don't understand what the differentiating criteria could be....Why in Yemen and not Yuma? If the important factor is that an American citizen can be targeted for destruction, why not just fly a drone over the next plot...Why even bother arresting an American citizen? 

Call me crazy. But that troubles me. I'm glad that Obama got Bin Laden, and said so at the time. I was equally glad that Bush got Abu-Musab Al-Zarqawi. But this isn't a power that's likely too be scaled back--if anything expect a less prudent president to use it more expansively.
Presented by

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.

Google Street View, Transformed Into a Tiny Planet

A 360-degree tour of our world, made entirely from Google's panoramas

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Google Street View, Transformed Into a Tiny Planet

A 360-degree tour of our world, made entirely from Google's panoramas

Video

The 86-Year-Old Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

More in Politics

From This Author

Just In