Is it sufficient to say, as Obama Administration defenders do, that Abdulrahman's killing happened in war, and national security requires that the details be kept secret? Is it unfair to compare this case with a domestic incident in Florida where state secrets were not implicated at all?
Certainly the incidents are different.
But I don't think all comparisons are unfair. It should be said that the U.S. isn't, in fact, at war with Yemen, and wasn't at war with any group to which the 16-year-old belonged. But set that aside.
When an American citizen is wrongfully killed by the government, "we didn't mean to do it but we can't explain why we did" doesn't cut it. Is there no other information that can be released without jeopardizing national security? Even if it was a terrible accident that everyone in the national-security establishment regrets, isn't the next of kin owed an explanation and an apology?
Shouldn't what went wrong be established?
Don't the press and the public have a responsibility to see if anyone erred in a way for which they should be held accountable, and that safeguards are in place to make sure other innocents don't die in this terrible way? That's how we reacted when Pat Tillman died on the battlefield. As in that case, the notion that the government is obviously telling us the truth, and has additionally told us all that it possibly can without jeopardizing national security, seems farcical.
One needn't suspect murder to demand answers.
And when I think about the contrasts in the ways that the government and the public have treated Trayvon and Abdulrahman, I must say that I discern uncomfortable truths that are bigger than the facts of the individual cases, as perilous as extrapolating in these circumstances can be. In a nod to the inevitable uncertainty involved in these judgments, I'll conclude by talking not about what I know or can prove, but about what I fear and want desperately to prevent.
Whatever the truth is about the killing of Abdulrahman, the way that it's been handled -- by the president and the public -- makes me fear that it would be easy for the United States government to wrongfully kill an innocent American teenager, so long as he is a Muslim American traveling in a Muslim country. I fear that having a name like Abdulrahman is itself enough to make the American public more comfortable with your unexplained death than if you have a name like Trayvon or John. I fear that no public figure with the cultural resonance of a Barack Obama, or even Jessie Jackson or Al Sharpton, reliably speaks up on behalf of wronged Muslim Americans, because there is no constituency to make a figure of that sort popular. I fear that this makes Muslim Americans the most vulnerable minority group in America today.
I fear that a healthy majority of Americans, including Americans who would be outraged were it proved that Trayvon Martin was racially profiled, are perfectly comfortable with killing young men of unknown identity in Yemen, so long as drone pilots conclude that they fit the profile of terrorists. (Few object to the fact that the Obama Administration has treated all dead males of military age as "militants" when it calculates how many innocent civilians are being killed by its ongoing drone war). I fear that the logic of the drone war -- that terrorists are determined to kill us, and that very real threat justifies drone strikes in Yemen, even though some innocents will be killed -- is uncomfortably similar, though not equivalent, to the logic of Zimmerman, who noted that his fearful neighbors were targeted by real criminals to justify his aggressive pursuit of Trayvon.