I’m not going to cry bitter tears over Anwar Al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, American citizens whose assassinations were engineered by the United States government yesterday, but I may shed a few for the Constitution that their killers were sworn to uphold. Al-Awlaki was a Phoenix-born jihadi propagandist who produced anti-American and anti-Western video lectures and sermons for rebroadcast on the web. Samir Khan was a 25 year-old North Carolinian who just last year started a English-language jihadist magazine titled “Inspire.” Khan’s stated publishing goal was to recruit young Muslims to take up arms against the West and specifically the United States.
But it should be noted that neither Al-Awlaki or Khan had renounced his American citizenship. Neither had been tried and convicted of any crime. No attempt had been made to arrest and charge them under US law. There is no evidence that they had directly engaged in armed attacks on the United States or Americans abroad, or that they were conspiring with others to commit specific attacks against the United States or Americans abroad. And the only proof that Al-Awlaki had any hand in the operational planning of terrorist attacks amounts to this: the CIA says so. It was a claim the Agency never even bothered to make against Samir Khan.
So meager, in fact, is the evidence against Al-Awlaki that news outlets reporting his assassination today are at a bit of a loss: CBS News calls him a “U.S.-born cleric suspected of inspiring or helping plan numerous attacks on the United States.” CNN describes him as one “whose fluency in English and technology made him one of the top terrorist recruiters in the world.” Fox News says he was an “ideological leader.” And according to the New York Times, “His Internet lectures and sermons were linked to more than a dozen terrorist investigations in the United States, Britain and Canada. Get that: his lectures and sermons were linked to investigations. And for this American citizen was executed by drone on the expressed, personal instructions of Barack Obama, without formal charge and without trial.
Some will say that by even raising this issue, I am giving succor to terrorists. Such is the inverted totalitarianism of America in the “Age of Terror.” My response is two-fold. First, by any reckoning of the due process rights enshrined in the 5th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution, unless an American citizen is a direct, immediate, and lethal threat to the United States or its citizens, it is manifestly illegal – and certainly immoral – for that citizen to be assassinated by the federal government. Unless, of course, one invokes Nixon’s Law: “When the President does it, that means it’s not illegal.” Second, one would think that those most eager to advance the principle of “limited government” would be out front and center against this kind of extra-judicial murder. The right-wing often lampoons Barack Obama as a pharoah, but what is more pharaonic than the arbitrary power of life and death in the hands of a mortal, fallible man? John Adams wrote, “Nip the shoots of arbitrary power in the bud, is the only maxim which can ever preserve the liberties of any people.” Yesterday the target of arbitrary power was Anwar Al-Awlaki. Who will it be tomorrow?