The assassination of Al Qaida propagandist Anwar Al-Awlaki on September 30 by a drone missile in Yemen has spurred this anguished question.
Nearly twenty years after the US tried to kill Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, President Ronald Reagan signed Executive Order 12333 which included the rule that “No person employed by…the United States Government shall engage in …..assassination.” (Wikipedia)
But in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, Congress passed a law that stated that the President “is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against …persons he determines ….committed…the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2011…..” This law, which is tantamount to a declaration of war on Al Qaida, overrode President Reagan’s order, and so authorized the murder of Osama bin Laden in May of this year.
But bin Laden was not an American, and Al-Awlaki was. Does that matter? I contend that in war everyone in the enemy camp is an enemy, and thus a target, regardless of birth and citizenship. Had Al-Awlaki been located in the United States, the proper procedure would have been to arrest and try him for treason. Had he been located in a friendly and stable country such as Germany, France or Britain, the US should have requested the authorities in that country to arrest and extradite him.
The relevant fact was that Al-Awlaki was in Yemen, a failed state, literally in the camp of Al Qaida, so extradition was not possible. Although the Government of Yemen is nominally allied with the United States, it does not actually control all of its territory and a revolution is going on there. By defecting to al Qaida and joining its camp, this man had effectively renounced the rights he would have held as an American citizen.
Is there then any effective limit on the power of the President of the United States to kill anyone, anywhere in the world, by merely asserting that the victim was an enemy combatant or traitor? Roman emperors could kill anybody with impunity. Stalin could kill Trotsky, even in Mexico. Do we want our presidents to have this power?
The only effective restraint on the President is the power of impeachment by Congress, something the Caesars and Soviet dictators did not have to worry about. Rep. Ron Paul (R, Texas) thinks that Obama deserves impeachment for killing Al-Awlaki, but I say that most Americans believe that he did the right thing. If a future president kills an innocent person, he will be held accountable by the people, represented in Congress. President Nixon was forced to resign for less, and President Clinton was impeached (though not convicted) for much less.
Gerald S Glazer
(1) “The president’s terrorist dilemma” in the Milwaukee Journal Perspectives, October 5, 2011, page 15A.
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