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Largely Isolated Commentary Raging About Executive Assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki

If you knew where to look, you could find a healthy debate about today’s announcement of the government-sponsored killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen. Over at Wired there’s a debate about the Constitutionality of the drone strike, between law professors Charlie Dunlap and Mary Ellen O’Connell, who says that “The United States is not involved in any armed conflict in Yemen, so to use military force to carry out these killings violates international law.” If you woke up for Democracy Now this morning, you would have heard Glenn Greenwald on the issue. Republican Presidential candidates offered differing opinions, with Mitt Romney and Rick Perry praising the killing, while Ron Paul and Gary Johnson objected. Here’s Paul:

“No, I don’t think that’s a good way to deal with our problems,” Paul said Friday in New Hampshire, according to MSNBC. “He was born here, al-Awlaki was born here, he is an American citizen. He was never tried or charged for any crimes. No one knows if he killed anybody. We know he might have been associated with the underwear bomber. But if the American people accept this blindly and casually that we now have an accepted practice of the president assassinating people who he thinks are bad guys, I think it’s sad.”

Ryan Grim and Joshua Hersh moderate a debate of dueling statements and comments, with many of the people I referenced above represented. My favorite quote is from my former Congresswoman, Jane Harman, who acknowledged, “It’s tricky that he was a U.S. citizen,” before endorsing his murder without trial. I even hear that Jake Tapper really went after White House Press Secretary Jay Carney in the press briefing this morning, though I haven’t seen it yet.

But while these selected quotes and statements paint a picture of a roiling debate over the practice of executive assassinations, there really isn’t one. If you can find more than a handful of elected officials who criticize the drone strike, I’d eat my hat. If and when public opinion is recorded on Awlaki’s assassination, I’m fairly certain the public will be roundly in favor. I find this logic from Georgetown law prof David Cole extremely compelling, but even if it was allowed in front of the public in sustained quantities, I could see it easily rebutted with “but he’s a terrorist, he doesn’t deserve due process!”

The implications of this debate are not trivial: Imagine that Russia started killing individuals living in the United States with remote-controlled drone missiles, and argued that it was justified in doing so because it had determined, in secret, that they posed a threat to Russia’s security, and that the United States was unwilling to turn them over. Would we calmly pronounce such actions compliant with the rule of law? Not too likely […]

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.

Ultimately, I think that Charlie Pierce’s cynical take is the correct one.

The Bill of Rights hasn’t had a substantial political constituency in this country for a very long time. People who work in the criminal-justice system confront that fact every single day. If it had a substantial political constituency, we wouldn’t have this moral quagmire of a death penalty. In the area of national security, whatever small constituency it has vanishes almost entirely […] we as a self-governing political commonwealth are too scared, and too lazy, and too damned comfortable with the “unassailable bipartisan consensus” to do anything about protecting our own rights. The fault, dear Brutus, and all that.

It’s interesting that this discussion pops on the day when the administration announced that it had finally killed Anwar al-Alwaki, an American-born cleric in Yemen whose rhetoric had been accused of fomenting acts of terror […] In short, the president of the United States now has claimed the power, and acted upon it, to order the extra-judicial death of an American citizen overseas. There ought to be at least an argument about this but, luckily, we have an unassailable political consensus to keep us from shouting at each other too loudly.


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David Dayen

David Dayen