The extrajudicial execution of Anwar al Awlaki last week was a reminder of ongoing concerns with the powers granted to the president under the Authorization for the Use of Military Force which was passed at the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is also an example of the willingness of this president to act outside the limits placed on his office by the Constitution.
This administration, like its predecessor, has placed a very low value on the protections of the Bill of Rights and has treated due process and the rule of law as inconveniences which they can ignore whenever it is expedient. Under the banner of the War on Terror and the authority of the AUMF they have assumed powers which no government is entitled to and have committed acts against their own people which are utterly unacceptable.
The killing of al Awlaki with a drone-fired missile was done on no greater authority than the scratch of the presidential pen and with no respect for his rights as a human being and a United States citizen. There was no trial, no act of Congress, no revocaton of citizenship, not even an evidentiary hearing or a warrant issued by a judge. No element of the legal system was engaged to determine that al Alwalki should die. The president just decreed it and his robotic executioner did the job.
The evidence suggests that this was done purely for convenience and because the administration was incapable of providing strong enough evidence to bring a case against al Awlaki in a court. Because his role had been primarily to inspire and encourage others through his writing and internet videos, there was little or no evidence which connected him directly to any acts of terrorism. Unable to prove their case, the administration decided to go outside the law and kill him on little more than suspicion, primarily for speaking out against the United States, a fundamental right protected under the First Amendment. It was a cowardly act carried out for convenience by a government which has no respect for the principles on which this nation was founded.
The American public greeted the event with a mixture of complacency and jubilation. There was certainly no reason to waste any tears for the newly emerged spiritual leader of the most extreme elements of the Muslim world. Yet most Americans were dismayingly oblivious to the implications of the extrajudicial execution of an American citizen. If the president can sign the death warrant of one citizen based almost entirely on his writings and public statements, what is to stop him from signing away any of our lives when our criticisms of the government and its policies cross some subjective line?
Objections were raised in some quarters. The American Civil Liberties Union filed an unsuccessful lawsuit to block the president from taking this action without first going through the courts as required by centuries of common law and the Bill of Rights. Two presidential candidates also spoke up. Both Rep. Ron Paul and Gov. Gary Johnson issued statements objecting to the action. Johnson summed up the concerns well, writing:
“If we allow our fervor to eliminate terrorist threats to cause us to cut corners with the Constitution and the fundamental rights of American citizens, whether it be invasions of privacy or the killing of someone born on U.S. soil, I could argue that the terrorists will have ultimately won.
“The world is very likely a better place without al-Awlaki in it, but let us not neglect to ask the tough questions this attack raises and about the laws that allowed it to be carried out.”
Paul touched on the same issues after a speech in New Hampshire, telling reporters:
“We cannot allow the War on Terror to diminish our steadfast adherence to the notion of due process for American citizens…The protections under the Constitution for those accused of crimes do not just apply to people we like – they apply to everyone, including a terrorist like al-Awlaki. It is a question of due process for American citizens.”
Since al Awlaki’s death concerns have been raised that approval for the action came from a “secret panel” of top government officials, acting as a sort of Star Chamber operating outside of the Constitution and the judicial system with no public record of their actions and no accountability to anyone but the president. Speculation has been widespread about the existence of a “kill list” of other terrorists who for one reason or another the administration would like to eliminate without the mess and fuss of a trial or even arrest. This is not how things are supposed to work in America and is more reminiscent of the secret trials of Soviet Russia or even the famous death squads employed by South American dictators in the recent past.
In their statement on the subject the Republican Liberty Caucus summed up what ought to be the main concerns of American citizens in this situation when they asked “Do you want our government to condemn citizens to death in secret and then execute them without a trial or even an arrest warrant? If this is where the War on Terror has brought us, it is time to repeal the AUMF and demand accountability from the government and respect for the Bill of Rights and the rule of law.”
A free nation does not set aside its own laws and kill people for the sake of expediency. Once you start ignoring the law, where do you stop? What limits on government power remain? Last week it was al Awalki, but with no respect for the law or the rights of the people, why shouldn’t it be an outspoken talkshow host or blogger next week?
A nation is only as good as the laws under which it operates and the degree to which it respects the rights of its citizens. When a government sets aside those laws and ignores those rights it is no longer a legitimate government. In fighting the War on Terror, our government and our leaders have themselves become the terrorists.
A version of this article appeared previously on Blogcritics Magazine