On word of Anwar al-Awlaki’s death at the hands of a CIA drone strike in Yemen, pundits and “terrorism experts” flooded the airwaves to celebrate what President Obama deemed a “major blow” to al Qaeda. The world is a safer place with the slaying of al-Awlaki, we are told. And much the same as with bin Laden before him, the assassination of al-Awlaki is said to have brought us “justice.” Thus, al-Awlaki’s murder is a true triumph for America—a nation once again rewarded for its tireless and righteous pursuit of justice. The moral beacon of the world shines bright.
What a farce!
In order to deliver this recent bout of “justice,” the US has once again jettisoned formal legality and due process. Al-Awlaki—an American citizen—was found guilty of terrorism and sentenced to death because his government says he was guilty and deserving of death. Case closed.
The administration, nevertheless, assures us that great thought and deliberation was put into the April 2010 decision to mark al-Awlaki for death. As the Washington Post reported, “the CIA did reviews every six months to ensure that those targeted for possible killing [including al-Awlaki] remained threats as defined by law and presidential findings.” The administration, we learn, performs its role as judge, jury, and executioner with great diligence. Oh, what a relief! In this case, who’s the next American on the hit list?
Such legal circumvention, though, seems to be the modus operandi of the Obama administration’s program of targeted assassination. After all, in order to carry out the extrajudicial assassination of bin Laden, the US had to skirt international law in its incursion into Pakistan. But the bin Laden and al-Awlaki attacks are hardly aberrations. Extrajudicial killings are official US state policy. American justice must truly be the envy of the world; for the shackles of international law never binds such “justice.”
It is ironic then, that the administration’s hit on al-Awlaki so closely follows President Obama’s address to the United Nations General Assembly. Respect international law and human rights, Obama preached to the world at the UN, as he forcibly derided the brutal suppression by the Syrian government of its own people. Yet as Obama spoke, not only were CIA planners busily readying the strike on al-Awlaki, the American state of Georgia was busy readying the execution of Troy Davis. Hence, lurking behind this edifice of American morality lays a foreign policy unwavering in its murderous pursuit of “its own people” and a domestic judicial system that ferries the innocent to their death. This is American justice unvarnished.
The dubious execution of Davis, moreover, leaves a nagging question: if the state can execute an innocent man at home, why would it be any different in its executions carried out abroad? But we are not to ponder such things. We are not supposed to peer through the fog of war. If it is a criminal trial one wishes to see, why there is the trial of Michael Jackson’s doctor Conrad Murray, of course.
Perhaps seeking a measure of civility and legality here is misplaced. We are at war—as we are readily told—and it is either kill or be killed. Hence, we kill. But if this is truly the case, we have surely bungled this war. In fact, it is as our very “successes” in this endless war continue to mount that its further escalation becomes inevitable. Each successive targeted assassination, after all, only leads to further such strikes by the US military and CIA. As I write, for instance, US drones continue to prowl the skies of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and other nameless places, waiting to unleash further fury. And as American Hellfire missiles and elite commando teams continue to descend from the night’s skies sowing death, the inevitable violent backlash only hastens. Violence breeds violence.
The assassination of al-Awlaki, like that of bin Laden, in the end does nothing to “make the world safer,” nor does it signal a “great blow” to al Qaeda. The death of a terrorist, it should be fairly obvious, does nothing to deter suicidal ideologues. Nor, for that matter, does killing any terrorist do anything to weaken their ideology, for ideology cannot be defeated by military force. Neo-Nazis, after all, exist today. And, of course, we do not resort to war in order to eradicate the lingering scourge of Nazism. If we did, we would only transform the marginalized into persecuted martyrs, thus helping to swell their ranks. But least we forget that comparisons between the ideology of al Qaeda and its related groups to that of Nazism are only to be drawn in justification of war, not to illustrate war’s folly.
Nonetheless, all those patriots celebrating America’s latest “victory” in the war on terror would still be wise to give pause. Contrary to the jubilant claims of American triumphalism, the nation remains incapable of at least two things: breaking free from the cycle of violence and death, and abandoning our delusional claims of moral superiority.
It is thus terror that has truly emerged triumphant in the death of Anwar al-Awlaki, not America. We, meanwhile, continue our rapid plunge into the moral abyss of reprisal bloodshed.