The news broke on Friday morning that Anwar Al-Awlaki – the “American-born Qaeda leader” – had been killed in Yemen by a CIA drone operator. His assassination was sanctioned by no less than President Obama himself, contrary to the serious doubts that experts have raised over Awlaki’s role in the organisation, and that no evidence – as opposed to unsubstantiated accusations from the White House – has ever been presented of his guilt. Readers might recall how, in January this year, The Washington Post’s Dana Priest revealed that Bush Jr had given the CIA and the US military “the authority to kill US citizens abroad” without any due process, and that this position had been subsequently adopted by the Obama administration. Priest also revealed that both the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) maintain lists of people – respectively, “High Value Targets” and “High Value Individuals” – whom they seek to kill or capture. She went on to mention that Awlaki’s name was added to the JSOC list as early as last year. And so, on Friday morning, somewhere in the al-Jawf province of Yemen, the Rubicon was crossed: the assassination of US citizens, without due process and wherever they may be in the world, became a reality and not just the stuff of an Orwellian nightmare.
That, however, is only where this brave new world begins. When Awlaki’s father appealed to the courts to prevent the murder of his son, the US Department of Justice responded that such decisions were “state secrets”, and that it was beyond the power of any court to scrutinise them. The case was dismissed but the presiding judge remarked that the implications of the practice raised some serious questions: “Can the executive order the assassination of a US citizen without first affording him any form of judicial process whatsoever, based on the mere assertion that he is a dangerous member of a terrorist organisation?” Put clearly, not only does the President now have the power to sentence Americans to death without charge or trial, but his decisions as to who will be killed and why he wants them dead, are “state secrets” and thus no court may adjudicate on their legality.
Is this the world we want to live in? A world in which a citizen living far from any war zone can be placed on a government hit list, and killed in total secrecy, based entirely on unverified claims; a world in which citizens can be denied the right to be charged, tried and defended in court; a world in which a President – himself a constitutional scholar – can assume exactly the powers outlawed by the Fifth Amendment (“No person shall be deprived of life without due process of law”) and in violation of core First Amendment protections? And while you ask yourself these questions, remember that the US government has repeatedly made false accusations of terrorism against foreign nationals as well as its own citizens, such as Jose Padilla and John Walker Lindh.
But these are not the most shocking aspects of this event. What shocks are the images of ordinary Americans celebrating this assassination, as if it were a vindication of their country’s exceptional status in the world. It is they, blissed out on soma, who are blowing the emperor’s horn. And that is the frightening genius of the war on terror: first, it allows the government to dispense with the only protection citizens have against state abuse of power, the most fundamental of liberties, enshrined in the country’s constitution; and, second, it gets them jumping to their feet and baying for more. In months to come – if a Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin or Rick Perry are elected to the presidency – the people may wish they had paid more attention.
Photo Credits: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
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