Amid all the self-congratulation over the killing of Anwar Awlaki and the confident assertion that the world is a better place as a result, it is worth remembering that the secret, unilateral, targeted assassination of a U.S. citizen far from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan is hardly something to celebrate.
If Awlaki was in fact the architect of terrorism attacks inside the United States, as officials maintain he was, then perhaps his demise is to be welcomed. But we don't really know, do we? There was no transparent, legal, reviewable process by which he was placed on the list of those targeted for killing by the U.S. government. There was no judicial procedure, nor any public airing of the charges against him. He had no opportunity to respond to specific allegations.
Even in wartime, the killing of a U.S. citizen — or anyone else — who poses no immediate danger is morally obnoxious. It also is impossible to harmonize with the U.S. Constitution. The 5th Amendment says that no citizen should be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law. If Awlaki had been arrested in America, rather than assassinated in Yemen, he would have had an incontestable right to a trial.
The Obama administration's interest in Awlaki is understandable. The charismatic preacher, an American-born Muslim, is said to have incited the attempted Christmas Day bombing in 2009 and may have directed a plot to blow up a cargo plane bound for Chicago. He also was in touch with Nidal Hasan, the Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people at the Ft. Hood Army base.
We understand the government's conundrum. In this dangerous new world, our enemies don't wear uniforms, threats cross national borders, and an order given abroad can quickly lead to devastation at home. The U.S. has struggled for a decade with how to safeguard people without crossing moral lines or violating individual rights.
But if the United States is going to continue down the troubling road of state-sponsored assassination, the government should, at the very least, provide a clear understanding of the criteria used to decide who should be placed on the target list. And there must be some form of judicial review of those decisions; why should a judge's approval be required to place a wiretap on a suspected terrorist but not to kill him? Since Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. has detained many alleged terrorists, only for courts to discover that the evidence against them was unreliable or wrong.
Last year, Awlaki's father asked a federal judge to rule that the United States may not assassinate an American citizen outside a war zone "unless he is found to present a concrete, specific and imminent threat to life or physical safety, and there are no means other than lethal force" to neutralize the threat. The judge declined, saying the issue was a political question best left to the president. But President Obama should be pressed to abide by those guidelines.
The war on terror is not a free-for-all in which the United States may behave as it wishes without accountability or adherence to principle. We would have been pleased if Awlaki could have been captured and brought to this country for trial, because the promise of due process is a fundamental, bedrock American value.