Anwar al-Awlaki is an American citizen. He is also a high-ranking al Qaeda propagandist and spiritual leader who counseled the Fort Hood shooter on his murderous mission. He inspired Feisal Shahzad, the Muslim jihadist who tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square. He approved the Christmas Day attempted bombing of Northwest Flight 253 over Detroit. He has called for jihad against his own country.
Not surprisingly, the American government wants him dead.
This troubles Jonah Goldberg, one of my favorite authors. Not because of the orders against Awlaki, himself: Jonah agrees this medieval sociopath needs to be reduced to his component parts as quickly as possible. But other questions trouble him:
There’s ample precedent — and common sense — to support the claim that the executive branch can kill American citizens when they are sworn members of enemy forces and avowed traitors working with the enemy.
But those precedents start to fray at the edges when the whole world is the war zone and the war doesn’t end until a diffuse, committed, and often camouflaged army of suicidal religious fanatics defy their god and agree to leave the Dark Ages. And the common sense starts to drain away like water through your fingers when you contemplate that we may be facing these kinds of problems for half a century. So while it strikes me as a no-brainer that al-Awlaki should go, what about the next guy? Or the next?
Goldberg’s problem comes not with the targeted-killing policy, per se, but with its secret, ad hoc nature in a society based on democracy and the rule of law. Rather than having this question fought out in the courts (not surprisingly, the ACLU has sued the Obama administration in court to have the order to kill Awlaki blocked), the policy should be debated openly and settled democratically by the elected political branches in a way that meets our traditions: voted on in Congress in agreement with the President. Not the specific targets, mind you, but a set policy on what happens when a citizen joins a non-state actor to wage war against his own country.
I agree, both with Goldberg and with the Obama administration: Anwar al-Awlaki has sided with our deadly enemy and thus needs to die himself, citizen or not. But we need clear rules for for future cases.
Because we know there will be more.
This is the kind of genuine national issue Congress should be dealing with, the very kind of question for which the federal government was created. Not regulating the air we breathe or the kinds of light bulbs we can buy.
(Crossposted at Public Secrets)