Friday, September 30, 2011

A Drone for a Bomb?

It's just been reported that it was a drone that took down al Qaeda's number two operative, and U.S. citizen, Anwar al Awlaki in what smells like the old eye for an eye operation.

Apart from the obvious problem with this, the fact that more than three-quarters of Americans describe themselves as practicing Christians, there are a few others:

First, if one is not an agent, that is to say if one does not actually commit a crime but instead appears to have been involved in the planning of a crime, is that grounds for suspending his constitutional right to be arrested, read his Miranda rights, and be tried in a civilian court? After all, isn't the plotting of a terror attack considered first and foremost a crime, and not an act of war?

And, in times of peace, would not that offense be known as "conspiracy to commit an act of terror?" Does the state of war, particularly the state of undeclared, and indefinite war, give a government the license to circumvent, and subrogate established legal tradition?

Secondly, if those who bomb, make bombs, or publish instructions on how to make bombs are called "terrorists," what do you call someone who kills by remote control, and from unmanned aircraft hundreds, arguably thousands of miles away?

Does the remoteness of the trigger provide some kind of moral immunity? Clearly, there has been an attempt by the previous administration, and this one, too, to legitimize acts that have been traditionally viewed as illegal, and outside the parameters of international law.

Next, as McClatchy reports, international law mandates that "Targeted killing is banned except to protect against "concrete, specific and imminent" danger." Does the execution of Awlaki meet these criteria?

President Obama isn't the first occupant of the Oval Office to turn to his legal counsel for a green light to dispense the kind of justice he finds most expedient. Remember, it was thanks to the efforts of John Yoo, and other legal counsel to George W. Bush who redefined torture such that any technique that doesn't involve loss of life or limb is immune to that designation.

With the right legal advice, it might be possible, too, to rewrite the Old Testament so that "an eye for an eye" reads instead
"a drone for a bomb." But, I guess the larger question, especially for a nation that fancies itself Christian, is when is it not murder?

Surely, Italy wishes they had drones back in the days they were dealing with the Cosa Nostra family in Sicily, and the NYPD wouldn't bristle at the notion of a targeted kill when dealing with crime bosses back in the 1920's, but that would make the NYPD effectively hit men, would it not? What does it make the U.S. government when it signs off on a targeted assassination, especially when there is no clear evidence of imminent danger.

Moreover, acts that al Qaeda and the Taliban have engaged in that we call "terrorist acts" are, in fact, criminal acts, and acts of mayhem. The place to deal with criminal acts is in a courtroom not on a battlefield, that is unless one wants to make the whole world a battlefield which is what the U.S. has effectively been doing.

Clearly, it's cheaper merely to kill a cleric, and spiritual leader whose charisma, and worldview are seen as a threat to national security than it would be to hunt down, arrest, indict, and prosecute him, all of which adds up to beaucoup bucks. But, the paradigm for treating those who commit crimes against humanity, even the most egregious kinds as we've seen from the Nuremberg Trials, is to do precisely that, try the suspect. By overriding the rule of law, we ourselves become criminals.

No one is questioning if Mr. Awlaki posed a threat, but where do we draw the line? Does someone need to be directly tied to a specific terror attack before they be sent off to meet their maker, and does it matter if he is an American citizen or not? Should it matter? International law is clear about the need for a "concrete, specific, and imminent danger." Does it matter that targeting anyone for assassination is a violation of international law, and/or does it matter that it is also unconstitutional?

Not to mention that Awlaki was, after all, someone's son, a fact not lost on
his father. While the court threw out Awlaki's father's attempt to stop the U.S. government from killing his son, the act of targeting another human being for rapid fire execution, and in too many cases rapid fire random execution, is one that will be talked about for generations to come. You can bank on that.