Last Friday, a pair of MQ-1 Predator drones under the control of the Central Intelligence Agency fired a volley of Hellfire missiles at a convoy in Yemen carrying American-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, killing him and several of his associates in what the unhealthy number of spy movies I have watched suggest must have been an epic fireball. There was no arrest warrant, nor any reading of his Miranda rights. Good riddance; al-Awlaki had his chance to remain silent, but instead he took to YouTube and other websites to promote terrorist attacks against the United States.
A number of politicians and pundits on the right and left have decried the assassination as unconstitutional or the start of another perilous journey for the Obama Administration down the most slippery of slopes. How does this set a bad precedent? Al-Awlaki had moved to a foreign country, where he began encouraging and planning acts of violence against his home country. He celebrated when Major Nidal Malik Hassan gunned down 13 of his fellow soldiers in cold blood at Fort Hood and cursed when the underwear bomber failed to explode a plane full of innocent Americans on Christmas day, 2009. If the attempted bombing in Times Square killed you or I, or your mother or father or little sister, I doubt al-Awlaki would have shed a tear.
Al-Awlaki was no common criminal. He was a soldier, waging a war of words and plots against the country that brought him into this world, educated him, and allowed him a pulpit from which to spew his vile propaganda. If the slippery slope that we have started down means that we kill those who plan and celebrate the deaths of Americans, then so be it.
In the imperfect world in which we live, the assassination of al-Awlaki was the only real option. What kind of precedent would it send to allow him to plan attacks on the United States without fear of reprisal, just because of the passport in his pocket? It is not as though the FBI could have gone into the desert of Yemen and served al-Awlaki with an arrest warrant. Had they attempted such a move, it would have ended with the same result – a dead terrorist – and likely some FBI casualties, hardly a preferable outcome. A policeman can shoot someone who aims a gun at him; by encouraging and planning violence against the United States, al-Awlaki was pointing more than a simple firearm.
If we must fight wars – and we will, as long as people see force as an effective solution to their problems – who should be the casualties? Is it more “just” to kill the young men and women who join the armed forces of their country in order to receive an education, a steady paycheck, or a sense of discipline? Is it more “fair” to kill the civilians who happen to live in the nation that harbors our enemies? Or should we kill the potters; the planners; the true believers who tell young men and women of paradise and patriotism, and then send them to their deaths?
As the most powerful military in the history of humankind, we measure the results of our operations by two markers: whether we meet our objectives, and how few civilians we injure. Terrorists like al-Awlaki measure their success by the number of body parts strewn across the sidewalk. The world is objectively a better place without him in it. It would have been satisfying to see him hauled in front of an American jury, but when he declared war against his homeland, he waived his right to a defense attorney. In the 21st century, warfare has evolved. No longer do soldiers in sharp uniforms face each other in formation, trading volleys and bugle calls. No longer do leaders deliver formal declarations of war, listing their grievances with their foe. The founders of America declared war with a singed document; al Qaeda declared war with a hijacked plane crashing into a skyscraper. As the strategies used in war change, so must the rules. Are we fighting against the poor and impressionable or against the scheming despots with their hands on the levers of power? I would feel better about the deaths of a hundred bin-Ladens or al-Awlakis than one poor foot soldier drafted into service, looking only to feed his family. All Americans should congratulate, rather than criticize, President Obama for taking the tough steps needed to protect innocent civilians from terrorism at home and from the lure of extremists abroad.