The assassination of American citizens Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan by the United States Central Intelligence Agency constitutes a dramatic escalation of the powers of the US federal government. Now it no longer simply presumes to have the authority to kill any of its own citizens – the very persons whom it was created to protect – while they are abroad; it has actually exercised this authority. Debates surrounding the legitimacy of the act have concentrated on whether it was an unconstitutional deprivation of due process or a legitimate wartime measure to get rid of an active combatant – never mind that no war was ever declared by the US Congress since 1941. Glenn Greenwald has eloquently articulated the travesty of the assassination, and I will not repeat his points here. Rather, I hope to focus on an area of this debate that has been neglected so far – namely, the question of who might be next.
Let us assume (and this is not implausible) that Awlaki was indeed as destructive a criminal mastermind as the Obama administration has portrayed him; let us assume that he indeed had designs on the lives of innocent Americans. If Awlaki were a sympathetic character, it would be doubtful that the Obama administration could gather the support it had for his extrajudicial killing. Yet the assassination of Awlaki is not a one-time, self-contained action. Even if the targeting of Awlaki was the specific motivation behind the Obama administration’s assumption of authority to unilaterally decide which US citizens live or die, Awlaki’s death will not be the end of the exercise of that authority. The precedent has already been set: the President’s mere opinion – or, more realistically, the opinions of some of his underlings, who are quite fallible human beings and whose fallibility is further magnified by structurally ingrained deficiencies of bureaucracy – can end a US citizen’s life. There will be other suspected terrorists – and many will be suspected on weaker evidence than present in Awlaki’s case. Indeed, it is a virtual certainty that – to use in the future tense the favorite de-emphasizing phrase of major wrongdoers – mistakes will be made.
And who can assure us that the authority of unilateral assassination will be limited to terrorism suspects alone? One can already conceive of pressure groups pushing to extend it to target violent drug traffickers south of the United States, or murderers who have escaped US jurisdiction and would be difficult to extradite. And once we go down that slippery slope, non-lethal, non-violent crimes will gradually but inexorably follow suit – just as the other tools of the “War on Terror” are slowly but alarmingly being extended to target document leaks, counterfeit purses, and online piracy.
This is not mere speculation; it has already happened. Unlike Awlaki, Samir Khan could not be accused of committing or plotting murder. He certainly published incendiary, irrational, and evil propaganda that motivated violent fanatics – but the spreading of fanatical hatred, religious intolerance, and authoritarian political ideas is not equivalent to actually inflicting physical harm. Yet the CIA had no qualms about also eliminating Khan simply because he happened to be at Awlaki’s side. On the Obama administration’s side, no more can be said in defense of this action beyond the flimsy assertion that Khan was simply “collateral damage” In a wartime assault.
How many other American citizens will similarly become “collateral damage” in the future – again having done much less than Khan to propagandize for a violent and fanatical movement? What if an American citizen who is a terror suspect happens to be untraceable, except when he is walking through a busy marketplace filled with several other American tourists and tens of local civilians? If this terror suspect is deemed sufficiently dangerous by the Obama administration or its successors, what would be the limit on the administration’s ability to send an explosive device into the middle of the market crowd? “Sure, some innocent people will die,” this future administration might argue, “but that is an unfortunate reality of war; by taking out this known terrorist (though, of course, we will not tell you how we know), we have prevented attacks that would have cost hundreds or thousands of lives in the future.” Once the sanctity of the rights of due process is breached, we are reduced to speculation about the relative weight of lives saved versus lives lost due to a given decision. And, in that world, anyone could be sacrificed by the powerful if the speculative benefits of the sacrifice are deemed sufficiently high.
Part of the brilliance of the United States Constitution is its emphasis on due process of law as an absolute barrier to outright deprivation of a person’s life, liberty, or property. The safeguards of due process are not mere procedural encumbrances to abuses of government power or means to attain reasonable certainty of a suspect’s guilt; they are the guardians of that very security that the Obama administration purports to pursue but in reality undermines. The absolutism of due process would have guaranteed that you will not be next. That guarantee is now gone.