It has been almost a year and a half since a US drone strike killed an American citizen in Yemen, Anwar Al-Awlaki. While Awlaki’s death has inspired commentary and criticism from time to time, the recent release of a 16-page “white paper” regarding the intersection of drone strikes and extrajudicial killings has brought Awlaki’s death to the forefront of debates about executive power, counterterrorism strategy, and human and civil rights. Awlaki was born in America but had been in Yemen for some time, and his rhetoric against the US is reported to have been the inspiration for the Fort Hood shooter and the Christmas Day underwear bomber (what a name). In the former’s case, the inspiration came from extended email correspondence with Awlaki. In the latter’s case, Awlaki was purported to have directed the plot. Awlaki (involved with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) was rightly perceived to be a threat to the United States, even if the question remains whether he was rightly killed (instead of having access to due process, a civil right for American citizens). The same strike that killed Awlaki also killed Samir Khan, another American citizen who, like Awlaki, could never have been mistaken as an ally of the US.
Much of the week’s debate around the white paper has focused on what Awlaki Sr.’s death means for the nature of American civil rights. Yes, most Americans aren’t members of AQAP, and yes, most Americans aren’t inspiring attacks on their country from halfway across the world. And this is what makes this issue so seemingly fuzzy. The white paper (the text of which can be found here) describes extrajudicial killings of Americans as permissible according to various conditions, the most debated being the interpretation that a target poses an “imminent” threat against the US. In addition, for a killing to take place without due process, the capture of the individual must be deemed as “infeasible.”
It is imperative to note that this paper relates directly to the War on Terror and thus addresses only the cases of American citizens engaged in terror-related (specifically al-Qaeda-related) activities against the US. Finally, the paper revolves solely around the use of drone strikes for these killings.
In this context, it might be understandable as to why Awlaki was killed, even if the way he was killed is troubling. He had direct links to Al-Qaeda and to attacks or attempted attacks on the US. And while criticisms abound about how terms like “imminent threat” and “unfeasibility of capture” are defined, it isn’t entirely difficult to wrap one’s head around the killing of an American citizen who by all counts was at war with his country.
However, it is the extrajudicial killing of Awlaki’s son, Abdulrahman, that should best illustrate the dangerous implications of the Obama administration’s thinking. Here’s a little background: Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki was, like his father, an American citizen. He was born in Denver, Colorado in 1995–making him 16 at the time of his death in October 2011. He was living in Sana’a, Yemen with his grandfather, mother, and other family members when he snuck out of the house one night and went off in search of information about his father, whom he hadn’t seen in two years. When he was killed, he had already heard about his father’s death two weeks prior and was preparing to return home to Sana’a. While Awlaki Jr. was killed in a strike that also killed Ibrahim al-Banna, thus locating the boy in the vicinity of the al-Qaeda operative, there was no evidence to indicate that the boy himself was a member of al-Qaeda or an “imminent threat” to his own country. Awlaki Jr. was described by his grandfather Nassar Al-Awlaki as a good, “soft” boy. The grandfather–also the father of Anwar Al-Awlaki–has filed a suit with the ACLU against top counterterrorism officials.
As has been established, Awlaki Jr. wasn’t himself the target of the strike that killed him, though following the Obama administration’s policy of describing military-age males as combatants, Abdulrahman was initially described as a militant (despite not being military age). It could be said that his death was an accident–the unfortunate consequence of being in the vicinity of a drone target (which isn’t hard if you live in a place like Yemen or Pakistan, even if you yourself are innocent). That fact, of course, circles back to other questions constantly raised against Obama’s secretive drone program, namely whether strikes are really as precise as they are said to be and whether the Obama administration really does all it needs to in order to ensure that civilians aren’t killed.*
If the accidental death of an American citizen thanks to an attack by that citizen’s government isn’t worrying enough, then the Obama administration’s response to the killing should be. When asked at this summer’s Democratic Convention about the boy’s death, former Press Secretary Gibbs said this: “I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the well being of their children. I don’t think becoming an al Qaeda jihadist terrorist is the best way to go about doing your business.”
Of all the statements and actions regarding the deaths of Awlaki Sr., Khan, and Awlaki Jr., this last statement is the most chilling. The Obama administration has said little regarding the boy’s death, and so Gibbs’ statement remains the best idea of what the administration thinks regarding the killing. And what it thinks could have far-reaching implications. Looking at the rhetoric of this statement, Gibbs has insinuated that by merely having a father (or perhaps another relative) involved in terrorism against the US, an American can himself (or herself) be regarded suspiciously. What’s worse, if that citizen, otherwise unconnected to terrorism or any other “imminent threat” to his or her country, dies, then no tears will be shed–and no apologies made. While it could be said that Anwar Al-Awlaki was not looking out for the best interests of his family, Gibbs has done an equally damning thing by excusing his government from all responsibility toward looking out for the best interest of its citizens–which includes ensuring that its citizens don’t get killed arbitrarily.
The nature of the strike itself says even more about the rights of American citizens during the War on Terror. Even though Awlaki Jr. was in the vicinity of Ibrahim al-Banna when the latter was targeted for a strike, it is unclear what relationship–if any–the boy had to the terrorist. It could be that there was no relationship at all–that Awlaki and the others killed were simply simply in the wrong place at the wrong time (which, as stated before, is not that unlikely if you live in Yemen or in the tribal areas of Pakistan). Still, the fact that the Obama administration has few qualms with the killing of civilians along with militants is, however, not a new revelation.
Even if Awlaki Jr. did have a connection–and for the sake of this argument, let’s say a terrorism-related connection–his death would still be unjustifiable, which goes back to the main question posed by the killing of Awlaki Sr.: How much of a threat do you have to be to be robbed of your civil rights–your privacy rights, your legal rights, even your right to life?
With the killing of Awlaki, who was actively involved with al-Qaeda and who was rightly perceived as a threat (the imminence of which is debatable), the Obama administration is sending a clear message to its citizens: Don’t abandon your country. Don’t join terrorist groups. Don’t move to remote locations, where your capture is (supposedly) infeasible. Basically, if you want your rights, don’t become a traitor to your country.
Whether this set of conditions seems right or not, they are easy enough to follow. It doesn’t take a genius to know that moving to Yemen, joining al-Qaeda, and posting fiery anti-American videos on YouTube isn’t going to endear you to your government, who won’t shed any tears if you happen to be killed by a drone one day. While the idea that the US government can kill its own citizens in secret, without any consultation judicially, is frightening in and of itself, when put into the context of Anwar Al-Awlaki, it becomes at the very least understandable–and easily avoidable. Few Americans will find themselves in Anwar Al-Awlaki’s position.
It is the killing of 16-yeard-old American citizen Abulrahman Al-Awlaki, along with the subsequent justification of his killing, that should most alarm Awlaki Jr.’s fellow citizens. His death is far more telling about the implications of Obama’s stance on extrajudicial killing. No longer do you have to be an unquestionable traitor to your country, nor do you even have to be of “military age.” No longer do you have to be proven a member of a terrorist organization, much less an imminent threat to your country. The Obama administration killed a 16-yeard-old American citizen and instead of owning up to its responsibility to grant its citizens their civil rights, the Obama administration has stayed silent, letting a former official place the blame on an irresponsible father instead of on an irresponsible government. Certainly the US government won’t be carrying out these types of killings soon in the US, but domestic drones are already being used for surveillance by law enforcement in some places (Seattle’s mayor recently stopped that city’s police from their plans to use drones). All drone use aside, if the Obama administration can get away with the killing–accidental or not–of an American minor who has not been proven to have done any wrong, then is it unreasonable to believe that these extrajudicial killings could become a slippery slope?
The fact that the War on Terror has led to violations of Americans’ civil liberties is not new. In the War on Terror, Americans have had to forfeit their right to privacy–through wiretapping, the monitoring of email, nearly-naked body scans at airports, etc. Muslim Americans especially often have their rights violated, as illustrated by last year’s scandal involving the NYPD. And plenty of Americans have had to forfeit their legal rights. Particularly in the months after 9/11, countless Americans and non-Americans–often Muslims or non-Muslims of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent (aka those perceived as Muslim)–were arrested on false suspicions of terrorism. Many of these individuals will held for days, weeks, and even months without formal charges against them. Many were denied the ability to contact friends or family from prison.
Yet it seems that it isn’t only the right to privacy or to due process that is at stake anymore. In some circumstances–however extreme they may be–not even an American’s right to his life is guaranteed.
(*While off topic, I must note that there are a host of questions surrounding the equally unnecessary deaths of non-Americans–that is, regarding the countless Pakistani and Yemeni civilians, among others, who have been wrongly killed by the US drone program. These deaths should be equally disturbing–however, it seems that even with the release of this recent white paper, the outcry about these deaths will remain rather muffled, for now.)