On September 30th a U.S. drone strike in Yemen killed Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric who had been dubbed the “bin-Laden of the Internet” by USA Today for his role in online recruiting for the terrorist organization. The attack is notable for two reasons.
First, it demonstrates the extent which the CIA has been cooperating with the Yemeni government, which is far greater than most experts were aware. Second, it shows just how asinine the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) can be.
This latest attack on common sense comes in the form of a lawsuit, filed by the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), on behalf of Nasser al-Awlaki, Anwar’s father. According the the CCR’s press release, “the lawsuit asks the court to rule that, outside the context of armed conflict, the government can carry out the targeted killing of an American citizen only as a last resort to address an imminent threat to life or physical safety.” The Obama administration had to defend its actions in federal court, forced to argue that al-Awliki, as a high-ranking member of a known terrorist organization, posed a threat to national security.
This is not the first time that the ACLU has defended unseemly clients. They have, in the past, defended the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis, among other controversial groups . They justify their actions on the grounds that freedom of speech is a universal right, regardless of one’s political views.
Although this principled stance seems noble and brave, it conveniently ignores reality. To say that they have a double standard when it comes to human rights is barely scratching at the surface of issue.
The biggest flaw in their reasoning is that al-Awlaki’s status as a U.S. citizen somehow means that he should be treated differently than other members of Al-Qaeda. As Harvard Fellow Azeem Ibrahim notes, “There is no doubt that Al-Awlaki was a radical advocate for terrorism and has probably been responsible for inciting the deaths of many innocents.” Conventional wisdom would hold that this fact trumps his being born in New Mexico. It is very likely that al-Awlaki never fired a gun in his life. His role in al-Qaeda, as a recruiter, propagandist, and planner, does not make him any less dangerous or guilty than other members of the organization. If we were only to prosecute those who do the “dirty work” themselves, then it is very likely that most organized criminals would have little to fear from the law. Al-Awlaki did everything within his power to murder American citizens and he should be held entirely responsible for his actions regardless of where he was born.
Legally, much of the ACLU’s case rests on the fact that al-Awlaki is a U.S. citizen. However, there is a precedent of the Supreme Court revoking the citizenship of natural born Americans who served in the militaries of nations hostile to the United States. Surely, Al-Qaeda, as an organization which considers itself at war with Western Civilization itself, qualifies as a hostile army on all but the most technical grounds.
In any war, especially one as irregular as the “war on Terror”, it is often difficult to determine what is and what isn’t acceptable when dealing with enemies of the state. That does not mean that we cannot trust the Justice Department to act within the realm of the law to safeguard the country. If we are going to wage war at all, then we have to be willing to do, within the bounds of ethics and international law, what is necessary to win.
George Orwell once said “We sleep safe in our beds because armed men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.” Those who so quickly condemn the assassination of al-Awlaki would do well to remember this.