Assassination of Awlaki flouts basic rights, subverts U.S. justice system

Cause of death: Hellfire missiles.

This could very well be part of the obituary of a high-profile terrorist, not an American citizen. But in the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, the government tells us that he was both. Regardless of his standing as an American citizen, he was placed on a “targeted killing list” and killed by drone strike last month in Yemen.

This targeted, military-backed killing of an American citizen is unprecedented. No information has been publicly provided to justify this killing, as no court and judge heard Awlaki’s case. When Awlaki’s father, Nasser al-Aulaqi, sued the U.S. government with the American Civil Liberties Union, the case was dismissed under the argument that his father lacked legal standing to sue on his son’s behalf. Aulaqi fought for his son’s right to trial, something we consider fundamental to American justice, and lost.

Awlaki was killed by two Hellfire missiles as he was getting breakfast and another American citizen, Samir Khan, was killed in the same attack and his death treated as collateral damage. Khan was not on any approved list; he was not deemed a national threat, yet his government killed him. Our government — President Obama, the National Security Council, and the CIA — has seemingly decided that it can now kill any American, without trial and without appeal. Moreover, the government can do this anywhere in the world. When fighting terrorism, there are no limits. We are not at war in Yemen, yet military force can be used on civilians there who may be terrorists.

Awlaki may have been dangerous and may have been guilty, but our justice system did not arrive at that verdict prior to killing him. While he was allegedly linked to several terrorism attacks and prevented incidents, none of those allegations were reviewed in a standard judicial process. He was judged by generals and politicians, sentenced in absentia without appeal, and killed. Establishing such a precedent is a dangerous and foolish thing to do.

We condemn any assassinations, but this one is particularly alarming because of the way it directly contradicts our country’s justice system and the rights we are guaranteed as Americans.