This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
As a couple Supreme Court justices and others have noted, the Constitution is not a suicide pact. It doesn’t require the president to passively watch international terrorists mount attack after attack on Americans from safe havens beyond the reach of the law.
Barack Obama’s decision to kill an al-Qaida leader hiding in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki, was thoroughly justified regardless of al-Awlaki’s U.S. citizenship.
Some civil libertarians complain that this American-bred terrorist was denied his constitutional right to due process. U.S. agents, presumably, were supposed to try to arrest him in some terrorist snake pit, risking his escape and their lives, in hopes of spiriting him off to America to receive a court-appointed attorney, a proper trial and the usual rounds of appeals.
There’s no real doubt that al-Awlaki was an eager would-be murderer of Americans. His fiery calls for terror attacks were openly posted on the Internet; by all accounts he was complicit in the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound passenger jet in 2009 and the 2010 plot to detonate bombs concealed in printer cartridges at various U.S. targets, including a Jewish center in Chicago.
Nidal Malik Hasan, accused of massacring 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009, reportedly exchanged many emails with al-Awlaki prior to the attack.
Al-Awlaki’s nationality seems about as relevant as the U.S. citizenship of a few German soldiers who fought against Americans in World War II. The struggle with al-Qaida abroad is a war, not a courtroom drama.
As construed by federal courts and other competent authorities, the president has broad powers under the Constitution to strike overseas at active enemies of the United States, be they citizens or not. Congress explicitly empowered the president to wage war on al-Qaida in 2001.
International law recognizes a nation’s right to defend itself against attackers based in other countries if their governments are unwilling or unable to prevent the attacks. Yemen clearly falls into the “unable” category; its feeble regime hasn’t been able to stop al-Qaida from turning the country into a base of international terrorism.
Claims that the killing of al-Awlaki will open the way for presidents to target other citizens at will are ridiculously overwrought. The president maintains a short list of high-threat terrorists worthy of a surprise visit from a missile-firing drone. Every individual on it has been reviewed by the Justice Department. The federal judiciary has reviewed the process and found it lawful and constitutional.
Al-Awlaki worked very, very hard to make that exclusive list. Why begrudge him the martyrdom he so enthusiastically urged on others?