Licence to kill: Mehdi Hasan on the assassination of a US citizen in a drone strike

President Obama has assassinated a US citizen via drone strike. Yet his supporters are shamefully silent on the question.

Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical American Muslim cleric of Yemeni descent and alleged al-Qaeda commander, was assasinated by a CIA drone yesterday on the orders of the US commander-in-chief. Once again, Barack Obama, the Drone President, has been given a pass by liberals.

Where was the trial?

Where was the evidence or indictment in a court of law?

Where was the attempt at an arrest or extradition?

Where was due process?

Even George W Bush didn't assassinate US citizens, terror suspects or otherwise, in this brazen manner. And I can assure you that if he had done, most US liberals would have been up in arms, protesting and hollering.

To understand why, consider the legal and moral arguments offered by Glenn Greenwald, Adam Serwer and Michael Ratner, below:

1) From Glenn Greenwald's Salon blog:

After several unsuccessful efforts to assassinate its own citizen, the US succeeded today (and it was the US). It almost certainly was able to find and kill Awlaki with the help of its long-time close friend President Saleh, who took a little time off from murdering his own citizens to help the US murder its. The US thus transformed someone who was, at best, a marginal figure into a martyr, and again showed its true face to the world. The government and media search for the Next Bin Laden has undoubtedly already commenced.

What's most striking about this is not that the US government has seized and exercised exactly the power the Fifth Amendment was designed to bar ("No person shall be deprived of life without due process of law"), and did so in a way that almost certainly violates core First Amendment protections (questions that will now never be decided in a court of law). What's most amazing is that its citizens will not merely refrain from objecting but will stand and cheer the US government's new power to assassinate their fellow citizens, far from any battlefield, literally without a shred of due process from the US government. Many will celebrate the strong, decisive, tough president's ability to eradicate the life of Anwar al-Awlaki -- including many who just so righteously condemned those Republican audience members as so terribly barbaric and crass for cheering Governor Perry's execution of scores of serial murderers and rapists: criminals who were at least given a trial and appeals and the other trappings of due process before being killed.

From an authoritarian perspective, that's the genius of America's political culture. It not only finds ways to obliterate the most basic individual liberties designed to safeguard citizens from consummate abuses of power (such as extinguishing the lives of citizens without due process). It actually gets its citizens to stand up and clap and even celebrate the destruction of those safeguards.

2) From Adam Serwer's Mother Jones blog:

The central question in the death of American extremist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki is not his innocence. That really misses the point. Awlaki was the only publicly known name on a covert list of American citizens the US government believes it can legally kill without charge or trial. Awlaki's killing can't be viewed as a one-off situation; what we're talking about is the establishment of a precedent by which a US president can secretly order the death of an American citizen unchecked by any outside process. Rules that get established on the basis that they only apply to the "bad guys" tend to be ripe for abuse, particularly when they're secret.

. . . Uncritically endorsing the administration's authority to kill Awlaki on the basis that he was likely guilty, or an obviously terrible human being, is short-sighted. Because what we're talking about here is not whether Awlaki in particular deserved to die. What we're talking about is trusting the president with the authority to decide, with the minor bureaucratic burden of asking "specific permission", whether an American citizen is or isn't a terrorist and then quietly rendering a lethal sanction against them.

The question is not whether or not you trust that President Obama made the right decision here. It's whether or not you trust him, and all future presidents, to do so -- and to do so in complete secrecy.

3) From Michael Ratner's CIF post:

Is this the world we want? Where the president of the United States can place an American citizen, or anyone else for that matter, living outside a war zone on a targeted assassination list, and then have him murdered by drone strike.

. . . Yes, Anwar al-Awlaki was a radical Muslim cleric. Yes, his language and speeches were incendiary. He may even have engaged in plots against the United States -- but we do not know that because he was never indicted for a crime.

This profile should not have made him a target for a killing without due process and without any effort to capture, arrest and try him. The US government knew his location for purposes of a drone strike, so why was no effort made to arrest him in Yemen, a country that apparently was allied in the US efforts to track him down?

. . . We know the government makes mistakes, lots of them, in giving people a "terrorist" label. Hundreds of men were wrongfully detained at Guantánamo. Should this same government, or any government, be allowed to order people's killing without due process?



Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.