Opinion Columns & Blogs

Jonah Goldberg: Should U.S. be able to assassinate a citizen?

Does Anwar al-Awlaki deserve to die? Would it be good for America and the world if — through some combination of fate, luck, justice and the arsenal of democracy — his heart stopped beating tomorrow? Does Barack Obama have America's best interests at heart when he endeavors to make that happen?

The answer to all of these questions is, as far as I can tell, yes.

According to any number of credible reports, the U.S.-born al-Awlaki is arguably the leading al-Qaida propagandist in the world. He has directly inspired and recruited terrorists to kill American troops and civilians.

His name has come up in numerous investigations, including those of the 2005 London subway attacks and the more recent Fort Hood, Texas, killing spree.

So again, I hope he gets his toe tag sooner rather than later. But that doesn't mean Obama's decision to put al-Awlaki on a secret assassination list is problem-free.

For starters, the very idea of a presidential secret assassination list is creepy in a country committed to democracy and the rule of law.

That's why the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights are suing on behalf of al-Awlaki's father to have Obama's assassination order blocked by a judge. They say the president cannot simply off a U.S. citizen living outside a war zone who poses no imminent threat.

The White House responds that the judicial branch cannot, should not and must not interfere with the commander in chief's ability to fight a war Congress has authorized (if not formally declared). "Congress authorized the president to use necessary and appropriate military force against al-Qaida, the Taliban and associated forces," reads Obama's brief, and al-Awlaki is a senior operational leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

The ACLU and CCR counter: "The idea that courts should have no role whatsoever in determining the criteria by which the executive branch can kill its own citizens is unacceptable in a democracy."

Fair enough, but historically the courts usually step in when the fighting is over and clean up the legal mess when the smoke clears.

The problem is that it doesn't look like the smoke is going to clear anytime soon. In Bob Woodward's new book, Gen. David Petraeus says of the Afghanistan war, "This is the kind of fight we're in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids' lives."

If that's the case, we as a society need to keep thinking this stuff through.

There's ample precedent — and common sense — to support the claim that the executive branch can kill American citizens when they are sworn members of enemy forces and avowed traitors working with the enemy.

But those precedents start to fray at the edges when the whole world is the war zone and the war doesn't end until a diffuse, committed and often camouflaged army of suicidal religious fanatics agrees to leave the Dark Ages. So while it strikes me as a no-brainer that al-Awlaki should go, what about the next guy? Or the next?

Some civil libertarians seem to think we can never, ever kill an American citizen without a trial by jury. That argument would have been silly during the days of conventional warfare. Now it's plain crazy.

And the Obama administration is right. This is no job for courts. Wars and how we fight them are political decisions, properly left to Congress and the president.

So let's have Congress and the president come up with some clear, public rules. Better to start the debate over an easy case than a hard one.