‘Does this mean we join the league of ordinary nations?’

As part of a war on terrorism, an American president is faced with a decision: Kill a suspected terrorist or try to bring him to justice within the recognized laws of the country?

President Obama considering the killing of al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen? No, Jed Bartlett in the NBC drama West Wing.

If yesterday’s killing of Awlaki via a drone strike sounded familiar, it might be because of the eerily similar story line in the NBC series in 2002.

In the episode, defense minister Abdul Shareef of the fictional country Qumar, plans terrorist attacks against the U.S. In the season finale, President Jed Bartlett orders Shareef’s assassination after a fight with his conscience and his chief of staff. (You can scroll ahead to 4:16)

Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald verbalized yesterday in writing about al-Awlaki’s killing what West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin might’ve been thinking in writing his story line about the assassination of Abdul Shareef:

What’s most striking about this is not that the U.S. 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 U.S. Government’s new power to assassinate their fellow citizens, far from any battlefield, literally without a shred of due process from the U.S. Government.

“I’m not going to have any objection saying the Pledge of Allegiance tomorrow,” President Bartlett’s chief of staff responds to his boss’ reluctance to order the kill.

That mirrors the comment of an unnamed Obama administration official when pressed on the al-Awlaki killing:

“As a general matter, it would be entirely lawful for the United States to target high-level leaders of enemy forces, regardless of their nationality, who are plotting to kill Americans both under the authority provided by Congress in its use of military force in the armed conflict with al-Qaida, the Taliban, and associated forces as well as established international law that recognizes our right of self-defense,” the official said.

  • Jim Shapiro


    In my current closest city of Military Base, Ca. (San Diego), the well-groomed local news talking heads were gleefully gushing that “we took out” al-Awlaki.

    I just wanna know one thing: Does this mean my kids don’t have to say that silly pledge thing in school anymore?

  • Alison

    We launched a war killing thousands on fabricated and fictitious grounds. We put hundreds into Guantanamo for years without due process. We tortured. We carried out secret renditions. And just NOW you start questioning whether we’ve thrown away the ideals that this nation was founded on?

    The appalling thing was that this was done under a president who was awarded a Nobel Peace prize.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Allison – “…a president who was awarded a Nobel Peace prize.”

    Ever been to Norway? It’s a beautiful and wonderful but very small place. The smart money says that he was given the peace prize as a repudiation of Bush’s policies, and because the chair of the committee had a man crush on him.

  • Elizabeth T

    ‘as a general matter’ we can unilaterally kill ‘enemy forces’ before they actually do anything to harm us, no matter where they’re from. — is what the concluding paragraph states.

    The nationality doesn’t matter? So when I’m abroad next time, can the State Department simply decide unilaterally that I’m an ‘enemy force’? Because if they can, they have carte blanche to murder me, as long as I’m not in the USA.

    Just admit that the Constitution is an obsolete annoyance that gets in the way of our nation’s Manifest Destiny by protecting people we hate.

  • Alison

    Yes, Jim, I understand why the peace prize was given to Obama. It was a ridiculous act to give it to him when they did. He should have declined it. Now he should return it. Or better yet, he could become the sort of man worthy of the peace prize.

  • Bob Collins

    For the record, nowhere in the above post do *I* question anything. Clearly, some people do and it’s entirely within their right to do so at the time and place of their choice.

  • Alison

    You’re right, Bob, you didn’t question anything. I was more responding to the question in the title using the word ‘join’, present tense, as if just now we have given up the moral high ground. We gave up that ground long ago. I’ve grown tired of Americans generally claiming moral superiority over others while failing to live up to their own ideals.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Alison – I completely agree with all of your points. In fact, Glenn Greenwald has said for years that the Obama administration is WORSE than his infamous predecessor regarding the abuse of constitutional and human rights of citizens and captured foreigners and the strengthening of the autonomous rights of the president.

    Or that he has done everything that Bush did, only better.

    Although the guy appears to be a good dad and well-meaning regarding economic justice and some other issues, I would prefer someone who’s honest ALL of the time.

    The Mendacity of Hope.

  • Bob Collins

    Ah. The quote in the title comes from President Bartlett.

  • Alison

    Oh, it’s all becoming more clear now.

  • kennedy

    Excercising power in this way is neither new nor exclusive to the current administration. For example, Gaddafi has been the target of assassination attempts from the British S.A.S., France, and the United States.

    There are bad people out there and there are other bad people who will shelter them beyond the reach of our government. While these actions have great potential for abuse, I’m not ready to use a broad brush and say it is universally wrong.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Kennedy – “While these actions have great potential for abuse, I’m not ready to use a broad brush and say it is universally wrong.”

    That argument is the operational definition of situational ethics.

    Where do you stand on torture?

    Should we ever draw an uncrossable line on any illegal or immoral behavior?