Does Anwar 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 Awlaki is arguably the leading Al Qaeda 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 Ft. Hood, Texas, killing spree.
So again, I hope he gets his toe tag sooner rather than later.
But that doesn't mean President Obama's decision to put 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 ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights are suing on behalf of 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). "Here, the political branches have exercised their respective constitutional authorities to protect national security," reads Obama's brief. "Congress authorized the president to use necessary and appropriate military force against Al Qaeda, the Taliban and associated forces," and Awlaki is a "senior operational leader" of Al Qaeda 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 H. 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."
I hope Petraeus is wrong about that, but I certainly don't think it's a crazy or uninformed perspective. And 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 defy their god and agree to leave the Dark Ages. And the common sense starts to drain away like water through your fingers when you contemplate that we may be facing these kinds of problems for half a century. So while it strikes me as a no-brainer that Awlaki should go, what about the next guy? Or the next?
And we know there will be a next guy. Indeed, homegrown terrorists are only going to become a bigger and bigger threat in the future. That's not right-wing cant but the judgment of the Bipartisan Policy Center's recent report, co-written by the former chairs of the 9/11 Commission.
Some civil libertarians seem to think we can never, ever kill an American citizen without a trial by jury (and perhaps not even then). That 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.