When threatened, the leopard gecko, like some other lizard species, will detach its tail in order to escape. Under similar conditions, a sea cucumber will expel some of its internal organs, and soldier ants of Malaysian ant colonies can internally combust, exploding poison over their enemies and sacrificing themselves for the safety of the colony. Indeed, the animal kingdom is full of examples of creatures that will go to great lengths for their own security, or that of their kin. We humans like to think of ourselves as above such crude acts. We have laws, governments, and international organizations to decide the appropriate sacrifices to be made in the interest of security.
This past weekend, however, a great line has been crossed—and a great sacrifice made—in America’s seemingly never-ending “War on Terror.” In a Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. Joint Special Operations Command coordinated drone attack, missiles were launched at a car containing Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, two American citizens hiding out in Yemen, operating with the Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda. Al-Awlaki was a well-known cleric who had originally spoken out for understanding after the attacks of September 11 before radicalizing and preaching for jihad against America. Khan, who lived in America as recently as four years ago, was one of the masterminds behind “Inspire,” an English-language recruiting magazine for al-Qaeda.
To be sure, al-Awlaki and Kahn were sources of terror in the world. The reports released to the public implicate them in terrorist activities, and depict them as threats to American security. However, this should not reduce the alarm elicited by the extrajudicial assassination of not one but two American citizens.
Our generation has seen torture and privacy radically redefined to serve the purposes of a war, allegedly for our own safety. We have been told that our battle with terror requires certain extra, unusual measures. The previous presidential administration authorized the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on prisoners held on American military bases without due process, bases that the current administration has failed to shut down despite campaign promises to do so. Sections of the USA PATRIOT Act have altered the ways the government may obtain personal information about its citizens. And, despite initial denial by the New York City Police Department, the Associated Press this August uncovered a partnership with the CIA to monitor Muslim social organizations and religious centers.
Assassination, however, crosses a much starker line. In September, The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that even seizing the assets of an organization found to be supporting terrorism requires due process. Surely, an assassination must be held to the same or higher standards. Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan should have been indicted and tried in absentia. In the case of Khan in particular, an indictment would have been easy to achieve: In a glossy spread in last year’s second issue of “Inspire” magazine, Khan proudly announces himself as a traitor to America. If, as the administration alleges, they had concrete evidence of al-Awlaki having an active role in attacks against the United States, they should have indicted him during their two-year manhunt in a country with which we are not at war—indeed, a country that boasted about its involvement in the event and may have extradited him alive.
We are incredibly disappointed with the Obama administration over this decision, but we are more gravely concerned about its implications for future presidents and the ever-expanding nature of executive power in the face of terror. Our nation has witnessed a series of abuses of power in times of trouble; the Alien and Sedition Acts, internment of Japanese-Americans, and McCarthyism are illustrative examples. Yet if a professor of Constitutional law is willing to extend executive powers to that of extrajudicial assassination, what should we expect from our future leaders? Indeed, the war on terror appears to have elicited increasingly more flagrant expansions of executive power. With no end to terror in sight, we are left to wonder if these abuses of power are here to stay.
We must question to what extent our actions are actually making us safer. In the 2010 article where Khan announces himself a traitor to our country, he remarked, “I would always laugh whenever the start of Ramadan would occur in America and the President would take a few minutes to articulate on how marvelous Islam is; almost as if he himself was to become Muslim. I would laugh because they would show this face in their country, and a different face in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay.” Indeed, our erratic, extrajudicial, and—frankly—“un-American” actions in the face of terror do not make us safer. These actions weaken us and are fodder for our enemies. For a country that was so careful to hide photos of Osama bin Laden to keep him from becoming a martyr, we may have inadvertently given extremists two more.
Terror, and our response to it, can be more dangerous than the threats themselves. We would do well to reexamine the oft-quoted words from the first inaugural address of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Class of 1904: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Our terror might not be entirely nameless, nor are we retreating, but can we really claim the extrajudicial assassination of two American citizens to be a form of advancement? If we continue to sacrifice our nation’s essence in the war on terror, one wonders what will be left to protect.
Ryan M. Rossner ’13, an editorial executive, is an history concentrator in Winthrop House. Katie R. Zavadski ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, is a religion concentrator, in Lowell House.