The killing of Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen on Friday by a U.S. drone has elicited cheers from most mainstream politicians and pundits. Civil libertarians, however, have noted the terrible precedent this sets: here an American citizen has been targeted for assassination and executed solely on the say-so of the president, with no need to indict him, or present open evidence of his guilt. If the U.S. government had wanted to tap al-Awlaki’s phone, judicial review would have been required. But killing him was totally up to the president.
As the A.C.L.U.’s deputy legal director stated, “this is a program under which American citizens far from any battlefield can be executed by their own government without judicial process, and on the basis of standards and evidence that are kept secret not just from the public, but from the courts.”
To be sure, this was not a case like the killing of Osama bin Laden, where soldiers were on the ground and could have captured him alive without needing to put a bullet through his head if they hadn’t been intent on executing him. Still, Obama’s justification for the drone strike on al-Awlaki — that he is an enemy combatant and we’re at war — is as expansive a claim of executive authority as any put forward by the Bush administration. If the “war on terror” lasts forever and the whole world is a combat zone, then Obama is asserting the unchecked right to serve as judge, jury, and executioner of every person on Earth.