Dear Dr. Anarchy,
Was the al-Awlaki Killing Legal?
Progressively Perplexed in Peoria
I don’t care whether the al-Awlaki killing was legal or illegal. And neither should you. If you fell in love with a man years ago, and he turned out to be a frightening, violent psychopath, and he kept trying to excuse his behavior by saying,
Well, technically nothing I did was really against the law; and besides, baby, I’m just trying to keep you safe… then what you have is still a frightening, violent psychopath. It’s just that he’s a frightening, violent psychopath with a law degree instead of a conscience. I suggest that you dump him and get away as quick as safely possible.
PS. Legality has nothing to do with morality, and if everything our Progressive Peace President did were perfectly legal, that would only put him in the august legally-licensed company of executioners, slave-hunters, and the Einsatzgruppen SS. The problem with these Presidential assassinations — whether directed against American citizens, or against disarmed foreign captives, or (what is overwhelmingly most common) against dozens of completely innocent women and children who just happened to be trying to exist in the general vicinity of a couple people our Progressive Peace President considered supsicious enough for a missile or two — is that they are evil, tyrannical and terrifying, because they entail the President’s claim to have a right to kill literally anyone, anywhere, on his whim alone and without any possible appeal; and the reasons that that is a problem have nothing to do with what the law or any other scrap of paper says. They are murders, out-and-out murders without any pretense of restraint or accountability for the people who commit them or the presidents who order them. If they are illegal, no court of law in the vicinity will ever consider holding anyone accountable for it, and the attempt to appeal to the law is rhetorically and politically useless. If they are legal, then the law itself is a crime and an infamy, and deserves no attention at all, except to trample it underfoot.
As Charlie Davis puts it:
What’s legally permissible, remember, is not the same as what’s morally permissible: Owning human beings was once the unchallenged law of the land, while those who helped fugitive slaves — not those who brutalized them — found themselves locked away in prison cells. A Southern plantation owner could win any legal challenge to his ownership of slaves by citing a dozen federal and state statutes. That didn’t make it right. And while some abolitionists did adopt legal arguments against slavery, they never forgot their most potent case against the infamous institution: the moral one.
Forget the law. Does any person, whether a saint or a statesman, have the moral right to unilaterally take the life of another? Is it just or wise to invest in one fallible human being, or even a group of them, the power to kill and the ability to do so without so much as a rubber-stamp conviction in a military tribunal — and without fear of so much as a harsh word from establishment liberal humanitarians? The answer, I’d argue, is unambiguous: no. Allowing one man or woman the right to be judge, jury, and executioner is a recipe for totalitarianism, one that eviscerates all other human rights and the moral fiber of those who would be a party to it.
Back when slavery was as legal and respectable as blowing up Pakistani tribesmen with Predator drones is now, author and dissident Henry David Thoreau published an essay on the duty of civil disobedience in which he noted that, in fact, “Law never made a man a whit more just.” Indeed, “by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.”
Right now, too many Americans — pundits especially — have an undue respect for statutes and precedents, leading even those on the left to speak of things such as the “laws of war,” as odd a turn of phrase as the “rules of rape.” And it’s making them agents of injustice.
— Charlie Davis @ Antiwar.com (2011-10-03): When It Comes to State-Sanctioned Murder, Morality Matters Most