Suppose an American citizen who is openly critical of governmental policy decides to take a trip overseas, say to Yemen. Suppose that President Obama orders the military and the CIA to assassinate him while he is traveling within Yemen. Suppose the order is carried out and that that American is, in fact, assassinated.
Most Americans would consider such an assassination to be a grave wrong. They might not like the criticism that the American was leveling against the federal government, but they would ardently oppose the idea of assassinating the man based simply on the fact that he was criticizing the government.
Yet, in post-9/11 America nothing could be done to rectify this wrong. The sad truth is that we now live in a country in which the president has the omnipotent power to assassinate any of us for any reason he wants. We simply have to trust him with this supreme power. We have to hope and pray that when he assassinates Americans (or anyone else), he exercises wisdom and prudence.
Yet, when the president’s military and intelligence assassination team does carry out an assassination, there is no way to know why the president ordered the hit. The reason for that is that president doesn’t have to provide any explanation whatsoever. Indeed, he doesn’t even have to acknowledge that his assassination team actually did the assassinating. The president can simply remain mum and go about his business without ever mentioning the assassination.
As we have seen, neither Congress nor the federal courts involve themselves in the president’s assassination of American citizens or anyone else. All the president has to do is provide the magic phrases — “national security” and “war on terrorism” — and the other two branches of government quickly go silent, roll over, and accept the assassination (as they have done with the U.S. national-security state’s participation in the extra-judicial execution of 31-year-old American citizen Charles Horman during the U.S.-supported military coup in Chile some 40 years ago.)
We have, of course, witnessed this phenomenon with the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who was assassinated in Yemen. Did President Obama order the hit? It is commonly believed that he did but we don’t really know for sure because the president, as Georgetown University law professor David Cole pointed out in an op-ed in last Sunday’s Washington Post, has chosen to remain silent about the matter. And neither Congress, the courts, nor the press is making him talk. Under our post-9/11 system of government, President Obama is free to remain silent for the rest of his life about whether he ordered the assassination of an American citizen.
What did Awlaki do to justify his assassination? We don’t know because, again, the president isn’t talking. He’s choosing to exercise his right to remain silent. We know that Awlaki had been criticizing the federal government, even going so far as to exhort foreigners to forcibly resist the U.S. government’s violent interventionism in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Did he go further than that and actually participate in acts of violence against U.S. forces? Was he doing so at the time he was assassinated? There certainly have been rumors to that effect. But again, we just don’t know because the president steadfastly chooses to remain silent or provide any evidence that he believes warranted Awlaki’s assassination.
Why doesn’t President Obama come clean and acknowledge that he killed Awlaki and explain why he assassinated him? My hunch is that the reason has much more to do with the assassination of Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, than it does with the assassination of his father. Surely Obama realizes that if he acknowledged the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki and explained the reasons for assassinating him, as a practical matter he would have to do the same with respect to the assassination of Awlaki’s teenage son. Remaining silent on the Anwar al-Awlaki assassination enables the president to continue remaining silent on the assassination of Abdulrahman.
After all, the president’s assassination of 16-year-old Abdulrahman seems to have all the characteristics of an assassination of an innocent person. At most, it seems that Abdulrahman was an American citizen who might have shared his father’s criticisms of U.S. foreign policy who happened to be traveling in Yemen in search of his father, when his life was extinguished by Obama’s assassination team. That’s essentially the scenario I outlined at the inception of this article regarding the president’s omnipotent power to assassinate any American he wants for whatever reason he desires and never have to account for it.
In the movie The Godfather, Vito Corleone’s mother pleads with the murderer of her husband to spare the life of her young son. The man refuses the request, explaining to the mother that if he were to let her son live, the boy might grow up and seek revenge. Thus, the man explained, it was necessary to kill the boy.
Was that the reason for Obama’s decision to assassinate the 16-year-old son of Anwar al-Awlaki after Obama had assassinated his father? It’s impossible to know because Obama isn’t talking, and under our post-9/11 system of government he doesn’t have to.