When Timothy McVeigh set off a fertilizer bomb in Oklahoma City, he did so as an explicit act against the U.S. government. One could argue that McVeigh’s crime was not just mass murder and terrorism, but treason as defined by the U.S. Constitution. Would it have been acceptable, then, for a police officer to simply put a bullet in McVeigh’s head when he was arrested, rather than send him to trial for his crimes?
Most people would say that would not be acceptable. (At least, I hope that is the case.) As evil as McVeigh was and as much as he deserved his execution, we knew we had to follow due process and give him a fair trial by a jury of his peers. So why are Republican candidates for President (Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry) lining up to praise President Obama for the targeted assassination of an American citizen?
National Review compares Anwar al-Awlaki’s assassination to the case of Herbert Hans Haupt, a U.S. citizen who was tried in a military tribunal and executed for treason during World War II. The major problem with this argument is that Haupt was tried and convicted for his crime, not summarily executed when he was captured.
Al-Awlaki was clearly a traitor, because he gave aid and comfort to our enemies and inspired terrorist strikes against America. He deserved to be punished to the fullest extent of the law, which means he deserved to be executed. However, that execution should have came after al-Awlaki was convicted in a fair trial by a jury of his peers, not in a targeted assassination carried out by a drone strike.
I shed no tears for al-Awlaki’s death. The world is a better place without him. But Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich are right that this raises serious questions about where we are going with the War on Terror and the precedent it establishes. Is there really a fundamental difference between McVeigh and al-Awlaki, both sworn enemies of the United States? What makes an extrajudicial assassination appropriate in one case but not appropriate in the other?
The reason we have limits on government is not because we sympathize with the guilty. The reason we have limits on government is because as we give government more and more power, it is inevitable that those increased powers will be abused. This is because we live in a fallen world corrupted by sin, and that corruption reaches even into those we trust to protect us. (See Romans 3:10-12.) We have these limits to protect the innocent from abuses by government.
It’s easy to see how this power could be abused, and it is troubling that there are so few voices outside of Paul and Kucinich raising objections to killing an American citizen without a trial and certainly without a conviction. Had al-Awlaki been killed on the battlefield or while resisting capture, that would have been appropriate. But simply killing him was wrong and should be condemned.
There should be a bright line between targeting foreign terrorists for death (such as Osama bin Laden) and killing an American citizen. When we’re dealing with an American citizen, we should be careful to safeguard constitutional rights and due process to the greatest extent possible. The Constitution’s protections for American citizens shouldn’t be cast aside simply because it is easier to eliminate them by remote.