State-sanctioned murder

Reports are coming in that a US drone strike in Yemen has killed Anwar al-Awlaki. If confirmed, this would mean that the US government has murdered a US citizen purely on the orders of president Obama. The media are relaying the anonymous and self-serving claims of the intelligence community that al-Awlaki was a top al Qaeda operative, ‘seemed’ to have instigated attacks against the US, and was ‘reported’ to have had links with terrorist groups, and similar allegations. But all skirt the issue of the legality of this act, let alone its morality.

When the dust settles, what we are left with is the stark fact that the US president ordered and carried out the murder of a US citizen without any due process of any kind. He had no trial, no formal charges were made against him, no efforts to extradite him back to the US, nothing. Obama decided that al-Awlaki must die and he was killed by Obama’s agents. It has all the hallmarks of kings in medieval times ordering the beheadings of their opponents or mob bosses ordering hits on their rivals.

Back in 2002, another US citizen Kamal Derwish was killed in an airstrike in Yemen but back then in the bad old George W. Bush days, the government felt obliged to say that his death was collateral damage and that they were unaware that he was in the car that was destroyed. But with our Nobel Peace Prize winning, constitutional scholar president, even such transparent excuses are not required because many of those who were on the alert for abuses by Bush now seem quite comfortable if the death sentence is signed by Obama. Even before this event, Jonathan Turley said that the Obama presidency may be the most disastrous in our history for civil liberties. One can only shudder at what further abuses are in store.

What I would like to know is in what way the killing of al-Awlaki differs from the heinous crime of ‘killing his own people’ which was laid at the feet of people like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Ghadafi and which formed the basis of war crimes accusations against those two people and war against the countries they led.

Glenn Greenwald has more.


  1. Steve LaBonne says

    The behavior of imperial powers only gets worse as their power begins to crumble. I fear we are nowhere near hitting bottom yet. May our descendents forgive us for what we are doing to our country’s good name.

  2. ollie says

    Question: if an American immigrated to Germany and joined the Waffen SS and then WWII broke out, would it be murder to kill this person in battle, or by a military strike?

    What is beyond doubt is that this person joined Al Qeada which has openly declared war against the United States a long time ago. That makes them combatants, no?

  3. Jared A says

    If the hypothetical American that emigrated to Germany was killed in battle it would not be considered murder, but if he was captured and then killed or killed not on a battlefield then it is definitely and legally murder.

  4. ollie says

    “killed not on a battlefield”

    This depends on what you mean by “battlefield”. If countries are at war, it is common for a military to launch a strike at enemy soldiers, where ever they are.

    My whole point is that I think people are being too simplistic; Al Qeada declared war on the U. S.; this really is not a criminal case, though it isn’t exactly a “state on state” case either.

  5. Eric says

    Ollie – Tim Mcveigh declared war on the U.S., too. Constitutional provisions apply even to people who try to destroy the country. Al Quaida isn’t a government; they have as much authority to declare war on the U.S. as the Walt Disney Corporation does. They are a criminal syndicate, albeit a powerful and well-armed one. And criminals, even the worst ones, have rights.

  6. says


    The problem is not that I am too simplistic but that things are too simple. The president now has the sole power to (1) decide when we are at war; (2) decide with whom we are at war; (3) where the battlefield is (the whole world, apparently); and (4) who is deserving of summary death.

    He then has the entire military machine of the US to carry out his execution order. And the people will cheer when the execution is carried out because they will be told (by the president of course) that a very bad man ‘has received justice’ without all that nonsense of tax-payer money wasting due process and the constitution.

    Woe be to anyone who has the temerity to annoy this mighty ruler. He can find himself in the crosshairs of the nearest drone.

  7. Manik says

    I don’t like Obama’s policies myself. He’s been a huge disappointment. Civil liberties have been undermined. America’s whole approach towards fighting terror is badly flawed. She is probably the most hated nation on earth. However, I believe that a paradigm shift has taken place with the emergence of terrorism, the Internet, Social Media etc. The old rules are no longer adequate, nor appropriate. Therefore I would be careful when criticizing Obama on the al Awlaki matter even though he may have violated the law. Rules have to be changed and new legislation passed, which take into account the new realities. Unfortunately as Bipartisanship is a thing of the past, I guess nothing much can be expected from congress. For the present, America should focus on the economy and on national security. The hypocrisy and the double standards must stop. America should stay well away from external conflicts (Except Iraq and Afghanistan for the time being)and keep their opinions to themselves. America will be much better off if Hillary Clinton keeps her mouth shut.

  8. MAJ Ryon F. Adams says


    First of all, for anyone to say that we aren’t at war with al-Qaeda, and they with us, is to deny reality. The truth is, al-Qaeda issued a declaration of war (fatwa) against us, has committed acts of war against us under three different administrations, and the last two administrations have stated, unequivocally, that we WILL fight back. As well we should, given the number of lives lost, and the risk of losing additional lives that might take place should we not take their first.

    Second of all, there’s nothing in the laws of war that says that a US citizen cannot be a fair target. If OBL and other al-Qaeda operatives are fair targets in this war, then why should an exception be made for an American citizen? (Hint: an exception SHOULDN’T be made).

    I mean, it’d be different if he were living in the USA, and could be subject to the regular law enforcement and judicial processes. But if he’s overseas making war against the USA, then he’s just as much a fair target as any other al-Qaeda member living overseas and plotting/conducting acts of war against us.

    Given that our Congress authorized the use of force in the aftermath of 9/11 to deal with these people, it’s difficult to sustain any argument that it’s merely the President deciding with whom we are at war. I doubt that anyone in Congress today would dispute that we are at war with al-Qaeda, and I doubt that more than one member of Congress would dispute that this al-Qaeda member isn’t a legitimate target in that war.

    I would say that a super-majority of our nation’s leaders would agree that any member of al-Qaeda outside our territorial jurisdiction is a fair military target, and that as such, the attack on these individuals was perfectly appropriate.

    And I say that as someone with just a tad bit more experience participating in our nation’s post-9/11 wars than you.

    MAJ Ryon F. Adams
    US Army
    CWRU ’94
    Forward Operating Base – Gamberi

  9. says

    Major Adams: Welcome to the world of people who think for themselves instead of just following orders.

    You mention lives lost, and the “fact” that Al Qaeda declared war on the U.S. In your tally of lives lost, are you counting the hundreds of thousands of perfectly innocent civilians who have been killed, directly and indirectly, by America’s sustained hostilities against Iraq, Afghanistan, and wherever else she feels like seeking revenge or securing mineral rights? (And let’s not forget the deaths we caused before 9/11. Could it be that Al Qaeda had reasons to attack America? Surely not!) No, all you care about is the American lives; the others don’t count, do they?

    Presumably, as a minion of the security state, you think the war against Iraq was legitimate. It wasn’t. You and your buddies have killed far more people than Osama ever did. Do you think about those Iraqi children when you salute the flag? The authorization of force by the Congress does not convert our wars of aggression into just wars; it simply implicates the entire regime in the crime.

    In your version of jurisprudence, legal constraints on American action evaporate once a citizen is overseas. Gosh, how convenient for you! It must be wonderful to be able to act with such impunity. Unfortunately, we the people – you know, the ones whose sovereignty lies behind the Constitution and whose tax dollars pay your salary – expect our country to comport itself at a slightly higher standard than that of a tin-pot dictator.

    The ultimate battle here is over what kind of country – and what kind of world – we want to create and bequeath to our children. Yours is a world of senseless, unending death and destruction. As a human being and as a U.S. citizen, I have the right to renounce that creation and those who are creating it.

  10. ollie says

    Eric: one difference between McVeigh and Al Qeada is size, scope and international reach. al-Awlaki was NOT acting alone or with 1-2 cohorts.

    I might not call them “criminal” in the sense that they have no crime goal (e. g., to rob, steal, extort, etc.) but rather a strategic one (just as a state military might) and they have had official ties with another nation (Taliban).

    My point is that we really aren’t in the classic law enforcement mode here.

    Are they things that would be illegal to do? Sure; much of which was done by our CIA in other countries (South Korea, Chile, Iran) in which we toppled governments.

    Had al-Awlaki been a purely political figure trying to, say, win elections or just protesting, then yes, I’d call it murder.

    Note: I too opposed the war against Iraq; I was revolted by our “first use” of force against someone who hadn’t attacked us. One might have justified this on the grounds on eliminating someone who killed his own people…then we’d have to take a hard look at the effects on our sanctions prior to the attack.

    I am NOT saying “whatever the US does is ok” but saying that THIS strike appeared to be a legitimate military operation to me. Of course, at the time I made my response, I was unaware that others were killed in this strike.

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