October 18, 2011

The Unwanted Citizens

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Nearly three weeks ago, two Americans abroad were blown up by U.S. operatives.

When Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan were killed by a CIA-operated drone in Yemen on Sept. 30, they were important figures in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Al-Awlaki served as a regional commander, and Khan was the editor of Inspire, the English-language propaganda magazine of the terrorist organization known for its pithy articles like “Make a Bomb In the Kitchen of Your Mom.” Their “business associates” were militant Islamist members of AQAP. Al-Awlaki’s fiery sermons and personal e-mails served as inspiration for the Fort Hood shooter and the “Underwear Bomber” accused of attempting to bring down a flight to Detroit on Christmas Day, 2009. He and Khan wielded enormous influence in the effort to recruit English-speaking individuals to the jihad movement. It makes sense that they were wanted men in the United States.

Al-Awlaki and Khan, however, were American citizens. They never forfeited their citizenship and in the eyes of the Obama regime should have been legally protected from government assassination. This drone strike stands apart from its many counterparts so common in the Middle East today; it set a precedent that the United States can execute its own citizens without trial for committing crimes against other citizens.

Americans born on U.S. soil, like al-Awlaki and Khan, only stop being citizens if they display intention to give up citizenship. This can only really happen if a citizen walks into an embassy and files paperwork to declare him or herself a non-citizen. This can also happen if he or she enrolls in a foreign military — that participation, however, must in itself display an intent to relinquish nationality, for example if the foreign service involves bringing military action against the United States or one of its allies.

Neither al-Awlaki nor Khan bothered to walk into a U.S. embassy in Sana’a or elsewhere in the Middle East. Indeed, they might have retained citizenship as a protective measure against attacks like the one that took place on Sept. 30. So, what should the government have done?

It could have recognized al-Qaeda as an unassociated foreign military rendering al-Awlaki a non-citizen and enemy of the state. But it’s obvious why the U.S. wouldn’t do that: al-Qaeda operatives would be entitled to rights under the Geneva Convention and a lot of American intelligence tactics would be right down the drain.

The government could have cited international law, which permits the use of lethal force against individuals who pose an imminent threat to a nation state. American law, however, does not permit the use of lethal force against a fellow citizen except in extreme cases of self-defense. I find it hard to imagine that President Barack Obama or his advisors felt personally threatened by al-Awlaki or, even further, Khan, who was not an operative but rather a propaganda writer. Using the CIA as a self-defense vehicle can hardly be justified.

The third option, which is clearly the most legally justifiable one, would have been to apprehend Khan and al-Awlaki, even if their fellow AQAP combatants were killed. Regardless of the threat that a citizen poses to other citizens, summary judgment and execution are illegal and should be illegal. There should be no loopholes and there should be no exceptions.

The most basic thing that brings worth to American citizenship is the value it gives an individual in the eyes of fellow citizens and in the eyes of the government. It keeps us safe. We are all equal and entitled to the same treatment. To provide an exception is to potentially jeopardize the legitimacy of all citizenships.

The deaths of al-Awlaki and Khan set a dangerous precedent for the value of American citizenship. But they aso point to a dangerous misconception on the part of the American government: that the problem of terrorism can be solved by killing off individual terrorists. Two “radicalized” Americans are dead, but what attracted them to jihad and the conditions that lead them down that path still exist. More Americans will turn against their country for political, religious and other reasons. What will we do then? Kill them too? The Obama administration must recognize this reality and address terrorism not only through force but through the promotion of education and political plurality. If the government overlooks these deaths and justifies them as necessary, it creates real danger of legal decay both at home and abroad.

Maggie Henry is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at mhenry@cornellsun.com. Get Over Yourself appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Maggie Henry