Obama’s Administration Killed a 16-Year-Old American and Didn’t Say Anything About It. This Is Justice?
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF THE ACLU
Submitted by Michael
Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was 16 on the day he was killed. “I tried every legal means to stop the targeted killing of my son,” says his grandfather Nasser al-Awlaki, the father of Anwar al-Awlaki. ”But Eric Holder and Barack Obama are giving us a new definition of the due process of the law. How can they kill him without due process?”
He was just a boy.
Let’s start there. He was an American boy, born in America. Though he’d lived in Yemen since he was about seven, he was still an American citizen, which should have made it harder for the United States to kill him.
It should at the very least have made it necessary for the United States to say why it killed him.
His name was Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, and he was 16 years old when he died — when he was killed by a drone strike in Yemen, by the light of the moon. He was the son of Anwar al-Awlaki, who was also born in America, who was also an American citizen, and who was killed by drone two weeks before his son was, along with another American citizen named Samir Khan. Of course, both Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan were, at the very least, traitors to their country — they had both gone to Yemen and taken up with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and al-Awlaki had proven himself an expert inciter of those with murderous designs against America and Americans: the rare man of words who could be said to have a body count. When he was killed, on September 30, 2011, President Obama made a speech about it; a few months later, when the Obama administraton’s public-relations campaign about its embrace of what has come to be called “targeted killing” reached its climax in a front-page story in the New York Times that presented the President of the United States as the last word in deciding who lives and who dies, he was quoted as saying that the decision to put Anwar al-Awlaki on the kill list — and then to kill him — was “an easy one.”
But Abdulrahman al-Awlaki wasn’t on an American kill list. Nor was he a member of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninusla. Nor was he “an inspiration,” as his father styled himself, for those determined to draw American blood; nor had he gone “operational,” as American authorities said his father had, in drawing up plots against Americans and American interests.
He was a boy who hadn’t seen his father in two years, since his father had gone into hiding. He was a boy who knew his father was on an American kill list and who snuck out of his family’s home in the early morning hours of September 4, 2011, to try to find him. He was a boy who was still searching for his father when his father was killed, and who, on the night he himself was killed, was saying goodbye to the second cousin with whom he’d lived while on his search, and the friends he’d made. He was a boy among boys, then; a boy among boys eating dinner by an open fire along the side of a road when an American drone came out of the sky and fired the missiles that killed them all.
Now, there will be some who read what I just wrote and say that the death of the son of an avowed enemy of America — the death of another al-Awlaki — is more an inevitability than a tragedy, and perhaps even a boon: a case of a son reaping what his father sowed. There will be some who will shrug and say that we’re at war with Al Qaeda and bad things happen in wars, and there will be some who will believe Nasser al-Awlaki — father of Anwar and grandfather of Abdulrahman — when he says that “We can prove that Abdulrahman was not collateral damage at all, that he was intended to be killed.”
In fact, what is most striking about the death of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki is both the lack of outrage and the lack of information about it — or, to be more exact, the lack of outrage over the lack of information. I spent the better part of this past spring researching and writing a story for the August issue of Esquire entitled “The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama,” which explores how President Obama’s expansive embrace of the power to kill individuals identified as America’s enemies has transformed not only his presidency but probably all American presidencies to follow. I conducted over 40 interviews with over 35 people — including former administration officials who could speak with authority about how targeting decisions are made — and tried to understand the moral reasoning of an administration that speaks as though nothing could be harder than killing individuals and behaves as though nothing could be easier, and carries out what amounts to executions on a mass scale. In addition to telling the story of the Lethal Presidency, I also wound up telling the story of the killings of Anwar and Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, because their deaths — the strange common fates of a father and a son who were both American citizens but died hundreds of kilometers away from one another in Yemen — managed to suggest how a policy built on technological precision and moral discrimination winds up blurring the lines between guilt and innocence and war and murder.
The Obama Administration has never formally acknowledged its role in either death, but it has leaked a tremendous amount of information about its decision to target Anwar al-Awlaki because its decision to target Anwar al-Awlaki has evolved into something like “an Obama doctrine” when it comes to targeted killing. The idea that American citizenship is no more a refuge against the attacks of American drones than farflung geography; the idea that the secret deliberations of the executive branch count as “due process” even when an American citizen is being considered for execution without trial; the idea, indeed, that “due process does not guarantee judicial process”: all these ideas have entered the public sphere largely because the Obama administration made the extraordinary decision to target and kill an American citizen named Anwar al-Awlaki.
There has been no similar public discussion over the death of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki because there was, until now, no hard information available about the death of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. A 16-year-old American boy accused of no crimes was killed in American drone attack, and the administration has neither acknowledged his death or acknowledged that it killed him. It has, indeed, done everything it possibly can to avoid saying how and why it killed him, and has answered the Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by the ACLU with a blanket insistence that it is not obligated to confirm or deny the existence of the CIA’s drone program, much less disclose information about those the drone program has killed. (Current administration officials declined multiple interview requests.)
And so while the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki conforms to the narrative essential to the creation of the Lethal Presidency — the narrative of a guilty man afforded unprecedented consideration by an administration wielding technology of unprecedented precision — the killing of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki constitutes a counter-narrative that the Lethal Presidency would do anything to avoid: an innocent killed by an administration that has turned its argument that it hardly ever makes mistakes into an appeal for the right make its mistakes in secret, with no public accountability at all, even when one of its mistakes results in the death of an American citizen.
As I’ve researched and explored the implications of the Lethal Presidency, I’ve talked to people who’ve asked what might be the alternative to it — and who have decided that entrusting the president with the power of life and death is the only way to keep Americans safe. Perhaps it is. But I’ll be posting right here about “The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama” all week, and I’d like to end this post with a modest proposal.
Barack Obama has created the Lethal Presidency by insisting he that he has been given the power to kill, in secret, anyone who is plotting against Americans or American interests, even if he or she is an American citizen.
It will be very difficult to constrain that power, no matter who is president. But if the Lethal Presidency is going to have any accountability at all, we should demand that Congress pass a law stating that if the administration kills an American citizen, it should not be able to keep all the particulars secret. The administration should be compelled to say who it killed and why. It should be compelled to say why it killed Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, and the obvious fact that it will never do so — and that such a modest law as the one I’m proposing will never be passed — shows how entrenched the Lethal Presidency has become, and how lethal it really is.
FOR DISCUSSION (IN THE COMMENTS): The President asks us to trust him to us his lethal powers responsibly, even when for the most part we have no idea who we are killing or why. We have been asked to put our faith in the President, in the administration, and in the “robust oversight” of Congress. But last fall, the administration killed a sixteen-year-old American boy, without being held accountable. Was that a failure of the system or was that how the system is supposed to work?