In Response to Mr. Hitchens (better late than never)

Christopher Hitchens argued last Monday that those who are alarmed about the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki are under heavy obligation to say what they would have done instead.

It's pretty much just the sort of thing Christopher Hitchens would say. And I sort of agree. I don't necessarily see it as an obligation, but I absolutely am far less likely to take someone seriously if they haven't at least thought about alternatives.

If it doesn't bother you at all, you can fuck right the hell off.

An American citizen has been killed in our name, with no due process of law. This should be a crisis of conscience for all of us.

This isn't to say that I don't think it's utterly appropriate to target an enemy commander during a time of war, regardless of the circumstances of his birth. But this is about precedent, and that means doing the paperwork. And the rationale given for the hit's legality is flimsy at best.

For the past 10+ years we have been engaged in a global conflict against a transnational enemy whose troops have no uniforms, who don't amass at the border, who regard success in terms of how many, not how few civilian casualties are inflicted, and who reside in places where they are not the state or of the state but are under some level of protection.

The rules of war were not written with this sort of conflict in mind; that much is obvious. The rational response to this realization would be to work with the international community craft new rules that impose limits on the use of military might in accordance with the spirit of existing international law but without the outmoded language.

Our response instead has been to do whatever is easiest, and create a post hoc justification for it based on tenuous interpretations of existing law. It's a disgrace, and as Americans we were taught to expect better than this.

It should absolutely be legal to take out a man who has betrayed his country to a transnational death cult, and with apparent lethal result, who is holed up someplace inaccessible to any agency  able to capture him.

But under current law, it doesn't appear to be. We have only our own laziness to blame for this.

What would I have done instead? I'd have worked to establish a judicial process for targeted overseas killings that isn't just a bunch of lawyers putting their heads together to try and find a way to call something legal. I'm going to favor a drone strike over boots on the ground any day, and I'm going to favor a drone strike over an insurgent attack that kills civilians any day. But if people are going to be killed in my name as an American, I want an assurance that they're the right people. This isn't merely a moral concern. Whenever we misfire, whenever we shoot into a crowd, whenever we target the wrong person, we are potentially creating new enemies who see the killing of their loved ones not as collateral damage but as murder. The ethics and the cost-benefit analysis are grey under the best of circumstances. To say that this is distressing is an understatement. But it ought to be distressing, or else we find ourselves as we do today where the ethical implications of covert action are the result of anything but the best of circumstances.

This isn't about whether or not it was right to kill that one man. It's about how the justifications used for the killing can be abused in the future. Even if one trusted the Obama administration fully to discharge this newfound (and as of yet unchallenged) power, it's still unconscionable to let it stand when it could one day fall into the hands of, oh, I don't know... a presidential candidate who has all but called for the lynching of Ben Bernanke

As we watch the American Spring begin to take root, we should keep in mind that Wall Street isn't the only place in the world operating with a massive moral hazard. Unaccountable power is a cancer on our society no matter who wields it.


  1. And what chance do we have ...when laziness, as you call it, ends in this situation?

  2. I suppose a better word would have been "inertia." Or cowardice. It is a bit more complicated than that, yes.

    We have the same chance that we've always had. Which is to say that any success is incumbent on people who give a shit being willing to undergo the long boring of hard boards necessary to make our democracy and our country and our world work.

    So, you know. We'll see.