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Assassination (II)

There have been two distinct, related arguments going on concerning the administration’s claim to have the authority to assassinate U.S. citizens. The first, more important argument is over the administration’s refusal to allow review or accountability for the power being claimed. The problem here is obviously that the administration is claiming the authority to order the death of a citizen on the basis of evidence that the public cannot see as part of a process that allows for no legal remedy if this power is abused. If someone tries to sue, the government will shut down the lawsuit by invoking secrecy and national security. This is the very definition of unaccountable, lawless government. Defending the particular instance of targeting al-Awlaki for assassination doesn’t even address the main question, which is the administration’s effective claim to be beyond the law.

In al-Awlaki’s case, there may be ample evidence in the public domain to persuade us that he has committed treason and has sided with the declared enemies of the United States, but the administration is claiming that it would have the authority to order a citizen’s death solely on the basis of evidence not available to the public, and it could theoretically carry out that order anywhere. We have to trust that this does not apply to potential targets in the U.S. because there are more “practical” ways of apprehending them, and because it is formally against the law, but who exactly would hold a future administration accountable if it violated the law?

It is the outrageous nature of the claim and the enormous potential for abuse that provoke outraged complaints against tyrannical government. If this actually were just a narrow claim about the authority to kill a handful of enemy operatives, the debate would be a lot less heated and it would be rather less important. What we’re talking about is the executive’s ability to create unchecked authority for itself to kill citizens it deems guilty as part of an essentially undefined, open-ended, global conflict that has no apparent end.

The second, related argument concerns the name defenders of the administration’s claim give to the action of killing these individuals. The word assassination evokes many negative associations, so there is an instinctive reaction against using it, but it is the proper word to describe what happens when someone gives an order to eliminate a key member of another state/army/organization.

Andrew doesn’t want to call it that, because he seems to think that calling it assassination undermines the argument that it is a legitimate act of war, but it is often during wartime when key members of the other side are targeted for assassination. Andrew defines assassination in a sufficiently narrow way that it can’t ever apply in wartime. The Assassins were engaged in warfare against their enemies. Killing by stealth and surprise was their preferred tactic, because it was effective and compensated for their military weakness. Essentially, Andrew has been repeatedly making the argument that killing al-Awlaki is legitimate because he is a key member of Al Qaeda, but then furiously denies that killing him would be an assassination. If he weren’t a key member of Al Qaeda, it wouldn’t be an asassination, but would simply be a murder. Most critics of this outrageous power-grab are willing to concede that al-Awlaki is what the government claims that he is, but it doesn’t follow that the government gets to have unreviewable authority to order the assassination.

In my last post, I compared the unwillingness to call assassination by its proper name with the refusal to call torture by its proper name. That still makes sense to me, but it confused things a bit. Defenders of torture were never really willing to defend torture by name, so they had to keep re-defining torture to include fewer and fewer things. What we have in the current debate is a preference to avoid using a word because it has associations with illicit killing, but at the same time the act is not necessarily illicit in the context of war. So in this debate the correct word has to be avoided because it makes the administration’s claim sound worse. It is the nature of the claim to unreviewable authority to order deaths on secret evidence rather than the name of the type of killing that is truly outrageous.

My insistence on calling such killings assassinations comes from a weariness with our culture’s habit of dressing up everything with euphemisms. Even though it was/is a war of aggression, the invasion of Iraq is not called a war of aggression, our continued combat presence in Iraq is re-defined as “residual forces” because we have decided to declare an end to combat operations, and occupation is called nation-building. People use euphemisms for two main reasons: to put others at ease, or to put oneself at ease with something that is genuinely disturbing. Calling these killings assassinations doesn’t concede all that much, which is why it is all the more remarkable that supporters of the administration’s power-grab keep rejecting it.

We should all be able to agree that it is the power-grab, rather than the specific reason for the power-grab, that is troubling and outrageous. Indeed, the more legitimate of a target al-Awlaki is, the less justifiable the administration’s claim becomes.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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