Spin it any way you want. Justify it, rationalize it, chalk it up to the exigencies of war. And at the end, the fact remains:
A U.S. citizen is dead and the U.S. government killed him. Without trial. Without due process. Without hesitation. And many of those who loudly deplored George W. Bush for smaller excesses seem content to allow Barack Obama this larger one.
No, I do not mourn the death of Anwar al-Awlaki. If anyone ever deserved to have a missile from a predator drone land in his lap, it was this New Mexico-born Muslim cleric, killed last September in Yemen, his ancestral homeland. American counterterrorism experts say he planned the failed 2009 bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner. Additionally, he is said to have inspired the Fort Hood massacre of 2009 and the botched Times Square bombing of 2010. The world is a better place without this guy in it.
Still, the means of his dispatch from this world ought to give us pause.
Last week, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech in which he attempted to justify what the administration did. His reasoning was not compelling. In Holder's formulation, the U.S. government has the right to kill citizens if said citizens present an imminent threat of violent attack and if capturing them alive is not a feasible option. It can do this, said Holder, speaking at Northwestern University School of Law, without judicial oversight.
"Some have argued that the president is required to get permission from a federal court before taking action against a U.S. citizen who is a senior operational leader of al-Qaida or associated forces," he said. "This is simply not accurate. Due process and judicial process are not one and the same, particularly when it comes to national security. The Constitution guarantees due process; it does not guarantee judicial process."
What a flimsy rationale upon which to balance a decision as monumental and portentous as the killing of a citizen. Even granting that the demands of armed conflict sometimes make such things necessary, it is inconceivable that the White House would claim the right to kill without at least presenting its evidence before a federal judge in a secret hearing. To eschew even that safeguard -- there is precedent, in urgent cases, for a ruling to be handed down in hours or even minutes -- is to set Obama up as potential judge, jury and executioner of every accused terrorist.