Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Was the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki legal?

I argue that isn't the right question.


  1. the link is broken

  2. Alaya8:35 AM

    Great article! I appreciate your being able to take a step back and point out the obvious, since apparently no one else can manage it.

  3. Brian M8:38 AM

    I'll leave this question here as well as at the original post on antiwar: You dismiss "law" as a source of "right" or "morality," but morality is contingent as well...developed through tradition, discussion, etc. There is no transcendent morality floating out there. Ancient tribesmen "felt" that an adulterous woman was a crime against the family and tribe and that she thus deserved to die.

    I don't know the answer, but natural law is as much a myth as "law".

  4. Anonymous10:17 AM

    Well... adultery IS an infraction or harm against the family, Brian. Though I don't endorse the punishment.

    Splitting hairs may make you feel like a hero, but it reads to me like you are an empty suit... all hat, no cattle. And more annoyingly, a "feminist" as well. Talk about something that has flawed morality... "feminism" is it.


    I'm sure Brian has his own behavioral codes of good vs bad, right vs wrong, proper vs badly provocative. But he's oh-so-clever splitting hairs, isn't he?

  5. Chase Madar10:33 AM

    Great piece. Just came across this apposite quote from Montesquieu: "There is no crueler tyranny than that which is perpetrated under the shield of law and in the name of justice."
    That said, I do think questions of legality are important--but they are by no means the only important question, and should never be taken as dispositive, or as an all-encompassing proxy for morality, prudence, or consideration of consequences. Liberal legalism is something to be overcome, but not thrown in the garbage. Ugh, I'm starting to talk like a philosopher.

  6. "morality is contingent as well...developed through tradition, discussion, etc. There is no transcendent morality floating out there."

    I don't think anything Charles wrote is at odds with your claim.

    All that is required is a certain degree of consensus on what morality - ephemeral as it is - means now. Western moral traditions seem largely contingent on the idea that wrong is mostly a matter of doing things to other people that you wouldn't want them to do to you. I think most people also would accept that if the law is at variance with this basic, widely accepted principle, the law and not morality should change.

  7. What Oh Tarzie said.

    I'll add that, while I'm no proponent of "natural law," the idea that murder is wrong is pretty damn universal; only when it's given the color of "law" do people seem to accept it. And while one can debate things like "rights" to health care or private property, or the morality of theft or adultery, if you believe morality's subjective -- and it certainly seems to me it is -- than the right to kill becomes unambiguously unjustifiable, as there's no more definitive and final assertion that's one's own conception of right and wrong is superior than by murdering someone; no act is as philosophically arrogant as asserting a "right" to take a life.

    Regardless, though, as I argued in the piece: the debate we ought to be having is whether assassinations comport with what we believe to be right or wrong, not international or domestic law, which skirts the more fundamental discussions we should be engaged in. The assertion that killing people without charge or trial is "legal" has, for too many, become synonymous with "right." Let's debate the morality of murder, not its legality.

  8. Fuck man. Excellent work. As usual you explain my thoughts about a million times better than I can. Really great column.

  9. It was a great essay and I mentioned on AntiWar that between you, Glenn and Chris, you had all the bases covered for any argument or court case.
    The thing that gets me about the drones in general is how many civilians they kill at absolutely no risk to anybody in the country at all. And how many of them are children. I see those photos on Google when I look it up just to remind myself that I am not going to let it go like 9/10 of America seems to be and I see kids blow in half or lying there in agony with most of their skin burned off, and some of those kids are Sasha and Malia’s age. One can only deduce either he never looks at these photos or he’s a walking definition of a sociopath. What little I know of that kind of person, it seems possible.
    I just wanted to make a quick comment or two to Alaya. It’s not that we haven’t figured that out, I did way back when. It’s war without risk or danger for the might makes right side as if they needed another advantage. But I don’t know if you’ve visited many forums and comment lines on this, but the O’s are in heaven. Look up Steve Benen’s column and that’s what an educated man who has a supposedly impressive intelligence believes. Others think that droning was too good for him, even though there is no evidence he did anything but give sermons that pointed out that American foreign policy was heartless to Muslims and Arabs and how much longer does that have to be endured? Not an unreasonable question. But moral and ethical, if they even think someone is headed there, you’re going to hear the story of 911 and the 3000 innocents in a lot of detail. Your sanity, patriotism sexual preference and everything else about you will be called in to question. I don’t really mind that because I can be pretty damn vicious, knowing it’s somebody I’m never going to have to meet. But it’s just a waste of time to go through that because you can mention a million Iraqi’s and it’s as if you said a million flies. American exceptionalism when the world and some professional lefties are in their face is something to behold. ‘So you end up laying the rights, precedents, due process, rule of law etc on them and trying to work in the moral part of it here and there.
    But Charles was actually the first columnist I read who really brought up the question as the main topic. Sometimes we get so involved with what we’re arguing against and of course the ‘WH has been repeating every rumor they heard about the person and going to great lengths and convoluted arguments to portray this as legal. I think they’re wrong and by any kind of moral and ethical standards, of course they are. I mean the man was getting into a ca