The execution of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-Yemeni imam, by a drone attack in Yemen on September 30, 2011  has generated a lively debate among liberally minded lawyers in the United States because al-Awlaki was an American citizen. The implication in some of the discourse is that emphasising the American citizenship of the victim is more likely to induce an American court to disallow abusive violence if the victim is a citizen, and there are Supreme Court precedents to back this up this interpretation of the relativity of rights based on nationality (e.g. Hamdi, Padilla cases).  Perhaps, understandably the courts are less likely to hide behind the Political Questions Doctrine to avoid passing judgment on foreign policy decisions, especially in the area of war and peace, if the target is an American citizen engaged in hostile actions overseas.

But what disturbs me about this distinction is the further implication that if the victim had not been a citizen there would be nothing worth discussing, that the U.S. Government claims the unreviewable right to unleash lethal violence against persons anywhere in the world (even if far from the ‘hot battlefields’ such as Afghanistan) if they are considered to be threats to American security, and the evidence for considering them to be a threat need even not be disclosed. Secrecy adds to this kind borderless violence that drone technology and counterterrorist doctrine and practice make the ugly new face of American imperial power in a variety of countries in Asia and Africa, and perhaps elsewhere.

In our globalised world do we as Americans really want to endow government officials with more discretion and less accountability when it comes to the overseas killing of foreigners than do in relation to Americans? Should we not oppose such discretion altogether, and rely totally upon cooperative law enforcement with the government of the territorial sovereign? In law, whatever is claimed, is tolerated, and so this precedent may have a most welcome blowback impact at a later point in time. In geopolitics, double standards abound, but this engenders violent resistance, and widespread fear, hatred, and extremism.

What bothers me most about this current public debate on the lawfulness of al-Awlaki’s execution is that it seems to reflect the same gross insensitivity to massive foreign civilian casualties inflicted in the course of America’s military interventions. Such insensitivity has been characteristic of the American way of dealing with these deadly side effects of its foreign military policy

eversince Vietnam, but also long before. Recall the bloodshed inflicted on Filipinos in Spanish American War of 1898, or upon the First Peoples of this country.

After leaving his position as Secretary of Defence during the crucial phases of the American involvement in the Vietnam War, McNamara repeatedly expressed his regrets for the loss of American lives during the Vietnam War, but without even mentioning the ten times greater Vietnamese losses. During the Iraq War Rumsfeld unapologetically told the media with his typical bluntness that Pentagon does not waste its time collecting data on Iraqi civilian casualties.

In a globalised world, such necrophilic nationalism strikes me as deeply offensive, as well as accounting for much of the growing hostility to the American role in the world.

Against this background I would highly recommend reading John Tirman’s recent book, The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars, published by Oxford University Press in 2011. Tirman, the Executive Director of MIT’s Center of International Studies, graphically depicts this pattern that seems to combine denial with indifference. How few of us realize that in the Iraq War more than 1 million Iraqi civilians died, another 4.5 million were displaced (with about half becoming refugees), 1-2 million Iraqi women became widows, and 5 million children became orphans. These are startling figures, and do not even take account of the destruction of the Iraqi infrastructure that made much of the drinking water unsafe and made it impossible for many children to receive any education. It takes a dedicated student of foreign policy to gain familiarity with such grim statistics of these American wars. Our main media outlets are dutiful in sustaining denial and ignorance. Liberal self-censorship knows no limits when it comes to American foreign policy in either war/peace settings or when it comes to the Israel/Palestine conflict.

We need to recall, as well, that the Iraq War was a notorious ‘war of choice,’ a non-defensive war with no legal justification and no UN Security Council authorisation. It should be remembered that the United States took the lead after World War II in punishing surviving German and Japanese civilian and military leaders for their role in waging wars of aggression, which were categorised as ‘Crimes Against Peace’ at Nuremberg and Tokyo.

Are we as a nation and a people incapable of acknowledging and atoning for wrongdoing on this scale? In effect, is it too late to restore democracy, and time to realize we are governed according to the lawless logic of a permanent state of emergency without even the integrity to acknowledge such a militarisation of our governing process?


Richard A. Falk is Albert G Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Research Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has authored and edited numerous publications spanning a period of five decades. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).

He is currently serving his fourth year of a six-year term as a United Nations special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.

This article was first published on his personal blog.   
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