Richard Falk’s article contributes to the literature on the rapidly growing concern over the counterterrorist domination of U.S. foreign policy and human rights (or lack thereof). It is necessary to call further attention to the legal, democratic and future implications of the high-tech execution of al-Qaeda operatives.
While Falk rightfully asserts that debates on Al-Awlaki’s citizenship are crude, the legal aspect of the issue is precisely what the spotlight should be on. Usually, it’s the subjects of autocratic states that stand by helplessly under the shadow of their belligerent government. But the people of the United States have a constitutional right to stand up against their government, if they wish to do so. Moralistic arguments on Iraqi civilian deaths propounded by Falk may not necessarily touch many Americans, especially as the painful memory of 9/11 still lingers. Some people may unfortunately be more inclined to buy the rhetoric of the “War Against Terrorism”. The implications of the Al-Awlaki case for the everyday lives and rights of U.S. citizens may resonate more with certain groups, as opposed to the fate of innocent but faceless victims of drone attacks in lands far away.
The U.S. government has cheated its own legal system with the extrajudicial execution of an American citizen. The killing of Al-Awlaki- guilty by association- was not legally justified. No attempts of arrest were made, although- as Gawker’s John Cooke puts it perfectly- citizens “are generally accorded such constitutional courtesies as not being summarily executed without a trial”. While the execution of non-citizens can be excused by Clinton and Bush’s make-shift laws of Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty and the National Emergencies Act, the government can be backed into a legal corner it cannot escape when it comes to the killing of an American citizen. The bypassing of the U.S. criminal justice system is an insult to the civic rights of all American citizens. A system with such double-standards is not reassuring and could one day attack the rights of any citizen. What’s more, the government has not inconvenienced itself with accounting for the (il)legitimacy of its actions. Such secrecy and unaccountability directly interferes with the right of every single American citizen by disregarding the Freedom of Information Act. By obscuring public opinion, the government is eliminating potential opposition. More alarmingly, drones undermine democracy. Although the U.S. constitution specifically assigns the role of declaring war to the Congress, drones used against terrorists only need ratification from the President. In the face of unchecked executive power, U.S. citizens do not participate in the governments decision of declaring war anymore. Make no mistake, we are not talking about a downtrodden population of an obscure dictatorship. U.S. citizens would react fervently if they were aware of the extent to which their civil liberties are jeopardized. ACLU and the New York Times have already filed lawsuits against the Department of Justice, seeking information on the targeted killings. As insensitive as “debating the lawfulness of Al-Awlaki’s execution” is, it could create a butterfly effect that benefits the innocent bystanders in northwest Pakistan by raising effective public opposition against the unlawful U.S. government.
The importance of U.S. credibility is another point that Falk has not emphasised. Al-Qaeda and Taliban have caused (and are still causing) so much sufferring all over the world. What kind of a hegemon would the U.S. be if it did nothing to oppress the oppressors? The appeal of managing global security single-handedly is palpable and perhaps inevitable in unipolar realpolitik. But the extent to which foreign policy is dominated by the anti-terrorist paranoia, much like the Cold War era anti-communist mentality, is anachronic and self-defeating. The moral mission of the “war against terrorism” (Chandler 2006: 65) reached such sadistic political brutality at a high reputation cost. The “ethical” foreign policy-making that had first given the U.S. military a blank cheque to wreak havoc unbounded by accountability (Chandler 2006: 87), in turn took away the precious asset of global U.S. credibility.
While all of Falk’s criticisms against the U.S. are well-founded, the incompetence of the non-enforcing nature of the international legal system should raise some eyebrows too. As al-Qaeda is not officially the army of a sovereign state, the U.S. easily found loopholes in international law and took the liberty of designating even suspects of terrorism as “unlawful enemy combatants” (thus, lawful targets). On what basis can we object to the U.S. claims that terrorists (stateless criminals) cannot be party to the Geneva or the Hague Conventions (which would have afforded them specific due process rights (articles 69-77)? The UN stands by idly as the U.S. refuses to disclose the drone killing programme’s legal justification. When it turned out that “targeted” killings were not so well-targeted after all, all the UN did was to be highly critical. The drone attacks under the Obama administration killed 750 civilians in Pakistan, of which 175 were children (Pakistan Index). Kids collecting firewood in Afghanistan were mistakenly killed in an airstrike. In the meanwhile, the UN was busy failing to produce legal constraints on the usage of drones.
It’s necessary to expand on Falk’s moralistic arguments. Through the drone technology, the U.S. military ensures that no bodybags turn up on the doorsteps of citizens. With no tangible evidence of war (thus no potential public opposition of a magnitude that ended the Vietnam War), covert wars have never been so easy. While unmanned aerial vehicles are a triumph for those who are armed with it, the targets are reduced to pixels on a computer screen. To support this on the basis that it saves the lives of many American soldiers is purely racist. It implies that “the lives of Afghan and Pakistani civilians simply aren’t worth as much as the lives of U.S./NATO soldiers”. U.S. drones that explode in Pakistan are commanded from an airport base in Nevada, with controllers that resemble an Xbox controller. When a military mission resembles a videogame– “far removed from the human consequences of their actions”- impunity for war crimes will soon be the norm. Collateral damage to civilian lives will become a part of the virtual reality of phantom warfare.
Falk hits the nail on the head by suggesting that the current situation “engenders violent resistance, and widespread fear, hatred, and extremism”. Unfortunately we are standing on the cusp of a much darker future, in which autocratic great powers like China, or even terrorists will be availing of the unfair advantage that drone technology provides. Unless legal and public action is taken immediately, Falk’s concluding questions may have to be answered with a resounding “yes”.