What I'm about to say won't exactly firm up my street cred with the liberal side of the blogosphere, but it's not like I've let myself dwell on that kind of thing in the past.
There's a whole lot of righteous indignation being voiced at the moment -- just about all of it coming from the left -- over a standing capture or kill order the military has issued against American-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi. For those who haven't been following along, al-Aulaqi has risen quickly through the ranks of al-Qaeda to become one of its strongest voices in the Arabian peninsula and around the world, the latter due to his willingness to embrace the internet as a promotional and recruiting tool. He's been linked to several terrorist plots inside the United States, including the Fort Hood shootings (he had been in direct contact with gunman Nidal Hasan) and the failed "underwear bombing" of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 into Detroit last Christmas (al-Aulaqi admits to training the bomber). All in all, an impressive set of anti-Western credentials for a guy who was born in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
For months now, U.S. troops have been told that they're to capture or kill al-Aulaqi on sight -- but only over the past few days has the angry reaction to this standing order really ramped up. That's because al-Aulaqi's father recently enlisted the help of the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights and filed a lawsuit demanding to see the evidence the government has against his son -- the reason it would ostensibly want to see him dead. The Department of Justice's response to this was admittedly sure to raise a few eyebrows: over the weekend, it invoked the "state secrets" privilege, arguing that the courts should disregard the lawsuit because the U.S. government has every right during a time of war to engage in operations against terrorists without publicly disclosing the details of those operations.
There are a two diametrically opposed ways of looking at what the government is essentially doing. One is that the U.S. is exercising its authority to hunt down individuals who attempt to kill American citizens and will simply refuse to release information that might damage those missions before they're completed; the other is that the White House has taken out a hit on an American citizen and is invoking presidential privilege to keep anyone from knowing exactly why.
Should I even bother telling you which one of these Salon's Glenn Greenwald has latched onto with both hands?
A couple of days ago, Greenwald wrote a piece on this subject that was painfully histrionic in its Obama-bashing, even by the writer's impressive standards. It began as follows: "At this point, I didn't believe it was possible, but the Obama administration has just reached an all-new low in its abysmal civil liberties record."
That one line pretty much summed up not only what the rest of the piece was going to read like but, obviously, the antagonistic perspective Greenwald approaches the White House from in general these days -- and come to think of it, has for months now, ever since he realized that Obama wasn't going to deliver the Great Progressive Utopia he'd dreamed about, all in a big pretty bow, directly to his doorstep. For the record, I like and respect Greenwald overall and believe that he regularly makes some excellent points, but the petulant tantrums he throws over Obama's unwillingness to fall lockstep in line with the liberal fantasy presidency he and so many on the left fooled themselves into believing was coming are just exhausting by now. One more time for the cheap seats: Obama was a Democratic centrist from day one. He never promised to be anything else. He's been incredibly progressive on some issues; he's been relatively conservative, even very conservative, on others. What he's not is Kim Jong Il or Fidel Castro, which means that any statement about his supposed "abysmal civil liberties record" makes the person saying it look like nothing more than a drama queen.
I'm the first to acknowledge that there's a slippery slope when you're talking about the invocation of executive powers, particularly ones that don't allow themselves to be exposed to the light of day or the inside of a courtroom. But I do believe -- and for the record I did believe, even when George W. Bush was in office -- that the military has to have the ability to undertake secret missions for the good of the country, even controversial ones, without constantly having to reveal the details of those operations. There's no doubt that we've grown distrustful of our government lately, and with good reason. However, I find it hard, after all the independent reporting I've seen over the past several months, to peg Anwar al-Aulaqi as anything other than a very serious threat to our national security -- regardless of whether he's an American, an American living abroad, an American who's renounced his country and its people, whatever. Maybe when strict logic is applied -- and I try to do that as best I can -- there's no excuse for hunting down a U.S. citizen without due process, but no matter how hard I try I simply can't work up that much sympathy and outrage for al-Aulaqi.
Plus there's something else to consider: A lot of polemical hay has been made over the notion of a government sanctioned "hit squad" tracking down al-Aulaqi -- or anyone else really -- and engaging in a form of extremely prejudicial military action that seems utterly nefarious and underhanded at face value. It's true that assassination has a disturbing ring to it no matter which way you couch it, but maybe this is one of those times that our new transparent media panopticon has rendered the unpleasant realities of war almost intolerable. People die during war. In all sorts of horrible ways. They're blown to pieces along with those around them, some of whom just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; they're shot through the head in the dead of night; they go down fighting or drop before they even know what's hit them. This is why sending young men and women into battle is never under any circumstances a decision that should be taken lightly or be the product of caprice. The reality has always been brutal and hideous; the only difference is that now it's much easier to see this fact for ourselves.
But if you believe that war is occasionally necessary -- and I'm not saying that our fight in Afghanistan is, only making a generalization -- then what's a more humane way to kill an enemy? Is it to drop a bomb on him and likely slaughter innocents in the process -- or is it to take out him and him alone? Once again, the latter, strangely, sounds more corrupt -- but the truth is that, simply as a matter of numbers, it's not. Far from it.
I don't know all the details regarding the Anwar al-Aulaqi case. But I also don't automatically believe that I'm entitled to know. And I'm sorry, but I also won't lose a whole lot of sleep if I wake up one morning to learn he's not with us anymore.