April 15, 2010

War is like that...

Chuck Colson is a man I generally admire, but I think he is off-base in this piece, Guts and Principles.

* Update: The real problem with this is that this piece itself, and the thinking behind it, rewards al-Awlaki for committing war crimes. It is a crime to wage war from among civilians, and from within a country that is not itself at war. It is a war crime to act in a way that makes assassinations necessary. Colson is suggesting that we should modify our behavior because of these crimes. al-Awlaki is in fact committing crimes precisely because he can rely on us to reward them.

* Update: Our reader in India comments: "That he is a US citizen is irrelevant to Just War considerations. That he is called an American is beyond crazy. And that pundits are mixing up Geneva Convention and Just War theory is tells of the hopeless corner that US has positioned itself."


The Obama administration has targeted Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Muslim cleric, for assassination. Al-Awlaki has been linked to both the "underpants bomber" and the shootings at Fort Hood.

There's no doubt that Americans would be safer in a world without al-Awlaki, but that's not the only question we should be asking ourselves.

Al-Awlaki was placed on the "kill or capture" list after the White House concluded that he had gone beyond inciting attacks to actually participating in them.

Since al-Awlaki is currently in Yemen, the "kill" option is the most likely. And the most likely way of killing him is using a Predator drone, the kind used in Pakistan and Afghanistan against Al Qaeda and Taliban targets.

As one official told the New York Times, "None of this should surprise anyone."

Well, my gut reaction is to applaud this resolution—kill the bad guys. But my gut instincts, like everyone else's, are fallen. That's why we need to ask what principles are involved in this kind of assassination.

For starters, al-Awlaki is an American citizen. We're talking about executing an American citizen on the basis of evidence that has never been presented in open court, or any court for that matter. [This is totally irrelevant! al-Awlaki has taken up arms against this country. Killing him is as proper as killing some American who was fighting for the Germans in WWII.]

Killing him would be satisfying, and it may make us safer, but it also sets a troubling precedent about the due process every citizen is guaranteed. There's nothing in the reasoning being employed here that limits extra-judicial executions to people outside the United States—the next time those suspected of participating in alleged terrorist activities might be in Michigan or Idaho. [It's in fact rather unlikely that that would happen. But in 4th Generation Warfare, the battlefield can be anywhere. It's not our fault; our enemies have decided that. So if the battlefield is in Michigan, we may have to kill al-Qaeda there. And the world of combat is DIFFERENT from the world of crime prevention. Often you must hit targets without knowing exactly what's there. War is like that.]
Then there are the just war implications of targeting al-Awlaki. The legal justification for the assassination is the September 12, 2001, congressional authorization of force against al Qaeda. This makes going after him an act of war and, to Christians at least, something that must be judged by just war criteria.

While this case clearly meets the "just cause" requirement, there are other considerations. Historically, the just war tradition has looked askance on assassination. Among other things, it has viewed assassination as treacherous and even cowardly because it doesn't give the target a chance to defend himself. [Colson, you blockhead, we would LOVE to fight al-Qaeda openly and honorably. America would happily pay a trillion dollars for the privilege. But you fight the war that life hands you. And if Just War Doctrine is not some dead letter, it must, like all Church teachings, be adapted to new circumstances. That's what YOU should be helping with; you have the brains and knowledge. Historically there was no NEED for assassination. Now there is.]

It has also been concerned about what today is called the "collateral damage." Drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan have not only killed the bad guys but also their families and neighbors, a violation of non-combatant immunity. [Uh, Chuck, if you would check you would see that it is a WAR CRIME for combatants to mingle with non-combatants, or to fail to wear uniforms and make themselves distinguishable. THEY are violating "non-combatant immunity," not us. You are falling into the Leftist mindset of thinking that only America is capable of doing anything, and everything else is purely passive.]

Then there's the way that assassinations can devolve into a kind of "tit-for-tat" that undermines order. A world where warfare is increasingly irregular is a world without meaningful limits on the way we conduct war. [Colson, warfare has become TOTALLY irregular. There IS no "order" anymore, and that is not in the slightest the responsibility of the US. We didn't do it, we didn't want it. We would LOVE to have "limits on the way we conduct war," as long as the limits were observed by the other side.]

Apart from some voices on the left, coverage of this story seems to assume the legality and rightness of the policy. But I make no such assumption, nor should you.

I don't really know how I come out on this. The "kill or capture" decision may pass muster or it might not. But I do know that the rule of law and the just war tradition are two of Christianity's great contributions to Western civilization. And I know also that, in a fallen world, a ruthless leader might rely on this precedent to kill Americans for the wrong reasons. This is a tough—yes, dubious—call. No matter what our gut tells us. [EVERY wartime slaughter MIGHT be a precedent for killing for the wrong reasons. So what? That's why we have our political decision-making process. A "ruthless leader" doesn't refrain from ruthless action because there is no precedent; there's always something you can claim is a precedent. He refrains because he's worried about losing elections, or losing Congressional support for his war.

War, of necessity, must involve strong—often ruthless—executive power. Wars cannot be fought by legislatures or committees. And frequently the rules must be made up as you go along, since every war is different. The Founders intended the president to have great powers during emergencies, [Link, Link] but to have to face the voters afterwards.]
Posted by John Weidner at April 15, 2010 9:44 PM
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