Daily Archives: October 2, 2011

Assassination of Awlaki

Joe Nocera had an op-ed piece in the NYT yesterday (Oct. 1) on the scripts written by Harold Burson for Armed Services Radio back in 1945 on the Nuremberg trials. It and they are reminders of the respect for the rule of law and social order that were then prevalent, and the hope many Americans felt that such rules would prevail in the conduct of governments and societies the world over. It’s a reminder of the spirit of the time that I grew up with, emerging from the war atmosphere in 1946 at the age of 9.

Nocera describes it like this:

There was another aspect to Harold’s scripts, one I found quite endearing. They have an earnest, idealistic quality that reminds you just how full of hope America was after World War II. Though we had fought a brutal war, we were determined to act generously to the vanquished. That even applied to the Nazi brass who had committed reprehensible crimes against humanity. “G.I.’s have one stock question,” reads Burson’s very first script. “Why can’t we just take them out and shoot ’em? We know they’re guilty.”

Again and again, Burson’s scripts try to answer that question. Because “the guilt of the German leaders should be carefully documented.” Because “we of the four nations are devoted to law and order.” Because “our system is not lynch law. We will dispense punishment as the evidence demands.” Led by the Americans, the Allies were insistent that the Nazi defendants be treated fairly; Burson’s pride in that ethos shines through on every page. This postwar idealism was one of the Greatest Generation’s finest qualities. Today’s cynical, divided country sorely misses it.

I think about that comment “our system is not a lynch law” in reacting to the assassinations of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, Anwar al Awlaki and Samir Khan in Yemen, and who knows how many innocents before and in between in how many different countries in the Muslim world. We seem to have lost our moral compass altogether. It’s a sad day when Americans feel they can legally send pilotless drones anywhere in the world and assassinate those with whom we disagree, be they Arabs or other Americans. It doesn’t even seem to occur to us that we are committing wrongs against humanity for which we, someday, may suffer in another Nuremberg set of trials. Nor does it occur to us that changing our own behavior in the world might possibly lessen the hatred and resentment in which we are seen by so many. Far less does it occur to us that we are violating our own Constitution by executing American citizens without trial.

We have deluded ourselves by going to “war” against an emotion called “terror” twisting our language to justify any action that allows us to wreak revenge against those who flew planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and that field in Pennsylvania that could have become the White House, as if we had a right to be invulnerable from the anger that until then had mostly plagued others in Britain, Spain and the Middle East. We have swallowed the myth that we are somehow better than others, exceptional in our righteousness, much as the Germans swallowed the myths of the early Nazi regime going gaga over the technology that allows us to kill by remote control much as they celebrated the technology that made the trains run on time. We have practiced many of the same horrors imprisoning people without trial, torture, indulging in unjust wars against weaker states, creating millions of refugees, and devastating their lands. Our people turn deaf ears and blind eyes to what can be seen and understood by anyone not wearing self centered blinders. Our media keep us on a diet of trivia and celebrity gossip, hiding the real news in the back pages of newspapers or the fringes of radio and TV and sometimes failing to report. Most of us choose not to see or read or listen. Holy war is no longer the speciality of Muslims, but of the US as well.

Juan Cole on the same subject:

The government should only be allowed to imprison or kill American citizens within the framework of the constitution and of US statutes. The problem with the assassination of al-`Awlaqi is that it was lawless. If the president is allowed to act lawlessly, he is not a president but a king. We are taken back to the medieval age, with star chambers, bills of attainder, outlaws, and no habeas corpus or due process. Those bastions of arbitrariness were highly objectionable to the founding generation of Americans and the point of the US constitution was to abolish them in favor of a rule of law. If we surrender the latter, we may as well just all strap on swords and descend into barbarism. Or perhaps we already have.

Ironically, it is a professor of constitutional law who has been the loudest and most effective advocate for a return to the law of the jungle.

On these issues, Barack Obama has been as bad as, and probably worse than, George W. Bush. If he wants the authority to behave in this way, why not get legislation passed?

Decay and decline are written all over our faces these days, but it does not have to be that way. There are choices we can make as citizens, both those who vote and those who govern. Will we make those choices?