12th Grade: The Assassination of Anwar al-Awaki


One of my main goals for our first few weeks was to try and see how our current ‘War on Terror’ raises difficult questions and puts great stress on key democratic values and practices.

As an example of the kinds of questions and dilemmas we face as a nation we spent some time discussing the drone attack/assassination of Anwar Al-Waki.  No one doubts that he was a “bad guy” whose English ability made him a unique voice for terrorists.  He likely had an indirect hand in the Fort Hood shootings, as well as the failed Times Square bombing.  Here is a Youtube of his last video message before his assassination:

What makes his death especially debatable is that he was an American citizen.  Should we be allowed to, in effect, execute citizens without a trial?

There are different sides on this issue.

In favor of the action, we might say that:

  • He was a known enemy who fled the country and who advocated and perhaps facilitated attacks upon us.  This is the very definition of treason.
  • We had no access to arrest him.  In taking refuge in Yemen, he put us in an extremely awkward position. Yemen’s unique political and social dynamic make it a kind of no-man’s land.  If he wants to go into a ‘no-man’s land’ where normal political rules don’t apply, then he forfeited his right to a trial.

Against it we could say that:

  • Civilization as a whole, and our legal system in particular, is inconvenient and creates inefficient burdens to us that we simply have to abide by in order to have civilization at all. Citizens must be dealt with through the legal process, no matter the person or circumstance.
  • Do we want to give the president the power to execute citizens without trial?  Would this not continue the disturbing trend of increased presidential power that we have seen since World War II, and that has only accelerated after 9/11?
  • If we want a government to deal with all evil under the sun, we ask for an omnipotent state.  Such a state would give its citizens no liberty.  We must simply tolerate some evil (and evil people) for the sake of liberty.

Two articles about the incident can be found here and here.

In the broader context, I hope students saw this as another instance of our theme for this first unit, how the “War on Terror” does not just put stress on our security, but on our democratic system as a whole, our values, and so on.

Last week in the update I mentioned that we discussed the nature of our values as a country, and whether or not these values helped or hindered the war against terrorism.  Students disagreed on this question, with most believing that our values hamper us, or leave open the possibility that we will be taken advantage of because of our values.

What we as a people think of this question will have a significant impact on how we deal with enemies abroad and at home.  One student mentioned the famous account of a Navy SEAL mission in Afghanistan in book called Lone Survivor.  The book details “Operation Redwing,” in which a small team was charged with killing a dangerous bomb-maker behind enemy lines.  Unfortunately a few random shepherds discover the SEAL team in the early stages of their mission, and the soldiers must decide what to do.  Some on the team advocated killing the shepherds to prevent them from possibly giving away their position.  Others wanted to let them go, seeing as how they were civilians.  In the end the team leader let them go.  The Taliban discovered their position (likely because of the shepherds told others about what they saw), and only one member of the team made it out alive.

Upon reflection, the book’s author wishes he had killed the shepherds instead of letting them go, and most of the students agreed with him.  The mission, and the perceived “greater good” of the mission, took precedence over the lives of the shepherds.

This specific mission touches on the broader ethical questions we face as a nation in general, and as a democracy in particular.  If we believe in equality, that all lives have equal value, does that apply on the battlefield?  Do we believe in “innocent until proven guilty” for others?  Do these values apply in wartime?  If we fight consistently or inconsistently with them, what are the consequences for our society?  Students that advocated for letting the shepherds go argued that 1) Killing them would be a direct evil balanced out only against a possible, indeterminate good, and 2) Killing them would be an explicit admission that American lives were more valuable than the lives of Afghanis.

This decision also forces us back to the tensions in any democratic nation, for as we discussed in the first week, the natural community for democracies is “everybody.”  We preach a universal ethic rooted universal values.  Can we maintain our identity if we fail to act consistently with this?  But how can we outside our borders?

There exists another possibility. . .

Perhaps it is when we fight in such a way that prioritizes our lives over others that we in fact, fight according to our values and not vice-versa.  After all (say some), we have a “me-first” culture.  Of course, human nature has always been “me-first,” but our culture at the moments seems particularly geared in this direction.  Maybe this, and not “equality,” truly governs our actions today.

Whatever we think about these difficult questions, we must choose, and take responsibility for that choice.

Thanks once again,

Mr. Mathwin