Extra-Judicial Killings

Here is an issue that I have not really thought about at all. There is a lawsuit that has just been filed in which the U.S. government is being sued for placing a U.S. citizen (now living in Yemen) on a “kill list.” In short, the U.S. has singled this person out for death, and it seems, not without good reason because he is a suspected terrorist.

So there are some interesting background themes that it relates to. Some Bush administration people tried to reduce legal protections to terrorists because they saw such protects as encouraging what they called “lawfare” which is the use of legal protections to hinder the effectiveness of the U.S. military and intelligence organizations. This is a classic case because the guy they’re after, I’ll call him Anwar in this post, is hiding in Yemen and his father is bringing a lawsuit asking the U.S. to stop trying to kill him. There has already been something like 10 attempts on his life, but he gets to essentially fight back even though he is no match for the military force of the U.S.

Some other points. One is that the optics of this for the ACLU are TERRIBLE. They are basically defending a (suspected) terrorist hiding in Yemen. A lot of people already hate the ACLU, and I understand why, but I want to put things in context. The ACLU’s daily work I think is extremely positive in that they take cases almost instinctively on the basis of any allegation of unfairness. This pressure on government, private institutions, corporations, and other groups in society is probably mostly for the good. It’s better that these groups, which all have massive power by the way, think twice before they do things that could provoke the ACLU. It’s also wrong to label the ACLU as liberal, as is commonly done, because their cases can involve property rights and other freedoms that conservatives cherish.

That said, the ACLU is pretty indiscriminate about the cases that it takes, and so every once in a while, I think they take on really silly cases that make it easy to paint them as ridiculously naive do-gooders. A prime example is this issue, in which they are trying to get prisons in South Carolina and Alabama not to segregate prisoners with AIDS. Now, I don’t know what the final verdict on this issue should be, but just reading the ACLU’s report, they don’t even cite ANY conclusive evidence that such segregation is not the best way to control HIV rates among prisoners. This kind of strikes me as provocative and a little careless. But like I said, their indiscriminate desire to jump into legal matters on the side that appears to be imperiled by unjust forces is usually for the better. I can respect that.

This issue of “kill lists” might be another case in which they end up looking pretty silly. However, on the legal issues, things seem pretty solid. Anwar is a citizen and so is entitled to due process and a right to life (Where is the right to life in the constitution you ask? Perhaps in the preamble?).

Still, things are different when viewed in another light. After all, U.S. military personnel can kill U.S. citizens if they take up arms against us (and as courts ruled, U.S. citizens can be deemed enemy combatants, I’m thinking of Padilla). So, the ACLU notes that this guy is away from a battlefield and so can’t be killed, but isn’t this a little disingenuous? After all, if the last nine odd years taught us anything, its that the battlefield is a meaningless fiction. Terrorists blend in with the populace (they don’t wear uniforms) and are unaffiliated with states, making international law somewhat dated regarding what to do. Is it fair for terrorists to plot destruction all over the globe and in civilian’s clothes and then turn around claim they are non-combatants entitled to the rights of citizens.

I’m not sure. It’s a difficult issue, but I hope the ACLU knows what its doing on this one, cause it sure seems like there could be good reason to try to kill terrorists whenever we can, and I don’t mean that in a bloodthirsty “kill ’em all” type of way. I just mean that if we find that people are out to harm innocents and damage international institutions and we cannot get to them (to have a trial) because of their abuse of the laws of war, then we should consider trying to kill them. I wish it weren’t so.


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