My computer dictionary says that the word “assassinate” means to “murder (an important person) in a surprise attack for political or religious reasons.” The word has origins in the age of the First Crusade and is — somewhat ironically, given our current preoccupations — of Islamic derivation. (I’m relying on Wikipedia, so don’t take this to the bank.) The original assassins served the Isma’ili cult leader Hassan-i-Sabbah, who first used them to eliminate his Muslim competitors, and then unleashed them on the Crusaders. To murder a political or religious opponent secretively – this is how the word “assassinate” has come down to us through all the centuries since. Think of “assassination” and what comes to mind are the leaders of nations or political movements cut down by fanatics or schemers: the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo; Lincoln at Ford’s Theater; Huey Long in the statehouse lobby; Kennedy in Dallas.
Had American forces succeeded in bombing Hitler’s bunker before he committed suicide, would we have called his death an “assassination”? Hitler was an enemy combatant who was waging war on the United States. The headlines would have said that we had “killed” Hitler, and his killing would have been an act of national self-defense – as were the killings of Osama bin Laden in May, and of Anwar al-Awlaki last week.
Does it make any difference that Awlaki and his comrade, Samir Kahn, killed in the same attack, were American citizens? Not in the least: not legally, and not morally. All of those Confederate soldiers cut down by Yankee rifles were American citizens, even though they insisted otherwise. Their insistence made no difference: they were making war on their own country, and were killed in a combat that they themselves had begun. So too the fate of the American Nazi Herbert Haupt, captured with a group of German saboteurs in 1942. Seven weeks after his capture he and his five German comrades were electrocuted in Washington, D.C.
So why are we making such a fuss about the “assassination of an American citizen”? The apparent reason is President Obama’s unfortunate decision to issue an “order” for Awlaki’s “assassination”. There are at least two difficulties with this order.
The first is the use of the word “assassination” to describe what is not, as a matter of linguistic fact, an assassination at all, and this decision has sparked an unnecessary debate about whether the President has exceeded his powers as Commander-in-Chief. Assassinate an American citizen? Will John Bohener be next?
But of course Awlaki was not killed because he was a rival of President Obama, or the leader of a competing political faction. Nor was he killed for religious reasons. He was not killed, for example, because he was a Muslim – if we just wanted to kill Muslims we wouldn’t have to use drones, and the resulting deaths would not be called “assassinations” but “genocide”. Nor was he killed for “political” reasons. He was not a tyrant, like Caesar, who needed to be removed before he could render his colleagues defenseless. He was not killed, as was Huey Long, to prevent him from further harassment of the notables. And he was not killed for the reason that Booth killed Lincoln, as revenge for the defeat of a lost cause.
He was killed for the simple reason that he had declared war on the United States, and had proved himself dangerously proficient in bringing war ever closer to the homeland. His connection to the 9/11 hijackers was the beginning of a decade-long career of terrorist plots that included some close calls (the underwear bomber) and some tragic successes (the Ft. Hoot shootings).
The second problem with the President’s “order” is that it further confuses an already confused debate about how to deal with the global Islamic jihad. Some, though not all, of that confusion has been sown by the President himself, whose feckless apology tour through the Middle East was one of the most spectacular foreign policy blunders in decades. His dithering about Guantanamo – declaring it to be in some way a blot on the American conscience, as if no country has ever imprisoned enemy combatants – has been acutely embarrassing, and his crazy scheme to try al-Qaeda operatives in a New York courtroom, as if they were drug dealers or rapists, was the last straw, even for the administration. Now he has added to the confusion by pretending that the killing of an enemy combatant is in some way similar to the murder of Presidents Lincoln, Taft, and Kennedy –or, for that matter, the murder of competing cult leaders in 9th century Persia.
We know, of course, why he issued this order: his foreign policy blunders have given him a “toughness” problem. He undoubtedly hopes that the killing of Osama bin Laden and, now, the “order to assassinate” Awlaki would overcome his toughness deficit. Perhaps it will; the deaths of bin Laden and Awlaki no doubt make us safer. But it is typical of the President that he gives little thought to the implications of what he says in public, ignoring the first rule of good writing: always use the right word in the right place.
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