Execution without Trial

October 12, 2011

Political Theory


On September 30th The New York Times reported that a US drone killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Muslim Al-Qaeda member in Yemen and a US citizen. In the days since the attack, there has been much discussion of a secret memo that allowed for the killing without a trial “if it were not feasible to take him alive” (I’m quoting from this Times article). al-Awlaki’s guilt seems to hardly be the issue here; a very vocal proponent of jihad against the United States, and linked to dozens of terrorist investigations around the world, including the Fort Hood shooting and Times Square bomber, al-Awlaki has quite the rap sheet. The issue arises over the legality of killing an American citizen without a trial.

Anwar al-Awlaki. Picture courtesy of The New York Times

Denying a citizen a right to trial not only violates laws against assassination and murder, it violates the constitution, and from Mill’s perspective, it violates a fundamental right to freedom of expression. The justification for the government’s action comes in two parts: 1. That al-Awlaki posed an imminent risk of harm to a large group of people, and 2. That capture was not practical.

So Mill applies doubly in this case. Not only was al-Awlaki targeted because his expression endangered others, according to the government, but he was then denied further freedom of expression upon being discovered. While you might be able to apply Mill’s harm principle to the first point, is it still applicable to the second? What harm could come of holding a trial? The verdict would most likely be execution or life imprisonment, it’s highly unlikely he would get anything less, and the government would be upholding the numerous laws against assassination and murder as well as due process.

While thinking about this case it is hard to ignore a very similar one from a few months ago, the assassination of Osama bin Laden, one that was greeted with glee by many Americans whereas al-Awlaki’s death has many civil liberty organizations up in arms. So what accounts for the different reactions? Here are two possible explanations I can think of: Americans feared the name bin Laden and believed he posed a larger threat (probably correctly) and/or they lacked any ounce of identification with him. The reality is probably a combination of the two. But does this mean that one should be allowed a trial and one not? And by denying trials to both, what does that say about the hoards we grant trials to? What gives us the power to decide who deserves a chance to defend themselves, citizen or not? Would Mill make a different case for bin Laden than he would for al-Awlaki?

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12 Comments on “Execution without Trial”

  1. brookegustafson Says:

    I think this is very interesting, as I too came across this article in the New York Times a few weeks ago. After reviewing the case, I find that I somewhat surprisingly agree with the civil liberty organizations in al-Awlaki’s instance, as he was an American citizen. There are many radical groups on U.S. grounds, but a citizen of our country is ordained with the rights to a fair, jury trial and submitted to sentencing thereafter. Everyone has a right to defend themselves, regardless of the accused actions, although it may not always seem fair. It is, though, a right to all citizens. That al-Awlaki potentially posed an imminent risk of harm to a large group of people, and that his capture was not practical seems applicable to more than just this case. However, this is obviously not the way all situations are handled.

    Addressing the questions of comparison in Bin Laden’s case, I think most would say they did not identify or empathize with Bin Laden (or other al-Qaida leaders) in any way; however I can say there is a similarity between myself and al-Awlaki—citizenship in the United States. This is perhaps the only reason for the outcry from civil rights organizations, though I find it somewhat reasonable (as mentioned above). As for the application of Mill, it is apparent that al-Awlaki’s freedom of expression was denied, and Mill could possibly make the same case for Bin Laden, though that I am not sure of. However, Mill obviously lived in a much different time and place. Society has evolved monumentally, and Mill would likely alter his views along with it. However, I do not think he would campaign for the violation of the indoctrinated rights of a citizen.

  2. blogger32 Says:

    I think this is an interesting post, because it forces readers to think about the central questions our course tries to answer. Many of the issues in this post have to do with civil liberties, freedom of expression and the right to a fair trial, which is something that many of the philosophers we have studied had very strong opinions about.

    Without question, one of the things Mill and most of the philosophers we have studied are big proponents of is civil liberty. However, I think it’s important to realize that none of the people we have studied thus far lived in a time where terrorism bred constant fear across the world. Mill, Locke and Plato never lived through the devastation of 9/11 or saw the reign of terror Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda carried out around the world. In my opinion, there are times when a person can lose their right to fair trial and freedom of expression because they pose such an imminent threat to society that they must be killed immediately. I think that Anwar al-Awlaki is an example of this and I believe that in this situation, the United States acted responsibly. Also, in the case of Bin Laden and al-Awlaki, it’s important to realize that if we were to capture these notorious criminals and bring them to our nation for trial, the security threat and publicity that would come with it is simply not worth risking. In my opinion, we do not need to waste our time transporting and trying criminals who clearly would be sentenced to death.

    As I was reading this post, a few situations popped into my head where citizens’ rights are taken from them in the interest of public safety. Imagine an armed bank robber, who has just held up a bank and is running from the police. If that robber attempts to shoot a police officer or a civilian that person relinquishes their rights and the police officers will shoot and kill the criminal if need be. When these things happen, no one worries whether that person was treated fairly. I’ll finish this comment with one thought…if we shoot and kill bank robbers who haven’t even taken a life…why should we worry about eliminating terrorists who have killed thousands of innocent people on American soil?

  3. atelling Says:

    This situation raises much controversy from a constitutional aspect. Since al-Awlaki was legally a United States citizen, he, in theory, should be awarded all constitutional protections. Per the fifth amendment, a U.S citizen must be given due process before any legal sentence is given (or in this case, before the drone is launched). Although al-Awlaki was an alleged terrorist with ties to al-Qaeda, he was never found to be guilty in the court of law; thus, this killing is unconstitutional, and sets a dangerous precedent for the future.

    The constitution cannot be ignored when convenient. It is in place to protect the rights of all American citizens, no matter how heinous that person may be. Due process can only be avoided when the suspect poses an immediate threat to the public (such as in the bank robber scenario posted in another comment). The key word there is immediate. Although it’s possible that al-Awlaki was organizing a future attack on the United States, he himself was not an imminent threat to the country.

    When looking at how America dealt with suspected U.S citizen terrorists in the past, one will see that it was done so constitutionally. Take, for example, Timothy McVeigh, the one behind the Oklahoma City bombings in 1995. The FBI suspected McVeigh of terrorism, and arrested him and gave him due process. What is the difference between McVeigh’s situation and al-Awlaki’s situation? Both were U.S citizens, both were accused of terrorist acts, and neither posed an imminent threat to the United States. However, McVeigh was given constitutional protections, and al-Awlaki was not. One argument is that the capture of al-Awlaki was not possible, but that is no excuse to violate the rights of an American citizen. Until they are able to capture him and bring him to trial, then there is nothing our government can legally do.

    I find it troubling that so many are fine with how the Obama administration carried out this assassination of an American citizen, as it sets a dangerous precedent. After the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, one can now assume that the President alone has the power to kill whomever he himself declares to be a threat to the nation. This idea is very unconstitutional, and goes against everything that America stands for.

    I’m not saying that we should all be cowering in our dorm rooms tomorrow in fear of a drone coming through our windows, but this authoritarian and draconian concept of targeted assassinations of U.S citizens is something we, as Americans, should all reject.

  4. leannaprairie Says:

    It is really interesting that these two killings were viewed so differently, and some of the previous commenters are definitely right in saying that while it is unlikely that any Americans identified with al-Awlaki more than bin Laden (if at all), but that since he is an American citizen, we have that in common.

    As much as it pains me to say it, since al-Awlaki was an American citizen, he should be entitled to the same rights as anyone else with citizenship. The damage had already been done, so there really would not have been any harm in having a trial. Had these events occurred in the time of Mill, I do think he would have insisted that al-Awlaki have a trial, but I’m not sure he would have said the same of bin Laden. But on the other hand, if Mill were with us in present day, and had seen what has happened in the last decade, I would hope he would have the same views, but I’m honestly not sure he would. Terrorist attacks have changed the way a lot of people think, had Mill witnessed 9/11, would he still be the same?

  5. kristinamacek Says:

    This is a really interesting topic to think about. I think that one of the key factors that make this topic so intriguing is that Anwar al-Awlaki was an American citizen and thus is supposed to be guaranteed rights by the Bill of Rights, including the right to a trial, a lawyer, and a fair punishment. If he had not been a citizen, the assassination would have be completely fine in my book. In a time of war, there are assassinations and other normally unacceptable activities taking place. Hobbes pointed this out in “Leviathan”. He said that in a state of war a man has the right to anything, including taking another man’s life.

    However, can we really claim that assassinating a US citizen is acceptable in a state of war? I think no. As despicable as I find Anwar al-Awlaki’s actions and beliefs he has the right to be fairly tried in US courts. The only time the US government should use deadly force against an American citizen is when they feel they or another person is in imminent danger and that the only way to avoid it is to use deadly force. This was clearly not the case in this circumstance. I feel that the government acted irresponsibly and illegally in this matter.

  6. sarahspath23 Says:

    In my mind, and I’m sure in the minds of many Americans, Osama bin Laden reminds us of one awful event in our history. The name is attached to feelings of not only anger but especially deep sadness. No matter how fair we may think our laws are, we could not see how they would apply to Osama bin Laden, who has hurt so many people in the name of a belief. This is a case where a person committed an act of harm and then we reacted as a nation. This act made us see that people who hold strong beliefs against others could act on them in a way that devastates a society. The 9/11 terrorist attack opened our eyes to the possibilities of the violent actions that can arise from such unwavering opinions.

    After this tragedy, we have become incredibly cautious about beliefs that oppose our country so strongly because we don’t want to have another event such as the one on 9/11 again. So when al-Awlaki posed a threat to us and was related to a few terrorist attacks, it felt like the rules didn’t apply again. There is a huge consideration that must be given to situations of national threat. The government has a responsibility for the safety of its people. After the 9/11 attacks, people wondered how the terrorists planned so carefully and executed without any road blocks. Therefore, the government has done everything in their power to ensure nothing of the sort happens again, which is why they felt the need for execution without trial.

    The U.S. may have thought that is was defending its people before such a terrorist attack happened again. Is this self defense if al-Awlaki was not certain to have committed a violent attack? If you think no, then what would U.S. citizens think if the U.S. waited to do anything until al-Awlaki hurt people?

    The thing I don’t understand is why the capture was not practical. Is it because it was not possible or just not preferable? If the case is that the capture was not possible, which I would doubt, then it may seem more reasonable that the U.S. do something rather than nothing to prevent another terrorist attack. However if the capture was not preferable, then it would seem to me that by arresting al-Awlaki, the people of the U.S. would still be protected.

    I really believe that this decision involved a lot of subjective judgment, but in the end, the law should prevail no matter the crime. We have the laws for a reason, and if we start making exceptions, the laws will lose meaning. I do believe that some situations should involve a case by case discussion of what should be done.

    I believe Mill would agree that al-Awlaki and Osama bin Laden should have gotten a trial. Mill lived in a time when such a massive act of violence against others with different views might not have been imaginable. However, there were still wars caused by differences of opinion resulting in devastation to cultures and society. Therefore, although Mill would have strongly disagreed with the way al-Awlaki and Osama bin Laden expressed their opinions, he would have thought a trial was necessary to allow them to express their opinions in a way that would not harm others, even though it may lead to the same result.

  7. guysnick Says:

    “Before quitting the subject of freedom of opinion, it is fit to take notice of those who say, that the free expression of all opinions should be permitted, on condition that the manner be temperate. With regard to what is commonly meant by intemperate discussion, namely, invective, sarcasm, personality, and the like” (Mill, Chapter II, On Liberty). I found it very interesting how this post ties in John Stuart Mill’s ideas regarding freedom of expression and opinion. Mill does indeed emphasize the importance of allowing every person to express his or view. However, Mill also highlights the exceptions to this right of free speech, as is shown in the preceding quotation. It can be argued that the U.S. denied Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, both the right to a fair trial and the right to freedom of expression. Still, I believe that the American military was justified in assassinating al-Awlaki without a trial, whether he was a U.S. citizen or not. Al-Awlaki certainly had an opinion of the United States. For him to express this opinion would be to harm hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent people. Additionally, al-Awlaki would be guilty of the “invective” that Mill speaks of. Supporting jihad against the United States would definitely constitute invective and harm to innocent civilians, and thus would not need to be tolerated as a fair opinion according to Mill.

    I do not feel that the fact that Anwar al-Awlaki was an American citizen should have changed how the U.S. military acted. What does being a U.S. citizen really mean? Clearly, al-Awlaki had no allegiance to America if he was advocating a jihad against it. He likely only maintained his citizenship in order to ease his entrance into the country if he were to need it. It is almost certain that capturing al-Awlaki would have been impractical. The military did what it had to do to prevent future catastrophe.

    I think that the reason some Americans feel differently about the assassination of al-Awlaki than they do about the assassination of bin Laden is the glaring fact that al-Awlaki was an American citizen. As was mentioned in the post, some Americans feel connected in a way or associated with al-Awlaki. They believe that since he was an American citizen, he was entitled to a trial by the American justice system. However, he posed too great a threat to this country for the military to forego a chance to assassinate him.

  8. sbsmoler92692 Says:

    This situation is a very complicated matter, for it has crossed many lines and brought up much speculation and controversy within the US. While the US had a justified reason to kill al-Awlaki due to his heavy terrorism involvement, he was still a US citizen and deserves the same rights that all citizens of the United States, have the constitutional rights to. As a citizen, he has the right to a trial, and to be innocent until proven guilty. Though he was guilty and noticeably involved within many terrorist organizations and attacks, he still was a US citizen and had the right to a fair trial where he then would have been convicted of these crimes and allotted the death penalty. It was reasonable for the government to take precaution and kill him at the chance they had, however, it was both morally and constitutionally unjust to execute him without fair trial. Every person should have the right to a trail as the constitution states. We do not have the power, I believe, to decide who deserves a chance to defend themselves, and who does not. It is those citizens constitutional right to a fair trial with a jury before they are committed of a crime. I do not believe that Mill would make any a different case for Bin Laden than he would for al-Awlaki. While al-Awlaki was a documented terrorist and involved in terrorism and various threatening activity, he was still a documented United States citizen where he has to be granted the same amendments and freedoms as any other citizen. Though it was for the good of national security and safety that he was executed, it was still not just of the United States to fail to grant him a trial before such execution.

  9. sgbraid Says:

    The situation is complicated and i’m sure there are dozens of laws pertaining to citizens who are currently living in the United States, citizens who have not lived in the United States for some time, terrorists, criminals, etc. I am not an expert on such laws, ethics, or the rights of united states citizens, but rather a student who possesses an ability to assess situations with reason. Forgive me if I have an inaccurate evaluate the rights we possess as citizens.

    There is no doubt that there are flaws in the American governing system. But even with those flaws, the american government tries to uphold its beliefs to the best of its abilities and giving its citizens a right to a fair trial is one of the best examples of this. However, Anwar al-Awlaki was a terrorist and was linked to terrorist groups outside of the United States. He was living in another country and could have been for some time. Even every citizen retains their rights for their entire life, a man such as al-Awlaki had distanced and disassociated himself from the United States, and thus, he should have been treated as such. Someone who is not a current resident or an active member of their government should not benefit from its laws.

    I think this point is moot anyways. If capturing al-Awlaki wasn’t feasible, then there was no choice but to kill him — which was done. With links to a terrorist organization, he not only posed a threat to the United States, but to the entire globe.

  10. jeanrichmann Says:

    This topic leads to a very interesting debate. The case of Bin Ladin and al-Awlaki differ in U.S. citizenship. al-Awlaki, as a citizen of the United States, should have been granted a trial before execution. This is a right citizens are born with, and it is an unjust action to take this right away. Some believe that al-Awlaki was guaranteed to be found guilty; this reason was enough for execution without a trail. While citizens of the United States may be upset with al-Awlakis actions, one must remember that he is still an American citizen, and is born with the same basic rights as other citizens.

    Consistency is key in government. For a government to function smoothly, the same actions must be taken for all citizens. If this is not so, a government can become corrupt with the power to decide the application of laws, and the fate of others. Citizens who are accused of committing murder are granted trials. al-Awlaki, as a known terrorist, committed the same crime, yet he was executed without a trial. This fact creates inconsistency in government ruling, which may eventually lead to corruption of the system.

    It is hard to judge this case without interjecting American bias towards terrorism. Terrorist attacks such as 9/11 have instilled feelings of hatred towards terrorists in many American citizens. These feelings have caused many citizens the desire to strip al-Awlaki and other terrorists of their basic rights. While the actions they are accused of are a felony by American standards, they are still citizens of the United States. The constitution, which they were born under the protection of, guarantees them these basic rights, which should be honored.

  11. matthewlocascio Says:

    This is clearly a case where freedom of speech needs to be silenced, according to the arguments of Mill. For one thing, the content of Anwar al-Awlaki’s speech, and even that of all of Al-Queda, should be silenced for advocating for harm to others. Mill argues that speech, if harmful towards others, can be silenced. In this case, telling others to perform terrorist activities to kill Americans and its allies around the world constitutes as harmful speech and should always be limited.

    As a worldwide security threat, in order to silence his speech, an arrest or assassination is necessary. It’s not a situation where you either silence his speech or let him continue his freedom of expression, because the more time that passes could result in more deaths of innocent people. To silence Anwar al-Awlaki, the only viable option is to kill him. To protect the lives of Americans from terrorist attacks, assassinating Anwar al-Awlaki was deemed necessary by the United States government.

    He definitely posed an imminent risk to a large group of people, and honestly, gives up any rights he has to freedom of expression. Any time you use speech to harm others, I feel you don’t deserve the right to express yourself anymore.

    Now many people in this situation feel like he was also denied his right to a fair trial. In this case, there wasn’t the possibility of a trial. The US would not be able to even get their hands on Anwar al-Awlaki without risking the lives of American soldiers. During any sort of a raid, he would either have taken his own life or many American soldiers would have died in the process. Is it really worth the deaths of multiple soldiers to just make sure a terrorist gets his “fair trial.” He doesn’t deserve a single freedom from the United States and I agree with the decision to kill Anwar al-Awlaki by drone strike. It saves lives and silences harmful speech.

  12. Connor Baharozian Says:

    Would al-Awlaki or other Al-Qaeda members that could be held on trial in the United States actually have fair trials? I know our system of government and our judicial branch hold “equality for all” as the standard in the United States, however, is this really the case? Do we ALWAYS follow “innocent until proven guilty?” I feel as if, sometimes, perceptions and emotions get in the way of concrete findings. I’m not saying that men such as Osama bin Laden aren’t guilty, I’m just saying that we need to do a better job of keeping emotions out of trials. Even if we were to allow members of Al-Qaeda charged for injustices to have trials in America, I believe that these trials would be drastically unfair. Not only would the indicted have to disprove certain findings, they also have to sway the emotions of people involved in the trial. As humans, we are all emotional beings and thus, keeping feelings out of trials may be impossible, but there are many cases in which trials may have been unfairly decided due to perceptions. I feel that as a general public, we believe people who are associated with groups such as Al-Qaeda are guilty until proven innocent. How can a fair trial be held when there is so much hate and anger surrounding the charged? Can judges really ignore the emotions behind a trial? I don’t believe that they can fully do this.
    Judges, as much as they insist that they ignore outside emotion and contentions, are affected by outside emotions because their decisions about the charged can many times affect their own lives. If a judge were to go against the common feeling that an Al-Qaeda member was guilty, they would be harassed and have to deal with a media frenzy. Self-interest which Tocqueville refers to is the guiding factor behind listening to the opinions of others outside of the trial. However, judges, by taking in outside perspectives, also look out for the community as well; they can make decision that would appease the public. I’m not saying that judges in this country make wrong decisions a lot of the time. I’m not saying that judges are bad people guided own by selfish motives. I’m just saying that it is impossible to separate oneself from emotions and perceptions surrounding trials. Most judges ignore what surrounds cases extraordinarily well, much better than I would, but there are cases in which emotions do contribute to trials.
    The Troy Davis trial which ended just a month ago with Mr. Davis being given the death penalty for allegedly killing a police officer is an example of a trial in which emotions seemed to have influenced many inside of the courtroom. This case had a trial, a re-trial and the United States Supreme Court became involved. Many people were up in arms due to the death by shooting of the security guard police officer outside of a Burger King. This officer left behind a wife and children and was seemingly killed for no real reason. However, the many who testified against Mr. Davis, originally stating that he was the murder, eventually admitted to this not being the case. They had been pressured by police and society to say he had been the killer. Many came to Mr. Davis’ defense asking for re-examination of the ‘facts’ including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Pope Benedict XVI, and President Jimmy Carter. Eventually, even though no murder weapon was discovered and the court’s decision was largely based on former statements made by witnesses, Mr. Davis was sentenced to death. He remained steadfast in stating that he was not the murderer. His final words on his death day were: ” I’m not the one who personally killed your son, your father, your brother.”
    Either way, whether Mr. Davis was innocent or not, much emotion went into this case in Georgia courts. People wanted to be able to blame somebdoy for the death of a public serviceman. Many more people pushed for his execution than pushed for proving that he was actually guilty. There was a built up perception in the public that Mr. Davis was the killer. I believe that the judge in this case, no matter how hard he could have tried, would have been affected by everything surrounding the trial. So, based on the Troy Davis Trials, I don’t believe that, if we were to allow members of Al-Qaeda to be tried in American courts, they would have fair trials. But, what is the alternative? I am unsure. Please give me some suggestions or convince me that we could hold trials on our soil in which emotions wouldn’t play into judgements.

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