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It’s Called “Summary Execution.”

[ 9 ] May 16, 2010 |

Clark Hoyt writes about “semantic minefields” journalists walk through in reporting “objectively” on “contested concepts”:

Stuart Gardiner of San Francisco was incensed last month after The Times reported that the administration had authorized the “targeted killing” of an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, who it believed was plotting attacks on the United States. Gardiner said the paper had resorted to “a euphemism for assassination,” reducing the decision to kill a person without due process to a term implying “something almost sanitary about the act, bureaucratic and bloodless.”

Dean Baquet, the Washington bureau chief, said he did not regard “targeted killing” as a euphemism like those routinely used by governments “to obfuscate and conceal the true meaning.” You might wonder about those “proximity talks” sponsored by the United States in the Middle East, but there is no doubt what targeted killing means. I don’t think it is euphemistic, either, though it does, as Gardiner argues, sound bureaucratic. Under the circumstances, I could not think of a better term.

Well, I can think of a better term than either of these: “summary execution.” After all, Anwar al-Awlaki is a US citizen allegedly engaged in inciting crimes against his fellow citizens and his government. Like any other US citizen, he is entitled to due process and a trial before the government could even consider whether he deserves the death penalty. When governments kill individuals outside such a judicial process, the terms for this are “summary execution” or “extrajudicial execution.” This is contrary to international human rights standards; international law makes no exception for states to derogate from such rules due to public emergency or internal unrest. When the US government targets its own citizens outside a judicial process it is also a violation of the US Constitution.

I think civil liberties advocates and the press have ceded too much to the US government by accepting the term “targeted killings” to describe the type of summary justice the administration now asserts the right to carry out. But as Hoyt observes, “assassination” isn’t the right term either, if only because it is so imprecisely defined. Instead, let’s ask ourselves whether or not we can accept that our government has, in any context, the right to summarily execute its citizens outside of a judicial process.

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Comments (9)

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  1. […] of the “legal debate” over whether the US government has a right to target assassinate summarily execute its own citizens: The notion that the government can, in effect, execute one of its own citizens […]

  2. Stag Party Palin says:

    How about “lynching”?

  3. Aaron says:

    When it’s the act of a country we oppose, it’s assassination by death squad. When it’s not, it’s a “targeted killing”.

  4. […] It’s Called “Summary Execution.” – […]

  5. Jason says:

    And you’re surprised of this “targeted killing” action because?? Our “watchdogs” in the MSM have been numb to conservatives whiting out parts of the Constitution, and the Dems are too afraid of being labeled as weak to oppose it. Same stuff, different year.

  6. […] It’s Called “Summary Execution.” – […]

  7. Anderson says:

    I agree re: targeting US citizens for assassination, but I have some questions, if anyone’s answering questions for free on the internet these days:

    If we’re targeting a meeting which we believe Osama bin Laden will attend, and our intel shows that al-Awlaki is likely to be there, I don’t think we have to cancel the attack because we might kill an American citizen. What seems to me prohibited is if we target the meeting because al-Awlaki is there.

    Even then, however, what are the odds that al-Awlaki is not hanging on a regular basis with non-citizen terrorists, who could be “targeted” while al-Awlaki is “collateral damage”?

    So, is the only illegal scenario one where we try to kill al-Awlaki when he’s alone, or only in the company of non-terrorists (say, undercover on a bus)? Assuming of course that CIA isn’t stupid or arrogant enough to include “killing al-Awlaki” as a goal of one of the example attacks (which is a large assumption).

  8. TheDuke says:

    The man has a right to trial. However, if he is found guilty of plotting against his own country he will be convicted of treason and executed by firing squad or hanged (Ideally in Times Square).

  9. […] My views on extrajudicial execution are well known, but I’m not sure I agree with Paul that this event counts as such – whether or not this is understood as a law enforcement operation vs. a military engagement. In the former, officers are permitted to use lethal force in self-defense, so if we accept the US’ claim that its Seal team was under fire then firing back was legal even if we assume human rights law rather than the law of armed conflict applies. This would be true, again assuming a firefight, even if bin Laden himself wasn’t armed (though his death ought to then have been treated as regrettable rather than celebrated as the Obama administration has done). […]

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