Awlaki, That Guy Who Got Killed in Yemen

This year, there are three killings by the U.S. that stand out. The U.S. government executed a black man who was held on death row, a Muslim man in Pakistan, and another Muslim who was hiding out in the foothills of Yemen. People like Pope Benedict XVI and Jimmy Carter asked for clemency for the first, people rejoiced the death of the second, and people are mostly puzzled about the importance of the death of the third. The first, of course, was Troy Davis, the second was Osama Bin Laden, but I don't want to name the latter yet, because as a society, we still don't have a grip on who he was, and our lack of precision shows our collective moral fuzziness about dealing death.

The perceived wisdom and legality of these individual decisions vary. We're pretty confident that killing Bin Laden was the right thing to do, and its legal justification (barring issues of international sovereignty) was fairly strong as well. In the Troy Davis case, things are a little different. Though many people feel that it was wrong to execute him, the legality of the execution (understood minimally as agreeing with the laws as they're written) was not in question. Some believe that it's shameful and morally wrong to execute people, but the laws of the U.S. do authorize it.

For the third person I mentioned, the legal justification as well as the moral justification was ambiguous -- the government never presented a case against him, though it accused of him of plenty.

The ambiguity surrounding the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki is best demonstrated by the confusion about who he was, and amplified further by the demands of an electronic media.

What I mean is that many people don't know who Anwar al-Awlaki is, even though he's supposedly been involved with Al Qaeda since 9/11. In the media, he's been referred to by all sorts of names, including Al-Alwaki, al-Alakwi, Aulaqi, and al-Alaki. A random Tweet summed it up by saying that “the only reason Anwar al-Awlaki isn't trending is that everyone on Twitter has a different way to spell his name.”

But he's trending now anyway, and that's because the media has obliged our ignorance by using headlines that can attract the ignorant, who are searching for something like “terrorist we just killed.” The New York Times' headline is “U.S. born Qaeda leader killed in Yemen.” The Washington Post trumpets, “U.S. born Al-Qaeda leader is killed in Yemen,” and the Atlantic writes “Obama: Judge, Jury, Executioner.”

Could it be that difficult decisions are best made when we don't think too carefully, as a society, about who exactly we're killing and why?

A recent look back at this year shows the rawness of our attitudes about death. When Osama bin Laden died, people celebrated, and perhaps rightly so. But when Rick Perry's execution record came up in the recent Republican debate, people cheered. And now that al-Awlaki is dead, we can see that the decision almost jumped into public consciousness out of nowhere. We don't know this guy's name, and we don't know much of the case against him, or apparently, if we believe the Obama administration, that he was plotting against us for ten years.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Jordan Wolf

My training is partially in philosophy and I'm interested in democratic theory, but more practically, I like thinking about media sophistication, data in politics, and ways to curb partisanship.

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