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Opinion: Enemies foreign and domestic

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Every few months or so, the people of the United States wake up and suddenly remember that they are at war, in much the same way that someone would remember they have a dentist appointment scheduled at an inconvenient time. The war has become an annoyance to most Americans, an occasional source of temporary indignation. Today that indignation is, once again, over America’s secret flying robot army.

On Feb. 4, news sources obtained a 16 page memo describing how the government justifies the killing of American citizens in the course of dismantling al-Qaeda through targeted assassinations of terrorist leadership. The document declares that an American citizen can be targeted if such a citizen is a “senior operational leader” of al-Qaeda or an associated terrorist organization.

This seems to have been the justification for the targeted killing of Samir Khan and Anwar al-Awlaki, leaders, recruiters and propagandists for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Khan, Awlaki and Awlaki’s son were all killed by an American drone in Yemen in September, 2011. The “associated force” clause of the memo would justify the targeting of Abu Mansoor al-Amriki, born Omar Shafik Hammami of Daphne, Ala. Al-Amriki (“The American”) holds a leadership position in al-Shabaab, which is al-Qaeda’s particularly violent affiliate in Somalia. Al-Amriki is currently on the FBI’s “Most Wanted Terrorist” list.

Drone strikes have long been a source of concern among Americans and others across the globe. Many are uncomfortable with the cold, inhuman nature of robot warfare, and even more are outraged by the collateral damage that drone strikes frequently cause. Indeed, the American military has a duty, in any and every engagement with the enemy, to minimize civilian casualties. If this means grounding the drones until they can operate with more pinpoint lethality, then that’s an option the Obama Administration should seriously consider. But it does not mean that we ought to suspend the program of targeted killings. If there should be any indignation over drone strikes, it should be over civilian casualties, not American casualties.

In battle, if one abandons one’s lines and joins those of the enemy, there is a good chance that person is going to be killed. The lines in the war against al-Qaeda may be complicated, but they do still exist. There is no reason to treat American leaders of al-Qaeda any different than we treat foreign-born leaders of al-Qaeda. If they could be taken into custody, that would be preferable. But their deaths are acceptable.

We should not delude ourselves into thinking that Americans cannot be terrorists, undeserving of the same demise. Anwar al-Awlaki was known as “the bin Laden of the Internet” and was arguably more dangerous than the enigmatic al-Qaeda founder at the time of his death for the fact that al-Awlaki was better equipped at recruiting other Americans to conduct attacks on the United States.

We fight al-Qaeda as we fight any enemy. We capture when we can, and kill when we cannot capture. Our drones and special operators should strive to kill the right people, but we as citizens must be able to stomach the fact that sometimes Americans are the right people to kill. Americans who declare their allegiance to the enemy, who lead the enemy, who poison the minds of other young Americans into joining the cause of hatred and murder, these are enemies of the United States, enemies of their countrymen, as much as foreign members of al-Qaeda are the enemy. They should be treated as we would treat any citizen who joins the enemy in a time of war. And this is your annual reminder that your country is at war.

 

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