Thursday, October 06, 2011

Assassinating Americans by Executive Order

On September 30, the US Government intentionally killed an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, in a missile attack in Yemen. Was this murder?

Whether an act was committed against an American or whether he was on American soil may be relevant to whether it was illegal, but not to the question of whether it was immoral. It violates the very essence of morality to say that, simply in virtue if being an American, or in virtue of being at one set of coordinates rather than another, one's basic moral rights change.

This invites the question of whether the rights such as the right to a trial, against arbitrary imprisonment, or cruel and unusual punishment, is a moral right respected by governments (or not), or if they are legal rights that exist only at the whim of the government. If it is a moral right, it is a right held by all people regardless if nationality. If it is a mere political right, then we have no basis for a moral objection if the government began doing the something to us in our win country.

America's founding fathers viewed these rights to be moral rights, respected by just governments and violated by unjust governments. The Declaration of Independence is nothing if not an assertion that we have moral rights, that governments are established to protect these rights, and whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.

We see the same philosophy in the Bill of Rights, where rights to freedom of assembly, to keep and bear arms, to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures, and so forth are pre-existing moral rights that governments must not abridge.

As a moral realist, I share this view. There are pre-existing moral rights that define whether a government is being just or unjust. These rights do not depend on the whim of the government to decide whether it will grant those rights. Instead, whether governments respect or abridge those rights determine the government's legitimacy.

It is quite remarkable, if you think about it, how strongly political conservatives demand that these rights be treated as mere political rights, applicable only to Americans merely by the accident that the government has been created to respect these rights, and not held by any other people. There are few things so clearly at odds with the philosophy under which this country was founded.

In discussing the moral case, it does not matter whether Anwar al-Awlaki was an American, or whether the act took place on Ametican soil. That is simply not a part of the debate.

However, we can still approach the moral question by asking, "Would it be a violation of a fundamental moral right for the U.S. Government to kill an American citizen in the same manner in . . .say . . . Arizona?"

If the government were to adopt the practice of launching drone attacks against Americans on American soil at the discretion of some unspecified committee appointed by the President, would this be merely a political issue? Or would it be an immoral injustice that would justify the view that the government has become destructive of, rather than securing, our pre-existing moral rights?

I am not suggesting that we settle the moral question by asking how we feel about these various options. I am suggesting that, in deciding the moral case, killing Anwar al-Awlaki is morally equivalent to killing him the same way on a road in Kansas - all else being equal.

1 comment:

mojo.rhythm said...

Noam Chomsky made a salient point in an interview with RT: "Bush tortured people, but Obama just kills them."

Moreover, Obama has changed virtually none of the Big Government, anti-civil liberty policies that Bush put in place.

Killing Awlaki, an American citizen, rightly ought to raise many eyebrows.