Anwar al-Awlaki and American Exceptionalism

When US special forces took aim at Anwar al-Awlaki, and pulled the trigger, they ruptured the very foundations of our political system – and paved the way for its future collapse.

The skeptical reader is bound to ask: Really? Can it be true that the – no doubt well-deserved – death of a known terrorist, who was plotting and scheming to kill Americans, is inextricably bound up with the survival of our Republic?

The short answer is: yes. A somewhat longer answer, however, is embedded in some of the reactions to the Awlaki affair. Take, for example, the distinguished foreign policy analyst Walter Russell Mead, writing in The American Interest. Mead takes up the cudgels against Glenn Greenwald and Ron Paul for arguing that the killing is a legal and moral transgression. After a few self-congratulatory remarks to the effect that his notable book, Special Providence, predicted the confluence of left and right critics of untrammeled executive power in foreign affairs, he gets down to his basic argument:

“Al-Awlaki and his buds are at war with the people of the United States and that in war, people not only die: it is sometimes your duty to kill them. That the Al-Qaeda groupies are levying war against the United States without benefit of a government does not make them less legitimate targets for missiles, bullets and any other instruments of execution we may have lying around: the irresponsibility, the contempt for all legal norms, the chaotic and anarchic nature of the danger they pose and the sheer wickedness of waging private war make them even more legitimate targets with even fewer rights than combatants fighting under legal governments that observe the laws of war.”

One is struck by the moral condemnation of “private war,” as opposed to the presumably “public” war waged by states: is it really true that the much more efficiently deadly assaults launched by nation-states against their enemies are morally superior to the usually far less deadly and often ineffective attacks carried out by free-lancers? This hardly seems to be borne out by the record, and the sheer numbers involved: al-Qaeda killed three thousand New Yorkers – and we killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis in our misdirected war of revenge. So which is the greater evil?

One could make the argument, as I think Mead does, that killing in a war setting, as opposed to cowardly attacks on innocent civilians by terrorists, attaches to the latter a weightier malevolence, but this says nothing about the legal status of Americans accused of such crimes.

In targeting and killing an American citizen, without going to the bother of indicting and convicting him in a court of law, we have stripped all Americans of what little protection they have left against the depredations of a tyrannical government. The authorities can read our emails, listen to our phone calls, and rifle through our garbage – all in the name of our endless “war on terrorism” – and now they can kill us, too, without even a nod to legality. Nor do they have to reveal the reasons for our summary execution: it’s all “secret,” because, after all, they have to protect their “sources and methods.” Their methods, though, are coming to resemble those of the Gestapo and the KGB, as opposed to the law enforcement practices of a free people.

It used to be that American citizenship exempted us from the vicissitudes regularly visited on less fortunate foreigners, inhabitants of various banana republics and absolute monarchies, who are subject to their rulers’ whims and random cruelties. This is the much-touted “American exceptionalism” conservatives rhapsodize over: this is what made us “a shining city on a hill” rather than just another statist shantytown.

Mead conjures Lincoln’s shade to justify the al-Awlaki killing, as do others, but this merely underscores the danger of Obama’s lawless act: does Mead really mean to liken the circumstances surrounding al-Awlaki’s death to the conditions prevalent in the American Civil War? This example bodes ill for those who, like myself, can easily visualize a repeat of the al-Awlaki affair on American soil. Mead doesn’t allay our fears when he writes the following:

“Mr. Al-Awlaki chose to make himself what used to be called an outlaw; a person at war with society who is no longer protected by the laws he seeks to destroy. He was not a criminal who has broken some particular set of laws; he was an enemy seeking to destroy all the laws and the institutions that create them. His fiery sermons inspired numerous jihadists, like Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan, to attack Americans. He was personally involved with planning the attempted Christmas Day bombing in 2009 and he mentored several of the 9/11 bombers. That he was at war with the United States may not have been proved in a criminal court but is not really up for debate.”

Mead has created an entire category of American citizens, “outlaws,” who achieve this degraded status merely by virtue of their beliefs. He admits al-Awlaki broke no “particular set of laws,” but avers that the cleric’s crime was greater than that, because “he was an enemy seeking to destroy all the laws and the institutions that create them.” Yet this is precisely the definition of a revolutionary: that is, one who seeks to upend the status quo, whatever it may be, and create something new. And this new “crime” – or has it always been a crime? – is not necessarily limited to physical acts of destruction: one can, like al-Awlaki, merely “inspire” others by giving “fiery sermons,” and get the death penalty in Mead’s – and Obama’s – book. A faint link to actually planning a terrorist attack is invoked in the case of al-Awlaki’s alleged involvement with the 2009 Christmas Day bombing attempt, but the evidence for that – as is all the “evidence” involving the murdered cleric – is deemed too “sensitive” for public release. Even the legal justification for the killing has been classified “Top Secret”!

The Meadian justification for the killing of al-Awlaki could just as easily be used to rationalize the extra-judicial murder of government critics, or the detention of those whose invective might “inspire” others to act in a way displeasing to our beneficent rulers. He rushes to assure us that no such scenario is in the making, but how can he know that? Imagine a future United States of America beset by economic turmoil and political upheaval: for the first time since the Civil War, the Union is threatened. In that case, a large proportion of the population could conceivably be deemed “outlaws,” whose summary execution without benefit of trial is justified in the name of protecting the unity and sanctity of the State.

This would be the bloody and dreary end of “American exceptionalism” – a tragic fate the assassination of al-Awlaki brings that much closer.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].