Or, to put it in a less sensationalistic way: How much protection does the United States Constitution afford our sinister citizens?
Did our president have the right to order our military to effectively assassinate Americans Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan this past Friday in Yemen?
And was Awlaki dangerous enough to be denied due process under America's Constitution? Yes, we know he was a hero to another homegrown terrorist, Major Nidal Hasan, who slaughtered 13 servicemembers at Fort Hood, Texas. But international experts have been divided as to Awlaki's influence among hard-core Muslim jihadists across the globe. Might America be compromising some key principles of sociopolitical ethics if we're too reckless in identifying targets for assassination?
Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul has sided with the ACLU in decrying the Obama administration's decision to kill Awlaki and Khan with that drone-launched missile attack. Although the two men had substantial records of anti-American fervor and jihadist fascinations, objectors to their targeted take-out insist the US government simply shouldn't kill Americans - even ones suspected of treason - without a trial, even in wartime.
Professed moderates among America's Muslim community have also expressed consternation over this event, concerned about the statement it makes regarding religious and social tolerance in the increasingly suspicious West. The BBC reports that Obama himself ordered Awlaki's death, conjuring shades of George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein. Meanwhile, many conservatives - including presidential candidate Rick Perry - have congratulated the Obama administration for successfully eliminating two potent threats to American security.
Should Home-Grown Terrorists Benefit from Home-Grown Protections?
By far the more dastardly of those killed Friday, Awlaki was born in New Mexico and grew up in Yemen, where his father worked as a government bureaucrat. He returned to Colorado for his college education, and eventually evolved into a popular, radicalized agitator for anti-American causes. After moving back to Yemen, Awlaki was imprisoned by the Yemeni government apparently as a tacit rebuke to pacify Westerners. But all that did was fuel his hatred for the country of his birth.
Khan, a jihadist wanna-be, was born in Queens and moved with his family to Charlotte, North Carolina, where he spent his teenage years. In 2009, Khan emigrated to Yemen and started a glossy anti-American magazine, expanding his reputation as a pro-jihadist blogger begun while still in the United States. Nevertheless, his death was probably made notable because he died alongside Awlaki, rather than anything he himself perpetrated against the United States.
Oddly enough, both Awlaki and Khan grew up in families which enjoyed a relatively comfortable standard of living, thanks to the engineering careers of both of their fathers. Both men alarmed their parents with their anti-American rhetoric, and both families sought to re-indoctrinate their sons with less hostile perspectives. Kinda sounds like the personal circumstances of Detroit's Christmas Day underwear bomber and New York's Times Square bomber, doesn't it?
What does this say about the generational disconnect which seems to exist between middle-aged, upwardly-mobile, Westernized Muslims and their pampered progeny? Kids who've grown up with more wealth that many of the Americans they accuse of wasteful materialism.
Who's the real spoiled brat here?
So far, America's Islamic community has failed to rally around President Obama and his cabinet's decision to recognize the peril these two men posed to our country. They seem more concerned about how these two killings could inflame anti-Muslim sentiment and rhetoric.
Almost as if that horse hasn't already bolted through the barn's open door!
Is Proof Without a Trial Sufficient?
But even some experts on Islam, Yemen, and the Arab Spring movement doubt that Awlaki presented a clear and present danger to the United States. They say that in general, Muslims across the Middle East probably wouldn't even recognize his name, or associate him with significant jihadist intentions. Quite honestly, they say, America's fascination with Awlaki - and our insistence that he die - could reflect more of the Western world's distorted understanding of the Muslim threat than a realistic assessment of the convoluted power struggles within Islam's fundamentalist circles.
To clarify the issue regarding our country's right to assassinate without a trial, here's what the Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution has to say on the subject:
"No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation."
Compare that emotionless guarantee with the assertions some Middle East experts have made concerning any immediate danger Awlaki presented to us.
Fawaz A. Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics, has opined that "killing [Awlaki], in addition to the moral and legal questions involved, would not substantially disrupt Al Qaeda. In fact, it would transform the fugitive preacher into a martyr and would likely further poison Yemeni public opinion against the U.S."
Noman Benotman, a former Libyan jihadist now working as a senior analyst at the Quilliam Foundation in London, cautioned that "Anwar al-Awlaki is undoubtedly dangerous to the West, but his importance must be assessed objectively... Awlaki’s distinctly American individualism has led him to act as a somewhat freelance jihadist cleric rather than to become part of a strictly hierarchical organization like Al Qaeda."
Obviously, these assessments come from people well-insulated by their scholarly ivory towers, high above the nitty-gritty of terrorism, death, and peril. Obama, as president, faces the urgent, daily grind of evaluating risks to the entire country, and must weigh those risks against what we all know were dangerous invectives against our country by Awlaki and Khan. There's an ideal world, and then there's reality.
We also all know of the botched security which led to the underwear bomber's misfire over Detroit, and how in both the Detroit and Times Square cases, it wasn't Homeland Security experts but ordinary citizens who foiled the bombers. So a president needs to juggle the unpredictability of this new breed of terrorist against every citizen's rights under the Constitution.
Does Justice Have Alternate Timelines?
Without sounding alarmist, but perhaps a bit racist, I must confess I'm growing increasingly intolerant of the desire by American Muslims to both have their cake and eat it, too. They want the freedoms for which America is famous, yet they want to be insulated from the responsibilities of safety that freedom requires to survive.
And quite frankly, I think more than enough proof has existed in the realm of popular media long enough - let alone in whatever top-secret material to which the White House was privy - to justify killing both Awlaki and Khan when the opportunity presented itself.
Good grief - the guys were considered a threat mostly because of their repeated public aggressions towards their native land. They blogged and appeared on television to unequivocally declare their hatred of the United States. They weren't subversive and clandestine - they provided their own proof of their treason with glee.
If Constitutional purists would have preferred a trial ahead of an assassination strike, maybe some military tribunal should have held court over the incontrovertible proof of their treason - without the accused present - before our drone fired that fatal missile last Friday.
Other than that, I'm afraid I have to side with the Obama administration on this one.
Being an American may not technically be more than having a birth certificate or naturalization documents claiming one's citizenship. But in reality, there is more to being an American - and benefiting from such citizenship - than mere bureaucratic formalities. Isn't it obvious that Awlaki and Khan wanted nothing to do with their birthright as American citizens?
Beware the Desire to Ignore a Complex Reality
However, having said all of that, isn't it worth noting how counterproductive killing these two men may be? If they were really more of a political threat than an imminent danger to the sovereignty of the United States and other Western democracies, shouldn't our State Department insist that more robust analytical tools be deployed to understand the true state of affairs in the Middle East? After all, some experts who think Awlaki and Khan deserved their fate harbor no illusions that their deaths will solve anything.
Islam is infested with tribal clans, divisions, and warring factions that may even now be turning the intra-religion dialog of animosity towards the West into animosity towards Muslims perceived as being less traditional than the jihadist radicals. In other words, instead of focusing on infidels in the West, radical Muslims may now be turning their wrath towards those who they consider to be infidels within moderate Islam. Which could mean warfare like we've never seen before.
Strife within and displayed by Muslim sects may be more complex than most Americans can digest in news tweets and talk show sound bites. But assuming some highly-publicized hits against famous bad guys works in our favor will prove woefully misguided if we're aiming our water hoses at the smoke instead of the fire.
Maybe that's what the radicalized Muslims want. They want us to be consumed by the trivial fringes who fit neatly into our media-packaged worldview. While the real madmen are left to scheme their way under the radar into the core of Western life.
So is whether or not assassinating American nationals without a trial the true question here? Or whether we need to take an even harder look at what may not be so clearly visible?
Not threats by terrorists who don't have lawyers filing briefs on their behalf, in a tawdry new world of pseudo-constitutionalism run amok.
But spending so much energy debating the merits of people whose bark may disguise the real threat's bite?