The killing of Anwar al-Awlaki last week has sparked spirited discussions in the prestige press and on the Web. Awlaki was an American-born Muslim cleric who once headed a mosque in Falls Church, Virginia. But he traveled to Yemen, where he became a leader of al Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula. He urged fellow jihadists to take up arms and to engage in terror attacks on the United States, the country of his birth and citizenship.
For most of the nation’s history, such acts would be recognized, quite simply, as acts of treason. And in calling not just for war against America, but for terror acts outside all the recognized laws of warfare, Awlaki would have been branded Hostis humani generis — an enemy of all mankind. Such was the status of pirates and slave traders in the nineteenth century.
Some conservatives argue that Awlaki’s case should be compared to that of Herbert Hans Haupt, the naturalized German-American who joined a Nazi effort to sabotage power plants on the East Coast of the U.S. in 1942. The plotters were put ashore on Long Island by a German U-boat. The FBI quickly apprehended them and they were all tried, convicted, and sentenced to death in the space of just weeks. Haupt and most of the non-U.S. citizen saboteurs were executed in the Washington Navy Yard’s electric chair.
There may even be, however, a stronger argument from our history to back up what President Obama did in dispatching Awlaki. President Lincoln’s final dispatch to his commanding general was dated April 7, 1865. In it, he noted Gen. Sheridan’s telegram to Gen. Grant: “General Sheridan says ‘If the thing is pressed, I think Lee will surrender.’ Let the thing be pressed.”
Let the thing be pressed. What a terrible telegram to have to send. It meant more beardless young rebel boys and white-haired old men would be found dead in trenches. It would also mean a favorite Union drummer boy would lose his young life, and a favorite young cavalry captain, and many, many more.
“Let the thing be pressed,” meant more death and destruction to American citizens. But Lincoln believed the greater mercy was to press the thing — to end the war.
The discussions we are hearing about whether President Obama was wrong to “target” an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, in Yemen take on a bizarre character. Anyone who disputes this most necessary use of lethal force is not engaged in a serious debate.
When an American citizen turns terrorist and calls for murderous attacks on his fellow citizens, he surely places himself outside the protection of our Constitution and laws.
We now hear loud moans go up from those whom former federal prosecutor Andy McCarthy calls the “al Qaida bar.” Herman Haupt, after all, got a trial by military tribunal.
The Confederate defenders of Richmond in 1865 got no such due process. Nor should they have.
Lincoln showed plenty of mercy toward the rebels — after they surrendered. But he was more than willing to let the thing be pressed against them while they were in rebellion and seeking to destroy the Union.