In the wake of the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, by U.S. forces in Yemen last Friday, some commentators have raised questions about the implications this attack has for civil liberties and due process in the United States. Critics express fear that this attack will radically expand presidential powers for use of military forces against U.S. citizens. Such doubts hinge on the assertion that this situation is unprecedented in U.S. military and legal history, however. It is not.
Anwar al-Awlaki is far from the first American citizen to go to war against the U.S. For example: during World War II, two Americans, Peter Delaney and Martin James Marti, served in the SS-Standarte Kurt Eggers, a Waffen-SS unit that specialized in propaganda aimed at Allied nations. Their role in the German military was thus remarkably similar to that performed by al-Awlaki in Al-Qaeda. Delaney was killed in action by Allied forces in 1945.
Senate Joint Resolution 23 of the 107th Congress authorizes the President "to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001." As a result, the United States is effectively at war with Al-Qaeda as unequivocally as it was at war with Nazi Germany in 1945. U.S. forces thus had the same legal justification to target Anwar al-Awlaki as they did to target Peter Delaney during World War II.
If there is anything unprecedented about the current situation, it is not in the actions of the President or the military, but in the nature of Al-Qaeda itself as a combatant force. Peter Delaney formally invited U.S. hostility by donning the uniform of the Waffen-S.S. Al-Qaeda is a much more vaguely structured entity than the Nazi Party, the Wermacht, or the Greater German Reich, thus Anwar al-Awlaki's participation in Al-Qaeda did not generate the kind of formal, activating symbols that made Peter Delaney a target. If the enemy wears no uniform, how can we identify them? In al-Awlaki's case, we could take his word for it. He declared to the world repeatedly that he was a member of Al-Qaeda and that he shared its mission, thus there was no reason to doubt that he was at war with the United States of America.
The apprehension surrounding al-Awlaki's case is, in part, a product of unfortunate rhetoric that has marked U.S. foreign and military policy since 9/11. From the outset, many critics warned of the obscuring potential of a vaguely labeled "war on terror." The suspicions aroused by the death of al-Awlaki are just this type of consequence. Rhetoric should not blind us to what are evident facts and clear principles, however. Though a "war on terror" may be ill-conceived, a war on Al-Qaeda is just and necessary. In this context, our clearest guides to the identity of enemy combatants in the current struggle are the claims they themselves profess to make. We may never entirely understand why al-Awlaki joined Al-Qaeda, any more than we can understand the motives of Peter Delaney for joining the SS, but both men were equally at war with the United States of America, and suffered the same consequences.