Back in 1972 then-President Richard Nixon went to China and met with Chairman Mao. As a result of that historic act, the political world obtained a new, highly-charged metaphor: "Nixon goes to China." Just beneath the surface of these four easily grasped words lurked a profound political truth: That only a person like Richard Nixon -- a man of impeccable, unquestionable anti-Communist credentials -- could have "gotten away with" going to "Red China" and shaking hands with Chairman Mao. Just about anyone else in the world of politics or diplomacy would have been accused of cowardice, complicity or worse . . . treason. But not Richard Nixon; after all, hadn't he played a pivotal role in uncovering the treachery of Alger Hiss? Wasn't he more rabidly anti-Red than J. Edgar Hoover?
The metaphor "Nixon goes to China" has long since been understood to refer to the ability of a politician with an unassailable reputation among his or her supporters for representing and defending their values to take actions that would draw criticism and even stern opposition if taken by someone without those credentials. Although the most common examples of the "Nixon goes to China" metaphor involve hawks making moves towards peace with traditional, implacable foes, it can also, on occasion refer to a "white-shoe diplomatist" defying expectations by taking aggressive military action -- a "shoot first and ask questions later," approach, so to speak.
Which brings us to President Barack Obama and the targeted killings of two American-born terrorists in Yemen: Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Kahn. There is no question that the New Mexico-born al-Awlaki was a warrior in the terrorist battle against America and the West. Just how central and effective a warrior he was in that battle is a matter for debate. One former U.S. intelligence officer referred to him as Al Qaeda's "ideological leader"; another simply referred to him as "a big fish." Others weren't so sure of his overall importance or standing within the terrorist organization.
What is clear is that al-Awlaki was included on a list of Americans the president ordered assassinated without due process of law -- something not done since the days of Abraham Lincoln. The Washington Post's Dana Priest first reported on the administration's "hit list" back in January 2010: "The Administration's stance is that if a U.S. citizen joins al-Qaeda . . . they are then part of the enemy . . . Both the CIA and the JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) maintain lists of individuals called "High Value Targets" and "High Value individuals," whom they seek to kill or capture. The JSOC list includes three Americans, including [New Mexico-born Islamic cleric Anwar] Aulaqi [sic]"
What is also clear is that the Obama Administration did not assemble its list of "High Value Targets" without a great deal of internal debate. According to the Daily Beast's Richard Miniter, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then-CIA Director Leon Panetta formed the "war-wing," taking the ". . . hard-line view that Americans who seek to kill other Americans can themselves be killed so save lives." According to Miniter's report, Attorney General Eric Holder and other lawyers in the DOJ held to a much narrower interpretation; that Congress had authorized war in Afghanistan, not Yemen. Consequently, the "battlefield exception" did not apply to people like al-Awlaki and Kahn. And, they noted, "killing a U.S. citizen was wrong."
Much of the reportage on the al-Awlaki killing has noted his ". . . key role in propagandizing non-Arabic speakers to join the jihad against America." Most articles noted his proven links to Major Nidal Hasan (the Ft. Hood shooter), Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab, the so-called "underpants bomber," and the Times Square bomber. Without question then, the man was both a menace and a danger who counseled and urged the deaths of innocent Americans.
But the very deep and thorny question remains as to whether, as an American citizen, this dangerous menace could be "taken out" legally without even a semblance of due process. The administration argues that al-Awlaki represented an "imminent threat" to the lives of Americans and our allies. Moreover, the president holds, as "a leader in an enemy organization that was actively attacking the United States," there is "ample constitutional precedent for killing enemy leaders in war time, even if they are U.S. citizens."
(The "ample constitutional precedent": In late April 1861, President Lincoln suspended writs of habeas corpus. His action was challenged in court and overturned by the U.S. Circuit Court in Ex Parte Merryman. In September 1862, Lincoln again suspended habeas corpus on his own authority. On October 17, 2006, President George W. Bush signed the "Military Commissions Act of 2006," a law suspending the right of habeas corpus to persons "determined by the United States" to be an "enemy combatant in the Global War on Terror.")
Many applaud the targeted killings of Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Kahn, and view them as President Obama's "Nixon goes to China" moment. By this they mean to say, who would have thought that the soaring wordsmith, the professor of constitutional law, would be capable of pulling off that which the Texas cowboy, George W. Bush, could not . . . the assassination and decimation of Al Qaeda's most murderous leaders? Ironically, many who are today standing and cheering over the summary executions of al-Awlaki and Kahn were just last week expressing their deep mortification over all those who crassly cheered the more than 230 people executed during the decade-long tenure of Texas Governor Rick Perry -- criminals who, in the words of Salon.com's Glen Greenwald, ". . . were at least given a trial and appeals and the other trappings of due process before being killed."
Let us be clear: keeping America safe from terrorist attacks is of paramount importance; placing lethally insurmountable stumbling blocks in the path of our mortal enemies is essential. But, if in order to accomplish these essential tasks we must first eviscerate the Constitution by denying due process of law, what have we truly gained? Is an American citizen to have his or her rights -- not to mention life -- summarily eliminated once they have become traitors? Must we resort to the "star chamber" brand of injustice in order to keep ourselves safe and secure?
These questions -- and their answers -- are at the very heart of what many refer to as "American exceptionalism." Anyone, it seems to me, who sees the questions and answers as being black-and-white, is fooling himself. For indeed, this is going to turn out to be one of the most difficult -- and important -- of all national debates.
The question is, will we as a nation have our "Nixon goes to China" moment and figure out how to preserve our safety without destroying our integrity?
-2011 Kurt F. Stone