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Enemy of the people

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Enemy of the people

Enemy of the people

“Anwar al-Awlaki might have been a citizen, but he sure wasn’t a patriot.”

Some civil libertarians have protested the death of Anwar al-Awlaki, a 40-year-old American citizen who had joined al-Qaeda, the terrorist group that engineered the successful 9/11 attack 10 years ago on the New York towers and the Pentagon. He was killed recently by a missile fired from a drone aircraft operated by the U.S. government. Libertarians have challenged the right of the president of the United States to sanction the death of an American citizen. There was little such protest during the long history of lynching of American citizens in the South.

Between 1882 and 1930, more than 2,500 African Americans were lynched in the United States. Some victims lost their lives for such trivial charges as being disreputable, disrespectful or arguing with a white man. However, everyone understood that the primary objective of lynching was to intimidate blacks and eliminate competition for the economic and political rewards available in America’s competitive society.

The number of lynchings declined after 1930, but the rate was still significant enough for the NAACP to call for its members to come to the nation’s capital in 1953 to lobby for a federal anti-lynch law. The objective was to remove such murders from the sole jurisdiction of the local sheriff and make lynching a federal offence.

Despite a massive campaign, the NAACP effort failed. Members of the U.S. Congress decided that the principle of states’ rights was inviolate. State-sanctioned terrorism and the potential lynching of assertive African Americans was to be tolerated. The right of all American citizens to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” did not trump the establishment of white supremacy.

Those in power in the South at that time behaved aggressively to defend their dominion. They were able to pursue their interests with the sanction of the rest of the country. Given that history, it seems odd that some Americans are now so concerned about the death of a man who had become a leader of a group committed to the destruction of the nation.

Under American jurisprudence, a citizen accused of crimes against the state becomes subject to arrest. If indicted he is tried before a jury of his peers, and if convicted is sentenced in accordance with the law. However, the circumstances surrounding al-Awlaki strain the application of normal procedures.

First of all, al-Awlaki took refuge in Yemen, a country that has become a major base for al-Qaeda. Except for his public pronouncements, evidence against him has been developed through espionage and cannot be publicly revealed. While his activities continued to create a threat to other U.S. citizens, there was little likelihood that he could be arrested and brought to trial.

If an alien were guilty of al-Awlaki’s offenses there would be no complaint about his demise as the result of U.S. intervention. The only question, then, is at what point does the alliance of an American with the declared enemy of the country cause him to surrender the protections of U.S. citizenship because of his own actions?

It is indeed important that the president not exceed his authority. However, Americans must be aware that the nature of war has changed. It is not limited to opposing forces confronting one another on a battle field. Now there are strategic strikes designed to harass the enemy and erode their psychological sense of security and capacity to compete.

That is what lynching was about. It was a strategy designed to impair the psychological capacity of African Americans to rise above a menial level. Those citizens who join a foreign power in a similar campaign to diminish America’s global stature are enemies of the state and have forfeited the special protections of citizenship.