Commentary Magazine


Lobbying for the Impossible

David Cole, writing in the May 3, 2010, edition of the Nation, notices a curious silence about the Obama administration’s recent decision to green-light the targeted killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen hiding in Yemen who has allegedly encouraged and even planned terrorist attacks against Americans. “In our peculiar post-9/11 world,” he writes, “it is apparently less controversial to kill a suspect in cold blood than to hold him in preventive detention.”

It almost (but not quite) looks like an inversion of our World War II–era policy. Some American soldiers at the time thought it less of a hassle, and no doubt more satisfying, to shoot captured Germans than to herd them off battlefields into prisons. That was not, however, what they were ordered to do. Captured enemy combatants were to be treated decently and held until the war ended. It was the right thing to do, even in a war against Nazi Germany. So that’s what they did, at least most of the time.

Yet here we are, more than 60 years later, with a liberal Democrat in the White House, and a broad swathe of the American public seems more comfortable having a man shot or vaporized by a Predator drone than given three square meals and a mattress for an undefined period.

I agree with Cole that it’s strange, but there’s another way to look at this that he might consider.

“The argument for preventive detention during armed conflicts,” he writes, “has always been that since the army is authorized to kill an enemy combatant, it must be permitted to take the lesser step of detaining him for the duration of the conflict. If so, shouldn’t we be at least as concerned about executive killing as we are about executive detention?”

That’s one way to frame it. Here is another: if killing enemy combatants in the field is okay, why shouldn’t we be able to take the lesser step of detaining them until the end of the conflict?

Cole is quite right that detaining an enemy combatant for the duration is a lesser step than zotting him from the heavens. That would be true no matter how long the conflict grinds on. Even life imprisonment beats the pants off the battlefield equivalent of capital punishment, at least for most people. Imprisonment with the real possibility of being set free beats both.

Maybe I’m reading him wrong, but he seems to be suggesting the U.S. should restrict, if not outright ban, both the targeted killing and indefinite detention of terrorists. There are reasonable suggestions out there for how we could do both slightly differently and a little more ethically, and citizens in democratic societies should always debate these kinds of questions, but a sharp curtailment or prohibition of both would be ludicrous, especially while tens of thousands of our soldiers are deployed in war zones and some unknown but appreciable number of terrorists still plan to wreak havoc.

Some of President George W. Bush’s loudest critics hounded him for years that he hadn’t yet killed Osama bin Laden while also lambasting his administration over the Guantanamo Bay prison facility, the water-boarding of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and so on. Amnesty International even described Guantanamo Bay as the “gulag of our times,” a hysterical overreaction that trivialized the real Soviet gulag and the still existing slave-labor camps in North Korea.

The campaign against the detention and treatment of enemy combatants was so relentless for so many years that Barack Obama announced he would order the prison closed straightaway if the American people elected him president. Actually closing it has proved more difficult than he expected, and he’s getting grief from both the Left and the Right as he struggles to figure out how to proceed. His administration still doesn’t know what to do with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, nor with some of the prisoners his supporters would like to see sprung but who still might be dangerous. It’s no wonder he decided, then, after all this and in part because of all this, that it’s less of a hassle to just have people shot.

Virtually no one but our Left-most intellectuals thinks we should neither kill nor detain terrorists. Barack Obama is the Left-most president we’re likely to have for a while; so if he finds their views unrealistic, they are lobbying for the impossible.

There have been more targeted killings so far during his presidency than there were during all the Bush years combined. Critics like Cole may find, if they think about it, that this is partly their fault, as they’ve spent so much time and energy discrediting the alternative.

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