Hina Shamsi and Vincent Warren / A license to kill: The U.S. claims the unquestioned right to assassinate Americans

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The Obama administration, having killed a 16-year-old American boy, refuses to explain why in court.

Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was born in Denver and lived there until he was 7, when his family moved to Yemen. Like many American kids, he had a Facebook page and a love of "The Simpsons." No one ever accused him of any wrongdoing. Yet on Oct. 14, 2011, a U.S. drone missile killed him and his teenage cousin while they were eating dinner at an open-air restaurant.

Two weeks ago, the Justice Department asked a federal court to dismiss a lawsuit in which Abdulrahman's grandfather, Nasser Al-Awlaki, asks for an official explanation about why the boy died. Only unofficial explanations have been offered.

One anonymous official told media that Abdulrahman's death was a mistake. Indefensibly, former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said in October, "You should have a far more responsible father" if you don't want to be killed. (Abdulrahman's father, Anwar al-Awlaki, was suspected by the United States of terrorism and was killed by a drone two weeks before his son.) But surely no one would suggest that children are fair game simply because their parents are suspected of wrongdoing. And if the government made a mistake, it should explain why.

In court, government officials provided no explanation at all. Their response boiled down to an assertion that the government has the authority to kill Americans without having to account to any court for its actions.

But the U.S. Constitution requires due process. The government cannot be permitted to deprive an American child of his life without judicial review, even after the fact. More broadly, thousands of people have been killed by U.S. drones in a program that began in 2002 and has expanded dramatically under the Obama administration.

Part of the problem with the targeted killing program is the government's vague and shifting legal standards. The program has gone from targeting specific individuals on so-called kill lists to targeting groups of unidentified individuals who fit a secret profile. According to administration officials, the government even classifies any male who appears to be of military age as a "militant" when it tallies a strike's casualties.

In the face of the government's official silence about the death of his grandson, Nasser al-Awlaki went to court to seek answers. At issue in the lawsuit, which was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights, is the government's obligation to account for its actions in killing Abdulrahman, his father and another U.S. citizen, Samir Khan.

If this case is dismissed, as the government asks, a grieving grandfather will be left without any explanation or accountability for the death of his 16-year-old grandson. And Americans will be left with a government that insists it has the unilateral and unreviewable power to kill people, including Americans, that it deems to present a threat to the nation's security -- even when, like Abdulrahman, they present no such threat.

That would be a terrifying precedent to set.


Hina Shamsi is director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Security Project and Vincent Warren is executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. The organizations have worked together on this lawsuit. They wrote this for the Progressive Media Project.


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