As Anwar al-Awlaki became the first individual to be summarily executed by his own government in the "war on terror" on Friday, we are reminded of the dark side in this relentless pursuit for security.
Awlaki was an evil man who preached against humanity. As a counter-extremism adviser, I dedicate all my energies to discrediting his ilk. I am under no illusion of the danger that he posed. I live with such danger every day, through my work. Awlaki's desire to arbitrarily kill, deny rights and bypass due process is what made him evil. In summarily executing him in this way, the US has just called the kettle black.
Just as achieving liberty takes years of bloody struggle, its violation is rarely brought about overnight. Arbitrary detention, extraordinary rendition, targeted killings and "enhanced interrogation" – otherwise known as torture – are but some of the measures that have slowly been re-introduced into human practice by the US. Now, add to that list the summary execution of a citizen.
Here one may legitimately ask: why is killing your own citizen any worse than the targeted killing of foreigners such as the killing of Bin Laden in Pakistan? Both examples are extrajudicial, and as demonstrated in Bin Laden's case shrouded in mystery.
However, the Awlaki case adds another wound to the body of human-rights protections that had hitherto been sacred. This action carves out the legal pathway for a state to silence not only external but internal dissent, by defining the citizen as an "enemy of the state". Legally it matters little that in this case Awlaki was indeed an enemy of the state. With the evidence being kept secret, the precedent has been set.
An enemy of the state is whoever the state tells you is an enemy of the state. Does nobody see a problem with that?
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It is high time that states saw human rights not as obstacles to security, but as integral to it. No counter-insurgency is ever won with military force alone.
The residual support that some counter-insurgents may enjoy in their host populations rests on a blurring of values and latent sympathies for the overall goal. This is why countering the narrative of terrorism is so crucial to successfully reducing its appeal.
By abandoning our own values in pursuit of victory we not only reinforce the extremist narrative among vulnerable host populations, we weaken the conviction in ourselves about why we are fighting in the first instance.
If not to preserve the notion that life and liberty are sacred, what is our problem with terrorism? In this context, such actions are but own goals that will continue to haunt us for years.
Add to this one last fact. Yemenis are currently striving to join the Arab spring and shed themselves of their ruler. Ignoring all of this, the US has only intervened to strike at a terrorist.
In doing so America has shown again that the only prism through which it can view the Middle East is security. And let it not be forgotten, years of supporting despots in pursuit of such security is partly what got us here in the first place.