TEXAS FAITH: Does just war theory legitimize Anwar al-Awlaki's slaying?

SMU Theology School dean and an ethics professor talk about whether just war theory applies to the slaying of Anwar al-Awlaki.

By William McKenzie/ Editorial Columnist 

 After Osama bin Laden was killed, we talked about whether, drawing from your religious perspective, you would have sanctioned his death if you had been an adviser to the president. Most of you, in one way or another, said that you thought his death should not be celebrated, but that it would fit under the just war theory.

 Fast forward a few months, and now word comes that the U.S. has used Drone missiles to kill Anwar al-Awlaki.  The Washington Post described him as "a radical U.S.-born Muslim cleric and one of the most influential al-Qaeda leaders wanted by the United States."

 Anwar al-Awlaki reportedly had influenced the major who attacked his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood. And President Obama, in discussing the death, called him the
"leader of external operations for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula." The president also said of him, "In that role, he took the lead in planning and directing efforts to murder innocent Americans."

But al-Awlaki was an American citizen. And some have responded that U.S. forces should not be used to kill another American. What's more, he was not as big a figure as Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of 9/11 who became the symbol of terrorism in the 21st century.

There are several ways to get into this question, but I am going to pose it in a broad way:

Does the just war theory legitimize the slaying of Anwar al-Awlaki, a fellow American?

If so, why?

If not, why not? ...

ROBIN LOVIN, Cary Maguire University Professor of Ethics Southern Methodist University

The U.S. Constitution regards al-Awlaki's citizenship as irrelevant. The Constitution specifies that no one is to be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, and this protection applies to persons generally, without regard to citizenship.

The real moral issue here is how to balance the government's responsibility to protect everyone's security against its moral and legal duty to respect everyone's rights.
Security is the most basic function of government. Rights are essential if security is worth having.

If al-Awlaki were discovered hiding somewhere in the United States, it would clearly be both wrong and illegal to kill him with a drone strike. The right way to protect security and respect rights in ordinary cases is to arrest criminals and bring them to trial.

When someone who threatens American security goes outside the jurisdiction of U.S. law, however, the balance may tip in favor of protecting security. Even then, the response should not be hasty or arbitrary.

It is a basic principle of just war thought that killing is justified only when it is necessary to repel aggression, and no one is made more secure by a government that tortures and kills people just to display its power. Due process of law is a human right, not a privilege of citizenship. But those who place themselves beyond the reach of the law sometimes also place themselves beyond its protections.

WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins Theological Seminary, Southern Methodist University

The so-called "just war theory" is not so much a theoretical process as it is a set of clear ethical principles that can be used to judge whether an act of violence by a state or nation is warranted. The killing of Anwar al-Awlaki actually raises two questions in my mind. The first is whether this action amounted to a targeted assassination, rather than an act of war. The second is whether it matters that Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan (who was also killed in the same remote-controlled drone attack) were American citizens.

As a targeted assassination, the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki could be justified as an action whose effect was to preempt greater loss of life and greater destruction that were likely to result from devising and supporting terrorist attacks on Americans. By removing him from the scene, one could argue, fewer Americans will lose their lives since he will not continue developing and articulating his plans. Further, using a specifically programmed military device, there was no collateral loss of life. He and his aide were the only persons killed.

Nevertheless, one must still ask whether this action could be justified. It has been asserted that he had an important leadership role in al-Qaida. It has been shown that his views influenced such persons as Nidal Hasan, who has been charged with killing thirteen people and with wounding thirty others at Fort Hood.

But his exact role is disputed. He clearly seems to have been an effective communicator, not only because of his native fluency in English but also because of his work involving publications like the internet magazine Inspire. But do his lectures and speeches amount to a wartime act that merits assassination? Was he the 21st century equivalent of Tokyo Rose? Did killing Anwar al-Awlaki actually preempt any deadly threat to Americans?

As a citizen of the United States, he presumably was entitled to a trial -- even if necessary a trial in absentia -- for such crimes as treason and capital offenses, if such charges could be proved in court. It is true, by all accounts, that he was a bad guy. But it also seems reasonable that his assassination was very questionable.