Al-Qaida's commanders sent the message that in their war on America and its allies, they possessed a key advantage: surprise. Al-Qaida's smart weapons -- violent zealots willing to die in order to kill thousands -- would penetrate our cities and towns and, at the moment of their choosing, a moment of surprise, turn them into killing fields. America would not be able to stop these unpredictable "asymmetric" attacks. Al-Qaida's commanders, however, would be able to disappear in the global haystack. Difficult terrain (e.g., the Himalayas), anarchic hells (e.g., Somalia) or friendly governments riddled with corrupt officials would provide safe havens.
Then, in Afghanistan, a decade ago, the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) surprised al-Qaida's grossly ill-informed elites. Armed with the "smart" Hellfire missile and digitally linked to America's vast "symmetric" technical intelligence system, the Predator was an omnipresent sniper exposing al-Qaida's leaders to deadly fire from "out of nowhere." Al-Qaida learned that asymmetry lies in the eye of the beholder.
In fall 2002, a Predator flying over Yemen's Marib province spotted Qaed Senyan al-Harthi, a senior operative involved in 9-11 and the attack on the U.S.S. Cole. A Hellfire killed al-Harthi. In mid-2008, Predator attacks on terrorist targets in Pakistan began to increase. The U.S. demonstrated that even isolated, tribal locales where everyone's a cousin aren't hermetically sealed.
America's armed UAVs are an extraordinary military, intelligence, psychological and political weapon in the Global War on Terror. To restrict their use, or to deny the U.S. the ability to use them, for whatever the claimed goal or legal theory, only benefits the mass murderers who wage a borderless war on America and Americans. Al-Qaida targets its enemies globally, from Bali to Mumbai to Fort Hood, Texas.
Enter the American Civil Liberties Union. For months, the ACLU has bemoaned Anwar al-Awlaki's inclusion on President Barack Obama's list of terrorists that may be killed when identified. Awlaki was born in New Mexico, so the ACLU contends that the president targeted an American citizen for assassination and denied Awlaki legal due process.
In 2010, a federal judge rejected an ACLU lawsuit filed on Awlaki's behalf. The judge said the judiciary had no business intruding into targeting decisions made by the duly elected executive branch. If Awlaki desired American legal protections, he could turn himself in.
Awlaki belonged to an organization at war with the U.S. He took pride in waging war on the U.S. He helped plan terror attacks. In the U.S. Civil War, Union soldiers didn't need a warrant to arrest or kill a Confederate belligerent, just a rifle. Awlaki was a rebel and a traitor. In sum, a nation fighting a war has the right to kill its enemies, and Awlaki was a dedicated enemy.
Last week, a Predator killed Awlaki -- in Yemen.
The ACLU and other lawfare-trumps-warfare organizations, however, remain in an activist tizzy. Why? Many lawfare advocates still don't believe America is engaged in a war; they believe it is an anti-crime action. President Obama himself encouraged this notion when he was Candidate Obama, but the sobering effects of executive responsibility have taught him otherwise.
Extremists in the lawfare mob believe the great courtroom in their minds really does regulate Earth's dark alleys, anarchic hells and chaotic battlefields. Narcissism or solipsism? Let's leave diagnosis to their shrinks.
In practice, the lawfare extremists behave like religious cultists pursuing a litigated utopia. Extremists in some international human rights organizations argue that Predator strikes themselves violate international law; drone strikes "blur" and violate "applicable legal rules." Defending Awlaki is thus a means of restricting use of the weapons with the goal of eliminating them.
In other words, these pillars of black-letter sanctimony would deny the civilized -- that's us -- the benefit of surprise in our long war on barbarians who recognize no rules.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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