Does Anwar al-Awlaki deserve to die? Would it be good for America and the world if, through some combination of fate, luck, justice and the arsenal of democracy, his heart stopped beating tomorrow? Does Barack Obama have America's best interests at heart when he endeavors to make that happen?
The answer to all of these questions is, as far as I can tell, yes.
According to any number of credible reports, the U.S.-born al-Awlaki is arguably the leading al-Qaeda propagandist in the world. He has directly inspired and recruited terrorists to kill American troops and civilians. His name has come up in numerous investigations, including those of the 2005 London subway attacks and the more recent Fort Hood, Texas, killing spree.
So again, I hope he gets his toe tag sooner rather than later.
But that doesn't mean President Obama's decision to put al-Awlaki on a secret assassination list is problem-free.
For starters, the very idea of a presidential secret assassination list is creepy in a country committed to democracy and the rule of law.
That's why the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights are suing on behalf of al-Awlaki's father to have Obama's assassination order blocked by a judge. They say the president cannot simply off a U.S. citizen living outside a war zone who poses no imminent threat.
The White House responds that the judicial branch cannot, should not and must not interfere with the commander in chief's ability to fight a war Congress has authorized (if not formally declared). "Here, the political branches have exercised their respective constitutional authorities to protect national security," reads Obama's brief. "Congress authorized the president to use necessary and appropriate military force against Al Qaeda, the Taliban and associated forces," and al-Awlaki is a "senior operational leader" of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The ACLU and CCR counter: "The idea that courts should have no role whatsoever in determining the criteria by which the executive branch can kill its own citizens is unacceptable in a democracy."
Fair enough, but historically the courts usually step in when the fighting is over and clean up the legal mess when the smoke clears.
The problem is that it doesn't look like the smoke is going to clear anytime soon. In Bob Woodward's new book, Gen. David Petraeus says of the Afghanistan war, "This is the kind of fight we're in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids' lives."
I hope Petraeus is wrong about that, but I certainly don't think it's a crazy or uninformed perspective. And if that's the case, we as a society need to keep thinking this stuff through.