Paul Greenberg

Can this be Eric Holder, our Eric Holder, the same attorney general of the United States who used to snub military law, who set out to close the military prison and courts at Guantanamo, who preferred to tie up Lower Manhattan with a showy civil trial of the mastermind of September 11th, one of those civil proceedings that could delay and therefore deny justice indefinitely?

Yep, the one and same Eric Holder, Esq. The good news is that he's seen the light.

Even The Hon. Eric Holder has discovered the obvious: This country must defend itself against clear and present dangers, in this case the happily late Anwar al-Awlaki, enemy and citizen of the United States of America. Alas, those categories are not mutually exclusive. As anyone even barely familiar with the brief history of the Confederate States of America would know.

But the study of history is sadly neglected these days. So we get an attorney general -- and a president of the United States -- who have to be trained on the job. By now both have learned a lot about national security. For there may be no more effective a teacher than responsibility when it comes to educating our politicians.

General Holder passed his final exam in this course when he delivered a full-scale lecture last week at Northwestern's law school. Its subject: The Strange Case of Citizen Awlaki. Its essence, or as newspapermen say, its nut graf:

"When such individuals take up arms against this country and join al-Qaida in plotting attacks designed to kill their fellow Americans, there may be only one realistic and appropriate response. We must take steps to stop them in full accordance with the Constitution."

. .

And in full accordance, he might have added, with the age-old laws of war developed over centuries, over eons, of history going back at least to Deuteronomy. The semi-nomadic tribesmen who recorded their laws of war would look advanced compared to the kind of intellectuals who today would deny a nation's right to defend itself against an imminent danger.

Mr. Awlaki, American born and bred, a viper in our midst, would become al-Qaida's chief of operations in Yemen and points north on the Arabian peninsula. It wasn't a smart career move. He overlooked the long reach of American justice, not to mention the range of American drones.

When the said Mr. Awlaki met his inglorious end, that act of justice was a twofer, for it also ended the criminal career of one of his trusted lieutenants. Both of them were, at least technically, Americans. By birth if not loyalties. And both richly deserved what they got.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.