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Good for Eric Holder: The education of an attorney general

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

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.

Mission accomplished. How soul-satisfying to say those words with no sense of irony. For there is little doubt -- indeed, no doubt -- that these enemies of the United States were indeed enemies of the United States.

Nor can there be any doubt that their homicidal activities were fully covered by the various resolutions passed by Congress in the wake of the surprise attacks on this country September 11, 2001; by the executive orders of its president; by a long line of court decisions before and since; and by the demands of simple justice, common sense, and what an American president named Lincoln called the overriding law of any comity: the law of necessity.

. .

The late Anwar al-Awlaki's extensive dossier is not easy to summarize, but Mr. Holder's boss, the president of the United States and commander-in-chief of its armed forces, gave it a good try when he announced Anwar al-Awlaki's sudden demise last September. He condensed that, uh, gentleman's long list of war crimes to just a couple of paragraphs:

"I want to say a few words about some important news. Earlier this morning, Anwar Awlaki, a leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, was killed in Yemen. The death (Here Mr. Obama was interrupted by applause) ... The death of Awlaki is a major blow to al-Qaida's most active operational affiliate. Awlaki was the leader of external operations for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. In that role, he took the lead in planning and directing efforts to murder innocent Americans. He directed the failed attempt to blow up an airplane on Christmas Day in 2009. He directed the failed attempt to blow up U.S. cargo planes in 2010. And he repeatedly called on individuals in the United States and around the globe to kill innocent men, women and children to advance a murderous agenda...."

The bill of particulars against Mr. Awlaki's confederate, Samir Khan, may not have been as extensive but it was impressive, too. Until he made the mistake of riding with his leader in a convoy that lethal day. He, too, was definitely worth the attention of a drone and a few fighter jets. And got it.

These two will kill no more. To cite a saying among the pilots of those bristling U.S. A-10 Warthogs, an aircraft whose appearance over the battlefield never fails to lift the hearts of our grunts under enemy fire: "Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, but sometimes He subcontracts."

. .

Our current president sounds as determined as our last one to bring such killers to justice. Or bring justice to them if necessary. If you didn't know any better, you'd have thought Barack Obama was channeling George W. Bush.

Goodness, can this be our Barack Obama? The one and same Sen. Obama who used to deride George Bush's war on terror? The one who said the Surge would never work in Iraq, and dismissed the judgment of the general who devised that successful strategy? The same presidential candidate who tried to undermine the war on terror's constitutional basis any way he could? The same President Obama who changed the name of the war on terror to overseas contingency operations lest anyone think we were engaged in a real, life-and-death struggle?

Yep, one and the same. And he has since appointed that same general, David Petraeus, as director of the CIA. An excellent choice. There may be no more effective a teacher than responsibility when it comes to educating our politicians.

Mr. Obama seems to have learned considerable since those feckless days before he took the presidential oath of office. Even on his first day in the Oval Office, he moved to dismantle the whole, carefully developed, well-situated and, yes, perfectly constitutional operation at Guantanamo. He ordered it be shut down within a year.

By whatever name, this president is conducting the same war on terror his predecessor did, and relying on much the same legal principles and military methods. And achieving much the same success. He is to be congratulated on his progress. He's learned a lot over the past three years. So has his attorney general.

What both have learned was once summed up by an attorney general of the United States, associate justice of the Supreme Court, leading jurist at the Nuremberg trials, and wise old country lawyer named Robert H. Jackson.

Mr. Justice Jackson never graduated from Harvard or Yale or any other law school. Maybe that explains why his preternatural intelligence was never dimmed. It was he who pointed out that the Constitution of the United States is not a suicide pact.

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