Lamar W. Hankins :
JUSTICE | Saudi murder and American murder: An
ethical equivalence

While Khashoggi may have had no legal rights under Saudi law, Anwar al-Aulaki was a U.S. citizen and entitled to due process.

Left: Iman Anwar al-Awlaki, Photo by Muhammad ud-Deen/Wikimedia Commons. Right: Jamal Khashoggi. Photo by Alfagih at Arabic Wikipedia. Transferred to Wikimedia Commons.

By Lamar W. Hankins | The Rag Blog | March 4, 2021

SAN MARCOS — I am as appalled as anyone by the 2018 murder at the Saudi Embassy in Turkey of Saudi national and Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi, on order of Saudi leadership, namely, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. But as I read Nicholas Kristof’s column in the February 27, 2021, New York Times, I had difficulty seeing the difference between Khashoggi’s killing and that in 2011 in Yemen of the Yemeni-American Imam Anwar al-Aulaki by a U.S .drone, ordered by then-President Obama.

Obviously, the manner of death of the two men was different — Khashoggi’s is in a way reminiscent of the Mafia, and al-Aulaki’s by a sophisticated drone. But they were both killed, whether by medieval methods or modern, by order of heads of state (the presumptive head of state for Saudi Arabia and the elected head of state for the U.S.).

I don’t draw these parallels lightly. I voted for President Obama twice. But a closer look at American opinion about Khashoggi’s death leads me to conclude that there is no relevant moral difference between the two.

The Washington Post editorialized on February 27 about Khashoggi’s death in this way, quoting from a CIA report on his death:

The killing was approved by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler. The conclusion was based, the report said, on the crown prince’s absolute control of decision-making, the involvement in the operation of a top adviser and seven members of his personal protective detail, and his “support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad.”

It is instructive to use the same framework to describe al-Aulaki’s death:

The killing was approved by Barack Hussein Obama, the president of the United States. The conclusion was based on the President’s absolute control of decision-making, the involvement in the operation of a top adviser and members of the military leadership and intelligence services, and his support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad.

While Khashoggi may have had no legal rights under Saudi law, Anwar al-Aulaki was a U.S. citizen and entitled to due process under the U.S. Constitution; yet due process was thrown by the wayside to kill him in 2011. Also ignored were criminal laws prohibiting overseas killing of citizens, and the executive order prohibiting “assassination.”

Khashoggi was a journalist and severe critic
of the Saudi regime.

Khashoggi was a journalist and severe critic of the Saudi regime, a regime ruled de facto by Saudi crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who officially serves as its Minister of Defense; al-Aulaki was best known for his jihadist tracts delivered in colloquial American English, according to international and legal expert Benjamin R. Farley in an article published in 2012 in the American University National Security Law Brief.

In 2010, U.S. officials described al-Aulaki’s terrorism role as “inspirational rather than operational,” though later the government speculated that he may have become involved in specific plots. It is not possible for average Americans to assess the validity of such claims, however. We have the word only of a government that regularly lies to its citizens to justify its actions.

In the U.S., we claim that our courts adjudicate wrongdoing in an environment where evidence can be presented and challenged under rules fair to both the state and the accused. As an American citizen, al-Aulaki was entitled to that due process.

It is useful to review the effects of U.S. drone policy for the past 20 years. We have used drones, helicopter gunships, and special forces excursions to kill thousands of enemies, presumed enemies, and noncombatant civilians and children throughout the Middle East and Africa. While completely accurate numbers are impossible to find, several nonpartisan human rights groups have made creditable efforts to quantify some of these extra-judicial killings by the U.S.

In 2019, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) reported that, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, “drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen have killed between 8,500 and 12,000 people, including as many as 1,700 civilians — 400 of whom were children.”

The AFSC calls for ‘policies that respect the
humanity of all people.’

These figures are viewed as “a conservative estimate of how many civilians have been killed, especially since who qualifies as a ‘combatant’ is widely disputed. These figures also don’t include killings in Iraq, Libya, and other countries.” The AFSC calls for “policies that respect the humanity of all people.”

And drones do more than kill. They terrorize everyone — men, women, and children — who hears them overhead, a circumstance reported throughout the literature on the subject. The U.S. drone policy, thus, makes us terrorists as we claim to be seeking out terrorists for annihilation.

As Marjorie Cohn, a professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law explained in 2011:

After the Holocaust, Winston Churchill wanted to execute the Nazi leaders without trials. But the U.S. government opposed the extrajudicial executions of Nazi officials who had committed genocide against millions of people. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, who served as chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal, told President Harry Truman: “We could execute or otherwise punish [the Nazi leaders] without a hearing. But undiscriminating executions or punishments without definite findings of guilt, fairly arrived at, would … not set easily on the American conscience or be remembered by children with pride.”… [T]he ‘”uspected militants” targeted in drone attacks should have been arrested and tried in U.S. courts or an international tribunal. Obama cannot serve as judge, jury and executioner. These assassinations are not only illegal; they create a dangerous precedent, which could be used to justify the targeted killings of U.S. leaders.

I fear that the American conscience has shriveled from the one Justice Jackson spoke about some 70 years ago. Extrajudicial killing seems to be one of the only areas of bipartisanship that exists in this country today. But that is little different from the general agreement among most of our citizens since 1492 that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” This is one reason I have difficulty accepting the premise that “the better angels of our nature” have taken root in this land.

I continue to be moved by the last major speech given by Martin Luther King, Jr., at Riverside Church in New York one year before his assassination:

We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace . . . and justice throughout the developing world. …If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

I share his fear for our country.


[Rag Blog columnist Lamar W. Hankins, a former San Marcos, Texas, City Attorney, is retired and volunteers with the Final Exit Network as a coordinator for people in seven states and serves as editor, contributor, and moderator of The Good Death Society Blog, which discusses a wide range of end-of-life issues.]


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1 Response to Lamar W. Hankins :
JUSTICE | Saudi murder and American murder: An
ethical equivalence

  1. PDavis says:

    Finally! An author that asks the same questions I have been asking myself. There must be many of us out there who see the parallels. I understand it’s dangerous for the powers-that-be to open this box, but it will continue to eat away at our souls if we don’t address it.

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