The Boomerang Comes Home: Obama’s ‘death panel’ and the war on terror

Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr

It should never be forgotten that while colonization, with its techniques and its political and juridical weapons, obviously transported European models to other continents, it also had a considerable boomerang effect on the mechanisms of power in the West, and on the apparatuses, institutions, and techniques of power. A whole series of colonial models was brought back to the West, and the result was that the West could practice something resembling colonization, or an internal colonialism, on itself. – Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended

The United States, on orders from the Obama Administration, killed Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan and in Yemen on Friday, September 30, 2011. Mark Hosenball for Reuters revealed on 6 October that the decision to kill U.S. citizens like al-Awlaki and Khan was made by “a secretive panel of senior government officials” reporting to U.S. President Barack Obama. The criticism leveled at Obama by the U.S. Right-wing about his health care program creating “death panels” for citizens remains completely unfounded, but it turns out that he did create a death panel for another effort, the Global War on Terror. This represents an example of Foucault’s Boomerang Effect, the U.S. Empire importing its own colonial policies. A look at how executions are carried out will help to illustrate the point.

Both al-Awlaki and Khan were conservative, militant, Islamist activists and both were part of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), though not very high up on the ladder. According to Gregory Johnsen in the New York Times, al-Awlaki was “a midlevel religious functionary” who was “not even particularly good at what he [did].” Khan too, was a minor figure, known mostly for his editing of the English-language magazine Inspire. Thomas Hegghammer of the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment characterized Inspire as “a sloppy magazine”. It’s heavy reliance on “recycled material” contrasted with Sada al-Malahim, AQAP’s Arabic-language magazine, “suggestive of much closer links between editors and operatives.” For several reasons Hegghammer said he “would be surprised if the AQAP connection [to Inspire] is very strong.”

This more sober framework, one where al-Awlaki and Khan played no significant role in AQAP, stands in stark contrast withPresident Obama’s claim that the “death of Awlaki is a major blow to al-Qaida’s most active operational affiliate.” Rather than a “significant milestone in the broader effort to defeat al-Qaida and its affiliates,” the extra-judicial execution of two midlevel AQAP figures seems like a run-of-the-mill operation for the U.S., which has carried out hundreds of such operations against figures from al-Qaida, the Taliban, and various other groups.

To admonish the previous paragraph, it’s problematic to use “extra-judicial” as a qualifier when talking about executions carried out by the United States. According to the New America Foundation, the U.S. has now executed at least 1,368 (perhaps as many as 2,130) accused militants in Pakistan alone. All drone strikes in Somalia and Yemen and numerous strikes in Afghanistan and Iraq should be added but the lack of collected data makes a reasonable estimate impossible. Even using the limited number, the U.S. has still executed at least 982 (perhaps as many as 1,744) more people extra-judicially than it has judicially. The 386 judicial executions carried out during the same time period (2004-present) are well under one quarter of the total number of executions. When extra-judicial executions are overwhelmingly the norm, they should be called simply ‘executions’ while that minority conducted through the court system should carry the qualifier of ‘judicial’ to clarify them from normal, extra-judicial executions. To do otherwise pretends that the ‘nation of laws’ paradigm of guaranteed rights and due process is the everyday norm, when it clearly is not (Though the judicial executions of Troy Davis and Cameron Willingham, the former quite possibly and the latter almost certainly innocent, during this period suggest undue value is attributed to the ‘nation of laws’ and ‘due process’ anyway.).

The modest amount of critical coverage of the executions to date has focused only on the issue of Awlaki and Khan being U.S. citizens (here a stellar column by Glenn Greenwald on stands out) and the problematic question of a country executing its own citizen without any semblance of due process; the horror that what We do to Them, We might also do to Us. There is a kind of newness to this as the U.S. execution of its citizens – no matter their location at the time of execution – without due process is exceedingly rare in recent decades. But this distinction doesn’t really hold up upon scrutiny.

The question is one of citizenship and executions. The overwhelming majority of both normal executions and judicial executions since the U.S. began its active drone strike campaign in 2004 fits into a framework whereby citizens are executed judicially, and foreign nationals are executed normally. But nine of the 386 judicial executions since 2004 have been foreign nationals and as of July 28, 2010, 131 foreign nationals from 34 countries were on death row in the United States, all of whose crimes were committed in the U.S. At least five more foreign nationals are potentially facing judicial executions in prosecutions to be conducted by the Department of Defense, none of the alleged crimes being committed in the U.S. (though some of the defendants are accused of conspiracy actions taking place outside the U.S. related to the September 11, 2001 attacks inside the U.S. making the geographic question slightly less important).

When combined with the “secretive [death] panel” making the decision to add al-Awlaki and Khan to the “capture or kill” lists, the conclusion is that actual existing policy says foreign nationals can be executed through due process of law and U.S. citizens cannot be executed without it. To clarify, with the executions of Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, the U.S. through its actions has declared as acceptable the following:

  1. The execution of U.S. citizens through due process of law when the alleged crimes are committed in the United States.

  2. The execution of U.S. citizens without due process no matter where the alleged crimes are committed.

  3. The execution of foreign nationals through due process of law no matter where the alleged crimes are committed.

  4. The execution of foreign nationals without due process no matter where the alleged crimes are committed.

The only possibility yet to be explored in this new policy period of state-sanctioned executions is the execution of U.S. citizens without due process for alleged crimes committed inside the U.S. (I would assert that but for a very scarce minority of examples, police shootings are not executions in the sense used here. Some opponents – and supporters – of judicial executions argue that Davis and Willingham did not receive due process, which would mean that what I offer as an exception isn’t really an exception. I do not share this view and find problems in the system itself, not just the way it is carried out.).

This brings us back to the importance – if it is not a true break with policy – of the Obama Administration ordering the killing of two U.S. citizens: colonialism and racism. The importance is that al-Awlaki and Khan come from two of the most despised, feared and ‘othered’ groups in the country, Arabs and Muslims. Arab and Muslim citizens had their rights systematically suspended after 9/11/01. The city, state, and federal governments took advantage of existing and created new legislation and the executive branches made decisions allowing mass wiretapping and other surveillance, indefinite detention and official racial profiling targeting Arabs and Muslims. It is no surprise that the first two U.S. citizens in this period executed without due process for crimes allegedly carried out (primarily) outside the country were both Muslims. It is Muslims whose rights are most easily discarded in the U.S. (though undocumented immigrants, ex-cons and the LGBTQ community aren’t far behind) and Muslims who are the first to feel the Boomerang Effect from the United States’ imperial adventures in far off lands.

For the last ten years the U.S. has carried out executions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen in an attempt to defend the shards of an empire in decline since the U.S. military defeat in Vietnam. These executions paved the way for a Boomerang Effect to bring them back home and possibly – though not certainly – to be deployed more generally inside the country. Al-Awlaki’s and Khan’s executions have set a path is set for Imperial America to further become Colonized America – distinct even from Settler-colonial America.

Jimmy Johnson lives in Detroit, Michigan and thinks you’re terrific. He runs and can be reach at jimmy [at] negedneshek [dot] org.

Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

“The result was that the West could practice something resembling colonization, or an internal colonialism, on itself.” Not exactly. The government can do “to” the people, treating them (us) as a colonized people, true. Hard to say we do it to ourselves. Don’t forget that the government “is” primarily an expression of the desires of large international corporations, and these have been mistreating people for 100 years. Banana-republics used to be in Central America, now… Read more »

Khan’s real crime was that he was a braggart, which was sufficient for him to be snuffed on the orders of his President.

Yes, we now have a speech panel with the power of life and death. You better hope you don’t find me on that panel down the line. I won’t hesitate now that grand jury’s, indictments and trials are so not cool. Just wack what disturbs you. There are a bunch of people you don’t know(and don’t want to know), that have no problem with that proposition. You, at least had a chance not to go… Read more »

Absolutely, thetumta… absolutely. I weep for my grandchildren. They will have to try (very hard) to clean up the mess my generation and my daughter’s generation have made.