On Friday, an al-Qaida leader, Anwar al-Awlaki, was killed by a U.S. drone missile in Yemen, which has raised a fair amount of controversy on these shores.

On Friday, an al-Qaida leader, Anwar al-Awlaki, was killed by a U.S. drone missile in Yemen, which has raised a fair amount of controversy on these shores.


One of the big differences between his death and Osama bin Laden's is that al-Awlaki, 40, was an American citizen who had renounced his native land and moved to a particularly rabid area of the Middle East where contempt for this nation is concerned, from which he actively participated in al-Qaida's war against the U.S. and others. Also killed was another American of Pakistani origin, Samir Khan, who had declared himself "proud to be a traitor to America," though it's unclear whether he was specifically targeted or just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.


U.S. officials say al-Awlaki was the terror organization's most significant English language propagandist, which was one thing, but that he turned the corner when he began to take an operational role with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, considered the most dangerous of the group's many appendages. Frequently described in news reports as a "radical cleric," he worked to find a theological justification for jihad and then broadcast it over the Internet to inspire others, notably among them U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who is the sole suspect in the 2009 massacre at Fort Hood in Texas. U.S. officials also say he assisted in the recruitment and training of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian and so-called "underwear bomber" who allegedly attempted to detonate explosives a couple of years ago while on board a jet headed for Detroit. "America as a whole has turned into a nation of evil," he wrote last spring. "I eventually came to the conclusion that jihad against America is binding upon myself, just as it is binding on every other able Muslim." Though he publicly condemned the 9/11/01 attack at first, U.S. officials said al-Awlaki had been active in efforts to funnel money to terrorist organizations before that, and had connections to two of the hijackers.


For all the above reasons, last year he became the first U.S. citizen to earn a spot on the CIA's list of terrorists targeted for capture or elimination. He may not have been the undisputed embodiment of evil bin Laden was, but few are the reports of al-Awlaki being wrongly accused.


On the flip side, critics say that, however you rationalize al-Awlaki's demise, it still amounts to an assassination in violation of U.S. and international law, that al-Awlaki was entitled to due process as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and should have been arrested and tried like any other citizen accused of such crimes. Especially critical was the American Civil Liberties Union, where an official characterized this as "a program under which American citizens far from any battlefield can be executed by their own government without judicial process, and on the basis of standards and evidence that are kept secret not just from the public but from the courts."


That prompts a couple of reactions.


First, there's nothing conventional about the war on terrorism. What's a "battlefield" anymore? It's not like Gettysburg where the gray coats and the blue coats line up on opposite sides of a field and begin shooting at each other. There are no uniforms. These "soldiers" don't even belong to nations, really, but to an ideology and a violent one, at that. They sleep at night not in military barracks but often in neighborhoods, surrounded by civilians they put at risk.


Second, while it may have been ideal to capture, arrest and prosecute al-Awlaki, as we did 9/11 architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, that's a whole lot easier said than done. While his father challenged the CIA's and National Security Council's placement of his son on their hit list in court, would it have come to this had someone prevailed upon him to take a different path, or even turn himself in? It's not as if he - or bin Laden before him, or Ayman al-Zawahri still - was unaware he was in America's cross-hairs.


This page has long been a staunch supporter of civil liberties, expressed misgivings about Gitmo, denounced the enhanced interrogation program, etc., but when you declare war on your own country and then act on that declaration, as al-Awlaki clearly did, it would seem all bets are off. What makes al-Awlaki different than any other terrorist or enemy soldier whose mission is to kill American citizens? Apparently the Obama administration asked itself that question and concluded he wasn't. The White House's position is that al-Awlaki received "due process in war." Would he have hesitated to kill Americans or motivate others to do so because they were fellow citizens and neighbors in a nation where he'd spent more than half his life? Would he have lost any sleep over it afterwards?


The moral discomfort some have with this situation and its clandestine nature is appreciated. We wouldn't be Americans if we didn't second-guess or want to do and be better than those who intend us harm. The killing of bin Laden had its critics in some quarters, too. Casualties of war, however justified, are not to be celebrated. But war is what it is, we did not start this one, and those who wage it against us should not be surprised when the U.S. invokes its right to reciprocate.


Journal Star