Anwar al-Awlaki was not the first American citizen to wage war against the United States. Former Vice-President Aaron Burr certainly thought about it, and former Senator Jefferson Davis actually did it. But al-Awlaki was the first to be taken out by a drone. Probably the most famous homegrown terrorist to declare war on the United States was John Brown, whose band of 21 men captured the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in October 1859. Brown planned to arm nearby slaves and lead a guerilla army in a war against slavery. Ten of his followers were killed in action; seven, including Brown, were captured, tried and subsequently hanged. The idea that Brown (or Burr or Davis) would not be accorded his legal right to a fair trial was unthinkable, even as the nation careered toward civil war.
Does that make al-Awlaki’s killing unjustified? No. He was engaged in activities that put Americans in real and imminent danger. The nation must have the right to protect its citizens from such a threat however it can – and those of us who fly on airplanes would be hypocrites to say otherwise. But the same cannot be said for Samir Khan, 'Abd al-Rahman Anwar al-Awlaki, and Jude Mohammed, who were “not specifically targeted by the United States” but became collateral damage in the war on terror. Given their names and locations, there has been little public outcry, but Obama’s thoughtful speech yesterday made clear that our government is once again taking seriously the rule of law.