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U.S. law enforcement connects Awlaki to several violent attacks on Americans, including the Ft. Hood shootings, the attempted bombing of a Northwest flight approaching Detroit, and the Times Square bomber. Awlaki’s terrorist record earned him a unique distinction: in April, for the first time in the nearly 250-year history of the United States, the government placed him on a “kill list,” making him the only U.S. citizen to be condemned to death by his own government without benefit of a legal process. Both the military and the intelligence services are targeting him; as one unnamed official puts it, “he’s in everybody’s sights.”
This extraordinary trading of fatwas prompts several observations. In response, his father initiated in August, with help from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights, a lawsuit against the U.S. government that challenges the targeting of Awlaki as illegal.
First, Norris and all Americans currently live under the “Rushdie Rules,” which punish whoever disrespects Islam, Muhammad, or the Koran. Make fun of Muhammad and you’re on your own. Local and national politicians had nothing to say about her plight. Journalists, usually keen to protect one of their own, went silent. No organization sprung up to raise money for her protection.
Second, the internet stands at the heart of this entire episode. It turned Norris’ jokey idea into an international incident, brought news of it to Awlaki in remote Yemen, and allowed him to direct his American operatives. A mere twenty years ago, none of this could have taken place.
Third, the internet and Islamism have together privatized war. At will, an American living in Yemen can disrupt the life of an American in Washington State. The U.S. government has declared war on a citizen.
Fourth, Awlaki is a plain terrorist, sowing death and disruption, whereas the U.S. government’s “kill list” is defensive. One is evil, the other is moral.
Fifth, why the inconsistency, whereby the U.S. government permits itself “targeted killings” but denies this tool to Israel?
Finally, Awlaki stands at an unprecedented crossroads of death declarations, with his targeting Norris even as the U.S. government targets him. This is as startling in an Islamic context as it is in an American one. The boundaries of warfare are being stretched in novel, strange, and frightening ways.
Mr. Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. © 2010 by Daniel Pipes. All rights reserved.
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