Drones may soon claim the life of one more Americans. Reports have surfaced that the Obama administration is debating whether or not to kill Abdullah al-Shami, a prominent al-Qaeda leader born in the United States and raised in the Middle East. After the death of Anwar al-Awlaki, Samer Khan and sixteen year old Abdurrahman al-Awlaki, all of whom were Americans killed by drone strikes, news of yet another American citizen in the crosshairs of our hellfire missiles has barely registered in the media. It’s hard to tell why this news has not prompted a public outcry. Perhaps al-Qaeda inspires such animosity in the public imagination that anyone associated with the organization or even just the name, becomes deserving of death—or at least undeserving of constitutional rights. If the president orders the assassination of Abdullah al-Shami it will be the second time an American has been specifically targeted by the White House—a dangerous precedent, and one that will not be easy to roll back.
Even for people who believe that the War on Terror destroys evil people in strange lands, and for whom the assassination of one more al-Qaeda leader is cause for celebration, the danger that this indefinite, amorphous war will permanently erode the rights and liberties we cherish so dearly are surely apparent. Already we’ve witnessed the expanded authority granted to the state used to subdue and cow American dissidents who have the gall to question the realms of power. From the harsh treatment of Bradley Manning and the relentless pursuit of Edward Snowden, to the record number of prosecutions of whistleblowers during the years of the Obama presidency, the War on Terror has already eroded our democracy. The abuses of power and deterioration of rights is extensive.
The administration now can effectively exile Americans by placing them on a secret no-fly list without having to provide an explanation to the person in question. The expanded definition of material support to terrorism has led to Americans being dragged into jail and then tried in cases where the burden of proof for the prosecution was lowered so significantly that defendants basically do not receive a fair hearing. Finally, unprecedented revelations of the National Security Agency’s vast and ubiquitous spying programs have caused a stir in the media. But the reaction of many people has been resigned indifference or passivity. We no longer expect privacy in the age of the internet. Our lives have been catalogued and filed away in a fashion the East German Stasi would have envied. And yet, the NSA’s intrusions continue to be justified by the government and its supporters as being necessary in the fight against terror.
Our demons will come back to haunt us. If the White House pulls the trigger on Abdullah al-Shami, who probably is as bad as the government makes him out to be, the next time we may kill an American for far less than belonging to al-Qaeda. But more importantly, even if the extrajudicial killings of Americans stop with Abdullah al-Shami, the damage will have already been done. The War on Terror’s success in keeping America safe is debatable. In fact, some may argue the decade-long global campaign has achieved the exact opposite. But, perhaps more insidiously, the war has diminished freedoms and liberties it was undertaken to protect. Beyond the continued killings of more people like Abdullah al-Shami, the real danger lies in the normalization of the culture of unaccountability and lack of restraint that has pervaded the security establishment in the last decade. That the public will be desensitized to the violation of fundamental rights in the name of fighting terrorism is bad enough. The fact that those who speak out continue to be muffled without any chance of recourse is scarier still.
Ahsan Sayed is a recent graduate of the Macaulay Honors College at the The City College of New York.
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