Can the Government Kill its Own Citizens Without Due Process?

In recent months, we have seen several monumental events transpire in the Global War on Terror, as well as the Arab Spring uprising. United States forces have succeeded in killing Osama Bin Laden, and Muammar Gaddhafi has been killed by Libyan citizens. However, there is one event in this case that seems to be in an entirely different realm of consideration. The event in question is the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki. Anwar al-Awlaki was a Muslim cleric who was said to have been instrumental in attacks against the United States. On the surface, this killing may seem to be a necessary step for the United States to advance its aims in fighting terrorism across the globe.

There is one problem with this conclusion: Anwar al-Awlaki was a United States citizen by virtue of being born on American soil. This begs the question of whether it was legal or in keeping with the American spirit of citizenship to kill a citizen abroad without due process. This is not a question of whether or not al-Awlaki was innocent or guilty. This is simply a question of whether citizenship seems to matter in matters of governmental action in a global military conflict. According to Shklar, al-Awlaki was not a citizen. Since he was wanted by the government, he would not have been able to vote in this country. However, according to United States law, he was a citizen of the United States of America.

If the United States government wanted to issue an order for a citizen to be killed on American soil without due process, the person in question would have to be in the process of (or proven to be soon) committing a heinous crime and deemed unable to be apprehended without the use of force. Otherwise, the criminal would be subject to due process and could only be subject to the death penalty after being convicted in a court of law. As far as we can tell, al-Awlaki was deprived of any semblance of due process.

The question I wish to pose is this: Does displaying a desire to see the United States come under grievous harm and taking residence in a country with a group dedicated to committing acts of terror against the United States mean that one has automatically lost American citizenship? I would personally answer this question in the affirmative. However, it appears that the United States made no effort to formally strip al-Awlaki of his citizenship. I discussed this issue briefly with Jennet, and she felt that the United States could have taken some action such as trial in absentia  to achieve this aim. I agree with this notion wholeheartedly, and I question the motives of the government in proceeding with this killing without taking some action to ensure that the person they were killing was not an American citizen deprived of due process. Have we come into an era in which executive power has increased to an uncontrollable extent? I believe we need to place a bit more power in the legislature for matters of this sort of urgency, particularly in cases where the law is not clear.

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8 Responses to Can the Government Kill its Own Citizens Without Due Process?

  1. Justin says:

    I disagree that killing al-Awlaki was illegal, and the court did rule that the US had the right to the targeted-killing of this US citizen (see: I think that as a member of al Qaeda and an orchestrator of terrorist attacks he effectively waived his right to American citizenship. Certainly his actions directly lead to his prohibition from voting, which per Shklar would prohibit him from citizenship. But I think that while he did initially have standing, having been born in the US, he also waived his citizenship as standing by joining al Qaeda and being involved in attacks against the US. In regards to earning, al-Awlaki did earn and enjoy monetary independence, but I wonder what Shklar would have to say about earning abroad, as well as earning through illegal acts. Finally, I do not believe that al-Awlaki’s actions would merit him a citizen in the way that Douglass’ civic actions merited him a citizen.

    For many, being a citizen is important because it guarantees certain rights, including a right to life. In this country, however, in order for citizenship to mean anything, citizens have to buy into the system, and consequently obey the law and respect the judiciary. Al-Awlaki did neither. If al-Awlaki would expect to be granted his rights as a citizen, he must also obey the law. The government agreed, arguing that as a US citizen, al-Awlaki could ensure his safety by turning himself in to the US or filing suit in the US courts against the government against their targeted-killing program. But since al-Awlaki clearly does not accept the United States and their system of government, which led to orchestrated violence and mass murder of Americans, I do not think he should be guaranteed the rights of a citizen awarded to him only because he was born in this country.

    • davehopkins2 says:

      I disagree that the court ruled that the U.S. had the right to place al-Awlaki on a targeted-killing list. As written in the article you cited, “The case, brought by the father of cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, raised difficult questions about the breadth of U.S. executive power, but U.S. District Judge John Bates said he couldn’t answer them as the father lacked legal standing to bring the case.” ( The court does not approve the killing in this case. In fact, the article states that the judge’s conclusion was “that there are circumstances in which the [president’s] unilateral decision to kill a U.S. citizen overseas” is “judicially unreviewable.” This means that the court may not be able to issue an opinion on certain occasions in which the president chooses to kill a United States citizen abroad. However, since the court dismissed the case due to a lack of standing, it is evident that the Court did not approve this killing. In fact, the fact that Bates wrote in his decision, “serious issues regarding the merits of the alleged authorization of the targeted killing of a U.S. citizen overseas must await another day or another (non-judicial) forum,” indicates that they did not rule on the legality of placing al-Awlaki on the targeted-killing list. In short, it does not appear as though the court approved this killing.

      I would personally agree that one forfeits one’s citizenship when one chooses to align oneself with enemies of the United States. However, American law (as far as I know) does not have provisions for this sort of automatic stripping of citizenship rights. (Please correct me if you find information to the contrary). Therefore, according to US law, he was still a citizen of the United States and was entitled to the same rights as other American citizens. This may not be right. But, it is the law as of right now.

      • Justin says:

        I did find a few instances in which US citizens can be stripped of their citizenship (under the Immigration and Nationality Act), including: obtaining naturalization in a foreign state; taking an oath, affirmation or other formal declaration to a foreign state or its political subdivisions; entering or serving in the armed forces of a foreign state engaged in hostilities against the U.S. or serving as a commissioned or non-commissioned officer in the armed forces of a foreign state; formally renouncing U.S. citizenship before a U.S. diplomatic or consular officer outside the United States; formally renouncing U.S. citizenship within the U.S. Certainly, he would have lost his citizenship under these provisions. I do not know if this is automatic or not, and if it is not, why the government did not simply choose to start the process. I wonder, though, if it even matters. Al-Awlaki effectively renounced his citizenship and forfeited his rights, and lacked respect for the US government and court system (he wouldn’t have obeyed any court order against him). Does the formal process for someone like this even matter?

  2. davehopkins2 says:

    That’s interesting. I did not know about those provisions under the Immigration and Nationality Act. I don’t feel as though the process would have been important to protect him. I feel the process would have been important to ensure that we were providing the right to due process as the constitution states. If we had followed this procedure and proceeded to go about placing him on a targeted-killing list, I would have no legal argument against this decision by the government.

  3. Andrew Mack says:

    I definitely agree that Anwar al-Awlaki essentially gave up his citizenship when he committed acts of terror against the United States. However, I think that it is against the principles and foundations of our government that he was not awarded some form of a trial for his crimes. Because he was, at one point, a citizen of this country, his constitutional rights guarantee him the right to a trial. I am not, in any way, trying to say that he was innocent or even that he should not have been killed, but, as Jennet said, the government could have given him some form of a trial to justify the killing. Here’s an interesting current events article that relates to Awlaki:

  4. udontempura says:

    This is the true American paradox. In a nation that very openly strives to provide an example of democracy to the rest of the world (even tries to directly instill it in certain countries), it is of course vital that America “walks the walk” when its talk is so largely focused on human rights and rights of representation for an individual in government. At the same time, any threat to this concept would seemingly be best delft with by eliminating all threats… the ends justify the means, the few who stand in the way of democracy must be eliminated at all costs.

    The attack on Anwar al-Awlaki was an act that collided with the fundamentals of American philosophy. At the same time, American lives were theoretically in danger as long as he was alive. A difficult situation, but I think national security comes before (in this case) the symbolic formality of denouncing citizenship and holding trial.

  5. allisonrd says:

    While killing in this fashion al-Awlaki might not have been technically illegal, I have to ask if this was irrefutably necessary. The U.S. seems to have a “gun them – be done with them” mentality and this does nothing for our international reputation. American citizenship, I think, would have been made more valuable had the U.S. made greater efforts to take al-Awlaki into custody, try him as a U.S. citizen, and punish him in accordance with his crimes. Of course, it’s impossible to know the exact circumstances of al-Awlaki’s death or the extent of the threat he posed to American life, but all the same the U.S. must think carefully when handling borderline citizenship matters such as this.

  6. newbieblogster13 says:

    I agree with you 100% about the necessity of due process because he was a citizen, but as you said Jennet remarked, he could have had a trial in absentia. It is possible that he was already tried and so no further trial was necessary for the kill. Also, there are articles stating that a Yemeni judge requested his capture “dead or alive.” Along with the president’s execution warrant, his death was warranted more than enough. However, I do agree with you that it’s sad that the government is resulting to direct killing if there truly was no trial.

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