Arabs call it Rub’ al Khali.
The Empty Quarter.
Most Westerners have never heard of this place.
Few outsiders, very few, ever venture there.
The Rub’ al Khali is a vast, vast forbidding sea of sand and searing brown rock, a desolate lonely place that takes up more than a third of the Arabian Peninsula, including a large part of Saudi Arabia itself, along with parts of Oman, the UAE, and Yemen. It is the largest sand desert in the world. During the day temperatures can reach 125°F or more and the ground is so hot that it will literally burn skin and raise blisters. It is as if the sun is somehow closer to surface of the earth here than elsewhere in the world. And then, at night, under a vast milky river of crystalline stars the likes of which are rarely seen anywhere else on earth, you can die shivering of hypothermia. The air is thin and as dry as the surface of the moon, you can feel it sucking the moisture right out of your body leaving your nose bleeding and your skin cracked and bleached like old leather.
It smells of flint and powered cement.
On the southern edge of the Empty Quarter lies the Yemeni administrative province of al-Jawf. It’s cooler here and sometimes it even rains, there are small towns in the central highland desert, dusty places where people still herd camels and tough little goats. In the wet years there is enough rain to plant crops of wheat and barley and to scratch out a living from the poor soil. During those years, runoff from the crops forms into streams that will evaporate before they reach the sea, leaving behind a crust of salt and a poisonous rime of chemical fertilizer. The people there have this look, as if they are one and all ancient, raised whole from the hardscrabble by malicious djinni and weathered by wind driven sand, desiccated, carved from beef jerky and left to dry in the sun.
This forsaken place has always been a fairly lawless land, a natural base for pirates, criminals and cutthroats, bandits and pissant warlords.
It is fitting then, that in recent times al-Jawf, on the edge of the great Rub’ al Khali, has become a hiding place for terrorists.
Last Friday morning, in the desert five miles outside of a small al-Jawfi town called Khashef, a party of men stopped alongside the dusty road. Muslims, they knelt in the desert and made their mid-morning prayers. Then, while it was still reasonably cool, they ate breakfast. Figs perhaps, strong coffee, hard cheese and bread maybe.
This would turn out to be a mistake.
They should have kept going.
Al-Jawf is a dangerous place, even in the best of times, and lately it’s become even more deadly. New predators patrol the skies alongside the sharp eyed desert hawks.
Perhaps they heard their death approaching. The American drones are ghostly silent – sometimes though, if the wind is just right, you can hear their thin keening buzz from a distance. Or maybe they saw those slim black silhouettes outlined like the grim reaper’s shadow against the blinding blue sky. Of course they would have been alert for just such an attack. They were, after all, some of the most wanted men in the world, dangerous and cunning and experienced. They had all been hunted from the sky before. They would have watched for those deadly raptors the way a desert mouse watches for a hawk. And so, somehow, they sensed death approaching.
Like the mouse, they ran.
Four of them made it to an SUV and attempted to reach the relative safety of Khashef.
Another mistake, and the last one they would make.
The AGM-114 tactical missile is small, comparatively cheap, accurate, and deadly. They’re designated Hellfire – named for the weapon’s original mission: HELicopter launched FIRE-and-forget. They were designed to kill tanks – later it turned out they worked pretty well against a wide variety of targets, including SUV’s.
Hellfire, if ever there was an appropriate nickname for a weapon, that would be it.
Two of the missiles dropped off of the drones’ munitions hardpoints and streaked towards the fleeing SUV – and the end was inevitable at that point. Once the missiles are locked on, it’s all over but for the bang.
Four men died in the explosion.
And in that moment, in that hellfire, the world became a measurably better place.
Those men were terrorists, committed, enthusiastic, and unrepentant. They were terrorists in the purest sense of the word – in that they deliberately created, encouraged, promulgated, and enabled terror. Terror was not a byproduct of their campaign, it was the very reason for its existence. It doesn’t matter why. It doesn’t matter if they felt justified or moral or compelled by God. They were terrorists and they reveled in it. The only argument is in the details and the degree.
These men were not only the self-proclaimed and sworn enemies of America, they were the nemesis of civilization everywhere, including and especially in Yemen.
Quite simply, these men declared war on the entire world and thus made themselves the enemies of every single man, woman, and child on the planet.
Two of them, as it happens, were also Americans.
And therein lies the rub.
President Obama’s former Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, was once pilloried for saying, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste” (often misquoted as “never let a good crisis go to waste”). Crass? Maybe. Maybe it was just crass to say it so bluntly (Oddly, Emanuel’s enemies are the ones who pride themselves on speaking plainly and who eschew political correctness, perhaps they simply couldn’t abide seeing their own thoughts reflected back at themselves. But I digress). Crass or not, Emanuel was simply stating a basic tenet of all politics, Left, Right, and other.
Never let a crisis go to waste.
Here’s the corollary: If there is no crisis, create one.
And here’s the rest of it: Never, ever, let a victory by your political opposition go unchallenged.
In some cases, it is hard to tell if the pundits and the politicians calling for the impeachment of Barack Obama today truly believe what they are saying. In other cases, the intent, and the astounding hypocrisy, is perfectly clear.
I spent three days reading comments from people across the political spectrum, the general response to the targeted killing of Anwar al-Awlaki seems to fall into four basic categories: A) USA! USA! B) Ok, but I don’t like how we did it, C) Boo, we shouldn’t be engaged in targeted killing, period, and D) Al Whosis now?
I think category (A) is self-explanatory.
Let’s take the rest in reverse order:
D) If you’re an American of draft age or older, don’t suffer from some form of debilitating brain damage, and can eat pudding without help and you don’t know who Anwar al-Awlaki is, you’re a big part of what’s wrong with America today. Don’t comment, don’t offer an opinion, don’t stand on the corner waving a misspelled sign demanding the resignation of the president, and for God’s sake please don’t vote. Get yourself another fudgesickle out of the freezer, go back to watching SpongeBob and be quiet.
C) Targeted killing. I have never understood the moral objection to this. Oh don’t get me wrong, sure it’s immoral. So what? Killing is killing, you can gussy it up all you like, it’s still killing and it’s all immoral. That’s the way it is, you’re just arguing over semantics. If you’re on the receiving end, it doesn’t make one good goddamned bit of difference if death finds you from some random bit of shrapnel or if the bullet has your name written on it. Dead’s dead. Trust me on this, I’ve been there. After a decade of war, so have a hell of a lot of us. Killing people on the battlefield, zapping them in the electric chair, putting poison into their veins, or dropping hellfire on them from the sky – it’s all killing. Morality has got not one damned thing to do with it. Frankly I fail to understand how it was more moral or honorable or even economical to let thousands of people die during the revolution in Libya, for example, than to just drop a Tomahawk on Khaddafi on day one. Bang! There, the asshole’s dead. Toss his body over the balcony railing and let the mob use it for a piñata, we brought sticks, no pushing there’s enough for everybody. War’s over. Long live the Arab Spring and don’t forget who your friends are.
How many lives would that have saved? How much good will would that have bought us with the Libyans and the revolutionaries? What kind of message would that have sent to other America-hating, terrorist-sponsoring dictators?
Yes, I know, where does that end? Tehran? Pyongyang? Austin? There need to be boundaries, there needs to be oversight, there needs to be checks and balances and accountability. There needs to be very clear rules of engagement. But then this is true of any executive power – including wiretaps and detentions and renditions and no-fly lists. We’ll come back to that.
Yeah, but what about targeted killing of Americans?
We’ll come back to that too.
B) The President ordered the killing of an American, that’s unconstitutional, he should be impeached.
The basic argument being The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, to wit:
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law;
The Americans making this statement fall into two basic categories, those who have only recently discovered that the Constitution has parts other than the Second Amendment, and those that have been sounding the alarm for the past ten years.
If you’re a member of the first group, i.e. if you’ve spent the last decade calling the second group enemies of America and weak on terrorism and limp-wristed sissies, if you’ve spent the last ten years telling us why waterboarding and rendition and naked body scanners and warrantless wiretapping and warrantless property searches and no-fly lists and the secret provisions of the Patriot Act were such spiffy ideas, well, all I can say to you is, welcome to the party.
This is exactly what we’ve been warning you about. If you give a rightwing conservative Christian America-lovin’ Texas patriot the power, you’ve automatically given his successor, the tofu-eating sissy socialist Muslim Kenyan-born Commie America hating Liberal, the power too. You’ve got no one to blame but yourself, you stupid silly bastards. What the hell do you think we’ve been telling you? Now? Now, you’re all upset? Now you want a fair trial? (question, say we caught al Awlaki instead of blowing him up, could we have his terrorism trial in your state? Since he’s an American? Hello, is this thing on? Hello?). Now you’re all worried about the Constitution? Now? Because the President blew up a couple of avowed terrorist shitheads who were trying to kill the rest of us? Seriously?
That’s rich, it really is.
Get yourself a fudgesickle, go sit on the couch and just shut the fuck up.
Honestly, after a decade of watching Americans give up their rights one after the other, the fact that President Obama dropped the hammer on Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan bothers me about as much as stepping on a couple of cockroaches.
Frankly, I think both of them gave up any claim to Fifth Amendment protection long, long ago – they were no more Americans than Osama bin Laden. They renounced their membership in our society and pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda. They swore to bring down the United States and her allies and to kill as many of us as they could. Should they have been captured and brought to trial? Sure, in a perfect world. But in the real world it just wasn’t possible, not without risking even more American lives. And I’m going to remind you right here that the people complaining most bitterly about this are the same folks who complained bitterly about risking the lives of US Navy SEALs to capture bin Laden or rescue Rangers. How many more of their lives would al Awlaki have been worth to you?
The CIA had a shot and they took it. They liquidated a major terrorist without risking a single soldier’s life. Good on them.
There’s always that but, isn’t there?
Something I’d point out to you, this isn’t the first time.
We’ve killed Americans on foreign soil before. You grandfather did it. In Europe.
Those Americans, the ones we killed, didn’t look like filthy Muslim terrorists either.
In fact they looked just like blond-haired blue-eyed all-American boys, because they were.
They were the American Free Corps, known as the George Washington Brigade – a unit of the Wafen SS.
What’s that? Yes, I see your surprised face. You didn’t know Americans fought for the Nazis, did you?
Some of them came from America of their own free will in answer Hilter’s call for all true Aryans to return to Germany, many others were turncoat American soldiers recruited from POW camps. And some were out and out traitors, like 2nd Lieutenant Martin Monti, an American pilot who defected from the US Army Air Corps by stealing a P-51 Mustang and flying it to Axis territory. He then joined the Wehrmacht and was commissioned a Lieutenant in the German Officer Corps. He was assigned to make anti-American propaganda broadcasts under the pseudonym Martin Wiethaupt – not at all dissimilar to al-Awlaki or Samir Kahn (except for the fact that Awlaki was much more effective, by most accounts Monti was a shitty propagandist).
A number of Americans fighting against America for the Axis were killed by Americans, and nobody shed a tear. Monti? He survived the war, surrendered to the allies, was tried as a deserter and sentenced to serve a hitch in the US Army (I swear I’m not making this up). In 1948 the FBI caught up to him, and he was tried for treason and sentenced to prison, where he remained until 1960.
The simple truth of the matter is that these people, Anwar al-Awlaki, Samir Khan, John Walker Lindh, Martin Monti, the George Washington Brigade, and, hell, the citizens of the Confederate States of America gave up their rights, including any claim on the Fifth Amendment, when they declared war on America.
Whether or not we give them back those rights is our decision, or rather that of our elected leaders – and if you don’t like that, maybe you should think carefully about who you elect. And maybe, just maybe you should think very, very carefully about the kind of power you want to give them. Just saying.
These men were terrorists, but they were also Americans. That makes them our responsibility. They were hiding in Yemen, and Yemen asked for our help in apprehending these criminals.
Robert Anson Heinlein, American writer, veteran, libertarian, patriot, once wrote: “A man shoots his own dog, he doesn’t farm it out. That doesn’t make it better, it makes it worse.” He was absolutely right. These were our dogs, and our responsibility.
Bottom line, they could have surrendered. They could have surrendered at anytime, right up until 9:55AM last Friday morning. Even then, they could have faced the Predators, threw down arms and raised their hands and claimed their rights as citizens of the United States of America.
They chose to die.
They chose to die as martyrs to a cause hostile to their own country. They welcomed it.
They chose to die as terrorists, not as Americans.
They made their choice, let them suffer the consequences.