On Mindful Violence
Speaking at the United Nations two weeks ago, President Obama lectured the world on the importance of respecting free speech and not resorting to violence in reaction to offensive words and ideas. In his usual moving rhetoric Obama intoned that “there is no speech that justifies mindless violence” and, “no words that excuse the killing of innocents.” Nice words, belied by the President’s record on free speech and the use of violence.
In fact, the US routinely blocks, thwarts and interrupts free speech when convenient, raiding and jailing those whose speech the government doesn’t appreciate, even going so far as to kill, as in the case of US citizen and Muslim cleric Anwar al Awlaki.
Awlaki’s case is illustrative. In September of 2011 President Obama sent drones to assassinate Awlaki after placing him on the terror list a year before, and failed attempts to kill him in previous months. The US claimed that Alwaki had provided operational support for terror campaigns against Americans, including the 2009 attempted Christmas day bombing by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. However, the US provided no direct evidence, except for a possible meeting between Abdulmutallab and Awlaki in Yemen in the weeks before the attack. Awlaki professed support for these and other attacks, but claimed he had no direct role in any planning or operations of attacks on the United States.
Media reports in the wake of the attack said that there was “no indication Mr. Awlaki played a direct role in any of the attacks,” adding that “he has never been indicted in the U.S,” in the words of the Wall Street Journal. The US government soon claimed otherwise.
In January of 2010 the US Treasury department placed Awlaki on its terrorism list. Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, Stuart Levey, said that Awlaki had “involved himself in every aspect of the supply chain of terrorism – fundraising for terrorist groups, recruiting and training operatives, and planning and ordering attacks on innocents.” All without any evidence.
Instead, Awlaki was well known as the paramount English language propagandist for so-called “jihadist” strikes against the United States. A charismatic and compelling speaker and writer, Awlaki was proficient in 21st century media communications, including the use of blogs, Facebook, Youtube and other internet platforms. Demonstrating its commitment to the principles of free speech, the US routinely removed Awlaki’s internet presence, shutting down his blog and compelling Google to remove his video postings on Youtube. ( It should be noted the lengths to which the US went to limit Awlaki’s hateful speech, in contrast to Obama’s claims in his UN speech that US belief in the principles of free speech prevented them from acting to limit the hateful speech of the “Innocence of Muslims” viral video.)
When these efforts failed to thwart Awlaki’s influence, the US moved to assassinate the man who was now designated “the bin Laden of the internet,” a significant move for a number of reasons.
For one, with no direct proof of terrorist activity, Awlaki was killed for his speech. Even though the Yemeni government was seeking to try him in domestic criminal procedures, the US resorted to an extrajudicial killing of the cleric. For another, Awlaki was an US citizen, marking the first time the US intentionally targeted one of its own in a drone attack (New York born Ahmed Hijazi was killed as “collateral damage” in a 2002 drone attack in Yemen).
As shocking as the assassination was, it was peanuts compared to the moral depravity of attack on Awlaki’s teenage son, also a US citizen, just a month later. For that attack the US had no justification, other than the teen’s relation to his propagandist father.
In contrast to the kinds of embassy attacks and protests in the wake of the “Innocence of Muslim” video controversy, characterized as “mindless violence” by Obama, the Awlaki attacks represent American “mindful violence” – forced justified by our offense at individual speech.
In these and other actions the US demonstrated its commitment to the principles of free speech. Currently, two anarchist activists in the Pacific Northwest are in a federal detention facility for refusing to testify to a grand jury in what has been characterized as a government “witch hunt” against young anarchists. Prior to that FBI agents raided homes in Portland, Olympia and Seattle, with a federal warrant that included anarchist literature, among other things – again demonstrating the government’s position on freedom of speech and thought.
The point is not the content of the speech, which, especially in Awlaki’s case, is morally reprehensible. The point is that the US, and Obama’s, position on free speech is demonstrated in their actions, over their rhetoric. As the Awlaki case and others mentioned here indicate, US rhetoric and use of force unquestionably point to a double standard for US actions and those of others.
With the Presidential debate staged tonight these and other crucial foreign policy issues will not be addressed. It’s a shame that the most humane of the two positions provided by the mainstream parties is represented by the mindful violence of President Obama.