US (photo: mermaid99)

After the US military reported they had killed US citizen and Muslim cleric Awlaki in Yemen, I was struck by the varying perspectives contained in the initial New York Times coverage.   As required, the Times included the Pentagon’s claims with the few details they’re willing to release now.  It included the obligatory quote from the anti-Muslim politician Rep. Peter King, played against a quote from an Islamic expert.

More important, I think, were reactions from those with different views on how the actions of the United States in killing an American Islamic cleric in Yemen would play out in the never ending Terror War.

The Times notes that military authorities are celebrating the killing, since, they believe, the cleric had reportedly become an al Qaeda operative in Yemen, and his statements were cited as an inspiration — that’s constitutionally protected speech, by the way — to others who later carried out killings or attempted bombings in the US and elsewhere:

Mr. Awlaki’s name has been associated with many plots in the United States and elsewhere after individuals planning violence were drawn to his engaging lectures broadcast over the Internet.

Those individuals included Major Hasan, the Army psychiatrist charged in the shootings at Fort Hood in which 13 people were killed; the young men who planned to attack Fort Dix, N.J.; and a 21-year-old British student who told the police she stabbed a member of Parliament after watching 100 hours of Awlaki videos.

But I think this reaction is even more telling:

A senior American military official in Washington said Mr. Awlaki’s death will send an important message to the surviving leaders and foot soldiers in Al Qaeda, both in Yemen and elsewhere. “It’s critically important,” the senior official said. “It sets a sense of doom for the rest of them. Getting Awlaki, given his tight operational security, increases the sense of fear. It’s hard for them to attack when they’re trying to protect their own back side.”

Maybe, but this strikes me as the same argument we use to describe how terrorism works.  The strategy of the terrorist, we’ve been repeatedly told, is to terrorize, to strike fear in the enemy’s hearts, to immobilize the enemy through fear.  So who is the enemy and who is the terrorist in this conversation?

How will those in the Islamic world view the US actions?  We don’t have reactions from governments yet, but I assume reactions will vary from relief to bewilderment to concern to horror to rage.  And I expect some to agree with this:

But some Islamist figures said Mr. Awlaki’s status could be elevated to that of a martyr. Anjem Choudhury, an outspoken Islamic scholar in London, said: “The death of Sheikh Anwar al-Awlaki will merely motivate the Muslim youth to struggle harder against the enemies of Islam and Muslims.” He added: “I would say his death has made him more popular.”

Which Bush era military commander asked whether we are creating more “terrorists” than we’re killing? Bush?

As Glenn Greenwald notes, we’ve been conditioned to accept the fact that the President of the United States can order US forces to carry out an “extra-judicial killing,” which we used to call “assassination,” with zero due process.   And it doesn’t matter whether the assassination target is or isn’t a US citizen.

This target was supposedly an al Qaeda “operative.”  But the US military has killed hundreds or thousands of people in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan and elsewhere who were not Al Qaeda operatives.  The primary targets may have been fighting US forces in their countries, but which nation’s citizens would not do the same?  Although the President might not attempt such a crime on US soil, for fear it would violate the Constitution and the many US laws against murder, the signal to the rest of the world is that such legal niceties do not apply if the intended target is on some other country’s soil.

The inescapable conclusion is that the rest of the world is becoming America’s “free fire zone,” and the President, this government, and perhaps too many of the American people think it’s not only okay but something to celebrate when we behave exactly like the terrorists we supposedly abhor.

The US military is the greatest military force the world has ever known.  But that means that when commanded by civilian leaders with little regard for the rule of law,  it can also become the most dangerous terrorist state the world has ever known.

“We have met the enemy, and he is us.” — Pogo

More: Our friend Spencer Ackerman picks up on the “was it legal” debate.

Always prescient commenter powwow reminds us a federal judge ducked the legal question on a suit brought by an Awlaki family member:

CCR and the ACLU filed suit against the Department of Treasury and OFAC on August 3, 2010 and filed suit on behalf of Nasser Al-Aulaqi against President Obama, CIA Director Panetta, and Defense Secretary Gates, on August 30, 2010.  Both cases were filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. On December 7, 2010, U.S. District Court Judge Bates dismissed the suit of Al-Aulaqi v. Obama on grounds that Nasser Al-Aulaqi did not have legal standing to challenge the targeting of his son, and that the case raised “political questions” not subject to court review. The court did not rule on the merits of the case.

David Dayen has more reactions here.