“The death penalty is grotesque and immoral and should be repealed.” So says a New York Times editorial opposing capital punishment in the wake of Troy Davis' execution in Georgia late last month. Those are strong words from the Grey Lady, and I couldn't agree more. Many have demonstrated convincingly that Troy Davis' trial and prosecution were riddled with racism, error and possibly even prosecutorial misconduct. The American justice system failed Mr. Davis with tragic, irreparable results – and the Supreme Court wouldn't step in to remedy the injustice, in part because he had been granted full due process under the law. In the eyes of at least two justices, that's all he or anyone else is guaranteed – not necessarily justice, just due process.
The US government recently executed another American, however, without any due process whatsoever. Both the Bush and Obama administrations accused him of terrorism, but no evidence to support those claims has ever been produced for the public. He was not tried; in fact, he was denied a trial. He was not offered an opportunity to present a defense. A defense would be hard to muster, indeed, for, unlike Davis, he wasn't ever formally charged with a crime.
So far, more than five days later, the Times has not written an editorial condemning the killing of this other American, Anwar al-Awlaki. The last time the Times editorial board addressed the issue was a full year ago, in October 2010, when it wrote: “Assassination should in every case be a last resort.” Not exactly the stirring rhetoric invoked to oppose the Davis execution and capital punishment.
The Times' silence, however, may be better than what The Boston Globe's editors offered readers in the wake of the extrajudicial killing. The Globe parroted the evidence-less “proof” offered by the Obama administration, and, in true stenographic form, the paper asserts as fact a number of accusations Bush and then Obama made about al-Awlaki's role in planning attacks on Americans. Has the Globe seen some evidence it is hiding from the public? After declaring the assassination “right and lawful,” the Globe writes that assassination of American citizens away from the battlefield “is an act that must – and will – remain exceptionally rare.”
But how does The Boston Globe know that this act will remain exceptionally rare? How can the paper, or anyone, justify this most extreme form of government lawlessness and executive power overreach? The Globe itself denounced far lesser crimes – warrantless wiretapping, torture, indefinite detention sans due process.
A Democratic president has opened a Pandora's box that no future executive will likely close. It is a sign of the declining value of democratic ideals in our society that a historically liberal newspaper like the Globe would defend the ultimate assertion of executive power, simply because they trust the executive presently holding it.
Much more than warrantless spying or torture, murder without due process is the government act that fundamentally separates free societies from authoritarian regimes. Like capital punishment, it has no place in a free society.
Thankfully, the editorial board at The Los Angeles Times knows that the “war on terror is not a free-for-all in which the United States may behave as it wishes without accountability or adherence to principle.” We can only hope that the other major bearers of public information and shapers of public opinion like the Times, the Post and the Globe come around to this realization before it is too late.