Barbershop: Reactions To U.S.-Born Terrorist's Death

Al Qaeda outpost leader Anwar al-Awlaki was killed Friday in Yemen. Also, the trial of Michael Jackson's physician began this week and testimony has intensified. Weighing in are the Barbershop Guys: author Jimi Izrael, attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, columnist Ruben Navarrette and editor Kevin Williamson.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds.

Sitting in their chairs for a shape-up this week are author Jimi Izrael; syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette; author and civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar; and Kevin Williamson, deputy managing editor of that venerable conservative journal, The National Review.

Jimi, take it.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thank you, Michel. Hey, fellows, welcome to the shop. How we doing?

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Hey, hey, hey.

KEVIN WILLIAMSON: I'm great, man.

RUBEN NAVARRETTE: Great.

IZRAEL: K-dog?

WILLIAMSON: Clinging bitterly to my guns and religion. Yes.

MARTIN: Oh, snap.

IZRAEL: All righty then. Well, let's get things started with the latest on the national security front. The American militant Anwar Awlaki - al-Awlaki was killed today. He was feared because of his fluid English and Internet skills - unlike me because I'm not always great with names. He helped lure recruits for attacks on the United States. Now, his killing was approved last year by President Obama, making him the first American placed on the CIA kill or capture list, Michel.

MARTIN: Well, I'm very interested to hear what you all have to say about this. And Kevin, I know you have some interesting thoughts about this. But just to give you the rationale, he was considered key in the recruitment of the Nigerian, Umar Abdulmutallab, who is going on trial next week. Remember, Christmas Day 2009, tried to blow up a U.S. plane heading to Detroit with the explosives that were hidden in his underwear. They called him the underwear bomber.

And also, the Pakistani American who tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square in May of 2010 cited him as an inspiration. And this is a clip of journalist Laura Kasinof, speaking with NPR from Sanaa, Yemen.

LAURA KASINOF: Awlaki sort of burst into American consciousness when it was found out that he inspired the Fort Hood shooter in fall of 2009, in that terrorist attack that took place in the United States. He's certainly a prominent figure within the English-language propaganda that comes out of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

MARTIN: So obviously, you know - maybe Arsalan, you'll start us off. How big of a deal is this?

IFTIKHAR: It's a very big deal. You know, ever since the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, most foreign policy analysts would say that Anwar al-Awlaki was probably the most charismatic leader that al-Qaida has. You know, obviously, the number two is Ayman al-Zawahiri. He's as charismatic as Mr. Magoo and so, you know, al-Awlaki was sort of seen as that next charismatic figurehead.

But more importantly, it was his Internet presence.You know, now we're more concerned with lone-wolf terrorists. And a lot of these guys, as you mentioned - Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, (unintelligible), the Fort Hood shooter, Nidal Malik - were all radicalized by seeing his videos on the Internet. And also, the magazine that they had, called Inspire, which is their English-language magazine.

Now, people might debate whether or not this was an assassination or a targeted killing. There are legal ramifications of both. What's interesting to note - Dina Temple-Raston of NPR reported earlier today that another American citizen, Samir Khan, was also killed in the attack. And what's interesting to note is that there has already been a grand jury indictment against Samir Khan here in the United States, whereas al-Awlaki didn't have one.

And so with the Samir Khan case, here you had a situation where there was a criminal indictment but essentially, we acted as judge, jury and executioner against an American citizen.

MARTIN: Well, my question is - and Kevin, I'm going to come to you next - but my question is - and, you know, I'm certainly not defending his conduct, but is this tantamount to killing somebody for their thoughts, and for their words, as opposed to for their deeds?

IFTIKHAR: It is. I mean, you know, in December 1981, Ronald Reagan issued Executive Order 12333, which essentially forbade any U.S. agency from assassinating anyone, let alone an American citizen.

You know, people who support the killing of al-Awlaki because he called for, you know, attacks on the U.S. government could use that same logic against, you know, right-wing militia nuts here who want to overthrow the government as well.

And so, you know, we don't want to get down a slippery slope where, you know, we can off American citizens without any due process under the Fifth Amendment.

MARTIN: Kevin, I know you wrote about this.

WILLIAMSON: Yeah. I think this is definitely a red-letter day in American history. You have the Obama administration, for the first time in at least modern history, carrying out a targeted political assassination of a United States citizen based largely on things that he had said and done. You know, the difference between being the bin Laden of the Internet, as he was known, and being the bin Laden of 9/11 and being the bin Laden of the real world, I think it's particularly troubling in a situation in which you have an executive that's now empowered to conduct military actions unilaterally - as the Obama administration did in Libya - to declare anybody anywhere in the world an enemy combatant on whatever grounds they so choose, and then to carry out an assassination against that person, even if that person is a U.S. citizen, when we have, you know, legal processes in place for dealing with people like that. It would be one thing if he were killed in combat, but he was killed in transit. You know, this wasn't a firefight. This was an assassination, straight up. There's no other way, I think, to regard it - and it's terribly troubling.

MARTIN: Are you an outlier, Kevin, or do you feel that – not that you speak for all conservatives, but...

WILLIAMSON: Yeah. Well...

MARTIN: ...is your view...

WILLIAMSON: Among right-wingers sure, I'm an outlier. I don't think it's easy to reconcile a belief in constitutional government or in limited government, or in having limited federal powers with having executives that can kill American citizens anywhere in the world with no process, no separation of powers, no checks and balances or anything else.

MARTIN: But conservatives also defend so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, which many Americans consider torture. So how do you square that sort of thing?

WILLIAMSON: Sure. Well, I think that citizenship is a really bright line in the sand. You know, when they killed Osama bin Laden, I was as happy as anybody else. That's fine; it doesn't bother me at all. But the fact that you are dealing with U.S. citizens here is a very different thing because if you have a republic, your government owes its citizens a certain kind of moral duty that it doesn't owe to noncitizens, that it doesn't owe to foreigners. You know, I'm pretty willing to give the government a fairly strong hand in conducting national security operations overseas, and in its dealings with foreigners. You know, if they're waterboarding people, I'm not really too particularly bothered about it. But when you're assassinating U.S. citizens...

MARTIN: Because they're foreigners?

WILLIAMSON: Yeah. I think the government should treat their own citizens differently than they treat foreigners. I'm much more willing to give the administration - any administration - a stronger hand in dealing with people captured on the battlefield and interrogations and such when you're dealing with foreign nationals versus when you're dealing with U.S. citizens. Because, you know, again, a republican form of government assumes a certain obligation and relationship between the government and the governed, and citizenship has to be a really bright line in the sand. Even if it's someone who's only, you know, lived here for a short period of time, he's still a U.S. citizen. And we still have legal issues here to deal with. And we've just completely abrogated that in a way that is really, really troubling.

MARTIN: Ruben? Ruben?

NAVARRETTE: Well, listen, first of all...

MARTIN: Ruben, I'm going to give Jimi the last word on this one.

NAVARRETTE: I've been listening intently to this discussion, and I think that, you know, this level of outrage and concern is - I don't mean to make light of this because I think that I have likewise said and written many, many times in the years after 9/11 about the technique of dealing with enemy combatants, where we would typically deal with people like Jose Padilla, you know, who was accused of having a dirty bomb - planting a dirty bomb explosion, people like Yasser Hamdi, people who were U.S. citizens. And I have said exactly as it's been laid out here, that you should treat U.S. citizens differently. That's the whole idea of citizenship.

But having said that, it is refreshing to hear this kind of discussion in the Obama administration years, because I was under the impression from some folks on the left that - many years - that only Bush did this kind of stuff; this was only stuff that George W. Bush did. And what we have learned - both in the killing of Osama bin Laden and operations like this - is, it's time to put our big boy pants on and grow up, and realize that no matter who is the president, they have a chief duty to protect the United States of America against people who would do it harm, even if those people are U.S. citizens, even if they are only talking on the Internet and recruiting people.

And this was a big recruiter. This was somebody who was very valuable in his recruitment skills because he spoke English, because he could deal with Americans. So for me, the bright line is really, do you mean to do this country harm or not? And if you fall on the right side of that line, fine. But if you fall on the wrong side of that line and you mean to do us harm, you're a target. And I don't care who the president is - liberal Democrat or conservative Republican - chances are, you're toast. And I don't have any problem sleeping at night.

MARTIN: All right.

IFTIKHAR: Ruben, but the logic would follow, then, that right-wing militia nuts here - domestically - who want to overthrow the government...

NAVARRETTE: Yeah.

IFTIKHAR: ...would then be targets for assassination also. Where do you draw that line?

NAVARRETTE: I would say that if I were running the Justice Department, those militia groups would top - be the top of my list in terms of cracking down on them.

IFTIKHAR: To whack them?

NAVARRETTE: No. Not to assassinate their leaders. But there should be a lot more aggressive - maybe you agree with this - there should be a lot more aggressive stance by our government - no matter who is in charge - toward those kinds of militia groups, because I agree with you...

WILLIAMSON: How bad does the website have to be before the government is allowed to kill the guy who wrote the copy?

NAVARRETTE: I think the question becomes recruitment. If the website is used to recruit people who then go off and do us harm, that is not somebody who you can leave in that space and say well, because he's a U.S. citizen and because he's only preaching it and not acting on it, we can leave him alone. So I just don't think that...

WILLIAMSON: But again, we have processes for doing...

IFTIKHAR: Right.

WILLIAMSON: We have the material support statutes.

IFTIKHAR: Exactly.

WILLIAMSON: If you want to declare a guy a traitor we have a process for dealing with that.

IFTIKHAR: Right.

WILLIAMSON: I'm all for convicting people of treason and hanging them. Fine.

NAVARRETTE: Right.

WILLIAMSON: But there is a process for dealing with that.

IFTIKHAR: You don't just whack them.

WILLIAMSON: And it's not just, you know, some freelance presidential initiative...

NAVARRETTE: Yeah. But don't lose sight of...

WILLIAMSON: ...to go out and assassinate American citizens.

NAVARRETTE: Don't lose sight of my wider point, which is that given that I have had these arguments before and written about this after - during the Bush years, I believe that you're correct. The strongest argument is that U.S. citizens should have different levels of protection. But what's refreshing about this is to have this conversation with a Democrat in the White House, who likewise in getting these daily briefings, there's a reason that Obama's hair is turning white, OK? It's because he's...

WILLIAMSON: Why is that refreshing instead of despairing?

IZRAEL: Hold on. Hold on K-Dub. Hold on.

NAVARRETTE: He's privy to information he wasn't privy to before.

MARTIN:OK.

NAVARRETTE: And he has to be a grown-up and put his big boy pants on. And he has done that in this particular case. It doesn't have to be pretty but again, he is privy to information that we're not privy to. And so it's very interesting to see the liberals pivot around and sort of support something that's done by their guy when it wasn't supported by - when it was some other guy.

MARTIN: I haven't heard that today. I haven't heard that today. But before we...

NAVARRETTE: Now you have. Now you have.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK. Well, here's – well, Jimi, do you want to get some of this before we move on?

IZRAEL: Listen, we got this guy, we can't get Perez Hilton off the Web?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: My thing is, you know, it's hard but it's fair. But the other piece to this is, you know, ideas - I mean, people die but ideas don't. So somebody is going to just rise up to take this guy's place, and I'm sure he had somebody in the wings. So, but yeah, I'm troubled; I'm on both sides of this. It's, I don't know, we can't go around just whacking people because they have - you know, have these ideas that they're propagating on the Internet. You know, like I said, if that's true, then how come Perez Hilton gets to walk around free?

NAVARRETTE: Oh come on, let's save our sympathy for somebody who really deserves it.

MARTIN: I hadn't thought about it that way. Really.

NAVARRETTE: I mean, come on folks. Let's not weep for the dead terrorist, OK? I mean, let's save our sympathies.

IZRAEL: I'm not weeping for him, but I'm just saying.

IFTIKHAR: Ruben. Ruben. Yeah. Nobody's losing sleep - I am not losing sleep over the fact that al-Awlaki is not there.

NAVARRETTE: Right. Right.

IFTIKHAR: When you live by the sword, you're going to die by it. But what we're talking about his basic American, constitutional legal principles. Again, where do you draw the line? By your definition, we have hundreds of thousands of people now in the states who, you know, could be targets for assassination.

NAVARRETTE: And what I'm telling you, I hear you. But what I've said to you is, we've had this conversation for 10 years since 9/11. It's very confusing. You get liberals and Democrats on both sides of it and we have - the Supreme Court themselves have said - in the Hamdi case - that this is not as clear as Ruben would like to make it, that U.S. citizens have carte blanche. So what I'm saying is, we have struggled with this for 10 years; we're going to struggle with it for 10 more. And it gets very confusing because we are in a unprecedented war on terror. And so we've got to give the administration, I think, some slack - just as they took it.

MARTIN: All right. If you're...

WILLIAMSON: You know, if we'd assassinated everyone who backed the wrong side in the Cold War, we would've killed half the faculty of Harvard for the things they wrote and said.

NAVARRETTE: Different time and place.

WILLIAMSON: Yeah, a real enemy with nuclear weapons.

IFTIKHAR: Shame America. Shame America, though.

MARTIN: Well...

NAVARRETTE: OK, guys.

MARTIN: Important. I'm going to draw the line right - I'm going to draw the line right here and say...

IFTIKHAR: Draw it.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly visit to the Barbershop. We're joined by author Jimi Izrael, syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette, author and civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, and Kevin Williamson. He's the deputy managing editor of The National Review. Jimi?

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Now if you've turned on your television at all, you know that the trial of Michael Jackson's doctor began this week. Dr. Conrad Murray was Michael's personal doctor, and admitted to administering some powerful anesthetics during the months before Michael's death. Well, just a few days in and the testimony is already kind of intense. Michel, we got a clip, right?

MARTIN: You know, we do. And I'll just warn people, this is hard to listen to. I'll just let you know that this is not pleasant to hear, but we'll just play a little bit. I don't think we need to belabor the point. This is a recording that investigators took from Dr. Murray's phone. And it's clearly Michael Jackson, and it's a few days before his death. Here it is.

MICHAEL JACKSON: (Unintelligible)

MARTIN: And you can hear the wooziness, the slurred speech. And prosecutors are saying that clearly, there's evidence that he was impaired, and that Dr. Murray had to be aware of this because this was a conversation on his phone, and that - but he continued to provide him with these powerful drugs, which were mainly for use in surgery, not as a sleep aid. But at the defense's opening statement, the defense is arguing that Michael self-administered the dying dose. So I don't know; Jimi, you've written about this.

IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: What's your thoughts on the trial so far?

IZRAEL: Well, you know, most importantly, my heart really hurts for the children and the rest of the Jackson family, who have to watch this play out in the media. That said - and, you know, don't jump on me. But I think if Dr. Murray gets a vigorous defense, he could be acquitted. Now wait a second. The suicide defense for me is bold, but given that we don't know what Michael's frame of mind was, and taking a hard look at the desperation of his situation at the time, his financial and commercial viability, the suicide defense, it gins up just enough reasonable doubt to possibly - possibly, I said - get him off the hook.

MARTIN: Hmm. Anybody else?

IZRAEL: Kevin?

WILLIAMSON: Yeah. Well, you know, Michael Jackson's life was, you know, it was kind of a bizarre freak show from the time he was a child until the time that he died. And in a sense, you know, you have to feel sorry for the guy. It seems like there was never a point in which he really got control over his, you know, over his own life.

I think one of the things that seems so alien about celebrities like Michael Jackson - and also, just other people with lots and lots of money - is that they live in ways that are alien to us because they're sort of a few years ahead of us, in some ways. Things that once were considered, you know, strange and freakish lifestyle innovations become normal over time. You know, there was a time when divorce was limited to, basically, celebrities and wealthy people.

You know, when Michael Jackson first started his career, men undergoing cosmetic surgical procedures was rare. But now, you have something like one in 20 men will over the course of their lifetimes. You know, the strangeness of his life is not going to be strange to us, I think, forever.

MARTIN: You know, you make an interesting point, Kevin, about, you know, the gender-bending, the kind of shape-shifting around racial identity. You know, you're right. At the time, it was considered, you know, strange and in fact, repugnant to some people. But now, you see people saying well, perhaps - or even things like, you know, surrogacy, right? And now you see people saying, why not? You know, why do I have to live according to one racial category? Why can't I, you know, create a family in a different way? But Arsalan, you think - is there some larger meaning to this, or is this another - forgive me, you know, I agree; sensibilities of the family should be respected - but sort of another celebrity freak show that doesn't have any larger meaning to the rest of us?

IFTIKHAR: You know, my father is a doctor. And one of the things that I grew up with, each and every day, my dad reminded me of the Hippocratic oath that doctors take - each and every day, to do no harm. And I think that in the case of Conrad Murray, I think that all he did was harm. And so, you know, I take Jimi's point as to the possibility of the reasonable doubt. You know, it's similar to, you know, a murderer bringing up an insanity plea, you know, during the course of a legal proceeding. I don't personally - I think that, you know, if they can prove criminal negligence, you know, on the part of Dr. Murray, and the fact that he violated the Hippocratic oath to do no harm, I think that, you know, it might end up against Dr. Murray at the end.

MARTIN: Ruben, final thought from you? We only have about 20 seconds left. But is there any larger purpose to this, any larger meaning, or is it just another sad chapter in a person's life?

NAVARRETTE: I think it is a sad chapter, but I think things don't look good for Dr. Murray. I think that ultimately, if they're able to prove that by his attempt to - alleged attempt to cover this up he hesitated, and it was the hesitance that didn't get help there in time, then he is partly responsible for this, and it'll be part of the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist who writes for the Washington Post Writers' Group, Latino magazine and Pajamas Media. He was with us from San Diego. From New York, Kevin Williamson, he's the deputy managing editor of The National Review and author of the "Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism." Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney, founder of themuslimguy.com, and author of the newly released book, "Islamic Pacificism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era." We'll be talking about that on Monday. And Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist and author of "The Denzel Principle." He was with us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Thank you all so much.

IFTIKHAR: Peace.

WILLIAMSON: Thank you.

NAVARRETTE: Thank you.

IZRAEL: Yup-yup.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday.

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