Citizen Enemies

Those who protest the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki have to say what they would have done instead.

Christopher Hitchens

111002_HN_al-Awlaki Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in 2008

Photograph by Muhammad ud-Deen.

Probably because it mainly provides the kind of short-term cinematic satisfaction that characterizes the Hellfire terminus, the flashy ending of al-Qaida’s main media star has only led to the reopening of some pressing questions about the nature of the jihadi menace. It has also forced us to confront the idea of words as weapons, and the relationship between ideas and actions, in a world of conscienceless criminal violence that operates without employing any code or precedent of its own.

To phrase the essence of the problem succinctly, you are perhaps more likely, as a reader of this column, to be blown up at work or play, or on the way to work or play, by a “homegrown” or “lone-wolf” or “self-starter” fanatic using whatever explosive or incendiary tools may lie to hand, than you are to die at the hands of al-Qaida or the Shabab or any of their shifting surrogates. In the same way, it is at least as likely that a local operative will emerge from the American suburbs to commit one random and unpredictable act as it is that—as sometimes has happened—a fanatic will leave our shores and take himself to Somalia or Yemen or Afghanistan. And so we have the figures of Maj. Nidal Hasan, unsheathing his weapon at Fort Hood to yell “God Is Great!” or Faisal Shahzad rigging his SUV to explode in Times Square or, at one more remove, Farouk Abdulmutallab stuffing his underwear with combustibles and (rather too easily, given his record) boarding a flight to Detroit.

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