The Boomerang Is Almost Home

Against the Current, No. 155, November/December 2011

Jimmy Johnson

“It should never be forgotten that while colonization, with its techniques and its political and juridical weapons, obviously transported European models to other continents, it also had a considerable boomerang effect on the mechanisms of power in the West, and on the apparatuses, institutions, and techniques of power. A whole series of colonial models was brought back to the West, and the result was that the West could practice something resembling colonization, or an internal colonialism, on itself.” — Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended

THE UNITED STATES, on orders from the Obama Administration, killed Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan in Yemen on Friday, September 30, 2011. Both were conservative, militant, Islamist activists and both were part of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), though not very high up on the ladder. According to Gregory Johnsen in the New York Times, al-Awlaki was “a midlevel religious functionary” who was “not even particularly good at what he [did].” Khan too, was a minor figure, known mostly for his editing of the English-language magazine Inspire. (

Thomas Hegghammer of the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment characterized Inspire as “a sloppy magazine.” Its heavy reliance on “recycled material” contrasted with Sada al-Malahim, AQAP’s Arabic-language magazine, “suggestive of much closer links between editors and operatives.” For several reasons Hegghammer said he “would be surprised if the AQAP connection [to Inspire] is very strong.” (

This more sober framework, one where al-Awlaki and Khan played no major roles in AQAP, stands in stark contrast with President Obama’s claim that the “death of Awlaki is a major blow to al Qaeda’s most active operational affiliate.” (

Rather than a “significant milestone in the broader effort to defeat al Qaeda and its affiliates,” the extra-judicial execution of two midlevel AQAP figures seems like a run-of-the-mill operation for the United States, which has carried out hundreds of such operations against figures from Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and various other groups.

In fact, when talking about executions carried out by the United States, it’s problematic to use the qualifier “extra-judicial” as if it signified something unusual. According to the New America Foundation, this country has now executed at least 1,368 (perhaps as many as 2,130) accused militants in Pakistan alone. All drone strikes in Somalia and Yemen and numerous strikes in Afghanistan and Iraq should be added, but the lack of collected data makes a reasonable estimate impossible. (

Even using the limited number, the United States has still executed at least 982 (perhaps as many as 1,744) more people extra-judicially than it has judicially!

The 386 judicial executions carried out in death-penalty states during the same time period (2004-present) are well under one quarter of the total number of executions. When extra-judicial executions are overwhelmingly the norm, they should be called simply “executions,” while that minority conducted through the court system should carry the qualifier of “judicial” to clarify them from normal, extra-judicial executions. (

To do otherwise pretends that the nation-of-laws paradigm protecting a citizenry with guaranteed rights is the everyday norm, when it clearly is not. (In any case, the judicial executions of Troy Davis in 2011 and Cameron Willingham in 2004, the former based on false evidence and the latter almost certainly innocent of the arson for which he was convicted, suggest that undue value is attributed to the “nation of laws” anyway.)

What the Executions Show

The fairly small amount of critical coverage of the Awlaki and Khan executions to date has focused only on the issue of their being U.S. citizens (here a stellar column by Glenn Greenwald on, “The due-process-free assassination of U.S. citizens is now a reality,” stands out), and the problematic question of a country executing its own citizen without any semblance of due process; the horror that what We do to Them, We might also do to Us. (

There is a kind of newness to this, as the U.S. execution of its citizens — no matter their location at the time of execution — without due process is exceedingly rare in recent decades. But this distinction doesn’t really hold up upon scrutiny.

The question is one of citizenship and executions. The overwhelming majority of both normal executions and judicial executions, since the U.S. drone strike campaign began in 2004, fit a framework whereby citizens are executed judicially, and foreign nationals are executed normally (“extra-judicially”). But nine of the 386 judicial executions since 2004 have been foreign nationals and as of July 28, 2010, 131 foreign nationals from 34 countries were on death row in the United States, all of whose crimes were committed on U.S. soil.

At least five more foreign nationals are potentially facing judicial executions in prosecutions to be conducted by the Department of Defense, none of the alleged crimes being committed in the U.S. (though some of the defendants are accused of conspiracy actions taking place outside the United States but related to the September 11, 2001 attacks, making the geographic question slightly less important).

So there is apparently no reason why foreign nationals cannot be executed through due process of law and no reason why U.S. citizens cannot be executed without it.

To clarify, with the executions of Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, the U.S. through its actions has declared as acceptable the following:

1) Executions of U.S. citizens through due process of law (“judicial execution”) when the alleged crimes are committed in the United States.

2) Executions of U.S. citizens without due process, no matter where the alleged crimes are committed.

3) Executions of foreign nationals through due process of law no matter where the alleged crimes are committed.

4) Executions of foreign nationals without due process no matter where the alleged crimes are committed.

The only possibility yet to be explored is the execution of U.S. citizens without due process for alleged crimes committed inside the United States. (In previous periods this was not necessarily the case. Also, an examination of police shootings would show they would fall outside either judicial or extra-judicial categories with extremely rare exceptions.)

This brings us back to the racial and colonial significance of the Obama Administration ordering the killing of two U.S. citizens. Al-Awlaki and Khan come from the two most despised groups in the country, Arabs and Muslims. Arab and Muslim citizens had their rights effectively suspended after 9/11. City, state and federal governments took advantage of existing law, and created new legislation, and the executive branches made decisions allowing mass wiretapping and other surveillance, indefinite detention and official racial profiling targeting Arabs and Muslims.

It is hardly a surprise that the first two U.S. citizens in this period executed without due process for alleged crimes committed (primarily) outside the country were both Muslims. Muslim’s rights are most easily discarded, although undocumented immigrants aren’t far behind, and they are first to feel the Boomerang Effect from the United States’ imperial adventures in far-off lands.

For the last ten years the U.S. government has carried out executions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, to defend an empire in decline. These executions paved the way for Foucault’s Boomerang Effect to bring them back home, and possibly but not certainly to be deployed more generally. Al-Awlaki’s and Khan’s executions have set a path for Imperial America to become Colonized America. To what extent this happens cannot be predicted, but what we can be sure about is that it depends on what we do.

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November/December 2011, ATC 155