( Nat collaborated with his son, Nick Hentoff, on this week's column.)
President Barack Obama closed his speech at last week's National Prayer Breakfast with a prayer for forgiveness.
"I pray that my failings are forgiven," Obama told the audience of spiritual leaders. "I pray that we will see every single child as our own, each worthy of our love and of our compassion. And I pray we answer Scripture's call to lift up the vulnerable, and to stand up for justice, and ensure that every human being lives in dignity."
Obama may find that asking for forgiveness is a lot easier than receiving it, at least in this life. Chief among the many things for which this president needs to be forgiven is his expansion of George W. Bush's drone assassination program. According to reporting by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, thousands of civilians, including hundreds of children, have fallen victim to his preemptive drones strikes over the last seven years.
One person who will not forgive Obama is Nasser al-Awlaki. He is the grandfather of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, a 16-year-old American citizen who was summarily executed in a 2011 drone strike as he sat in a cafe in Yemen. Abdulrahman was looking for his father, American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, who had already been assassinated by Obama two weeks earlier. U.S. officials would later concede that Abdulrahman's killing was a case of mistaken identity.
"I cannot comprehend how my teenage grandson was killed by a Hellfire missile, how nothing was left of him except small pieces of flesh," Nasser told Time magazine in October 2011.
"I urge the American people to ... expose the hypocrisy of the 2009 Nobel (Peace) Prize laureate. To some, he may be that. To me and my family, he is nothing more than a child killer."
Obama has tried to disguise his illegal drone program with the patina of legal legitimacy. Perhaps the most horrifying aspect of the drone program -- aside from the serial child killing -- is the normalization by the U.S. of extrajudicial assassination as an accepted practice under a tortured interpretation of constitutional due process and International law.
Obama first publicly acknowledged the pre-emptive first strike drone program during a May 2013 speech at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.
"America's actions are legal," Obama said. "We were attacked on 9/11. Within a week, Congress overwhelmingly authorized the use of force. ... We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first. So this is a just war -- a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense."
This argument had previously been rejected by Christof Heyns, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, summary or arbitrary executions. "It's difficult to see how any killings carried out in 2012 can be justified as in response to (events) in 2001," Heyns told a conference in Geneva, Switzerland.
Addressing criticism of civilian casualties, Obama argued that before any pre-emptive first strike is taken, "there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured -- the highest standard we can set."
In April 2015, the Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI) released a report that "casts serious doubt on whether the ... 'near-certainty' standard is being met on the ground, and whether the U.S. is complying with international law."
"All of them (the victims) were innocent and poor people who had nothing to do with any terrorist group," the relative of a family killed in a Yemen drone strike told OSJI: We had hoped that America would come to the region with educational and development projects and services, but it came instead with aircrafts to kill our children."
The OSJI's findings were supported later in the year by a U.N. report from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. "If accurate, the U.N.'s estimates would represent a significant rise in confirmed civilian casualties in the country as a result of drone strikes," Vice News reported in September 2015.
"The illegal use of armed force, knowing that it will inevitably kill large numbers of civilians, is a crime against humanity," attorney Benjamin Ferencz wrote in response to a journalist's 2012 request for a statement on Obama's drone program. "(T)hose responsible should be held accountable by national and international courts."
Ninety-five-year-old Ferencz knows a thing or two about international law. He was the chief prosecutor in the Nuremberg SS Einsatzgruppen 'death squads' trial after World War II.
During a 2011 speech in Boca Raton, Florida, Ferencz spoke about the legal strategy used by the Nuremberg defendants accused of killing unarmed men, women and children; that the German soldiers were acting in self-defense.
"Didn't you have any qualms about killing all these people, little children and all that?" Ferencz recalled asking the lead defendant, SS-Gruppenfuhrer Otto Ohlendorf.
"No, because we relied on the head of state" Ohlendorf replied. "He had more information than I had, and he told us that the Soviets planned to attack, so it was necessary in presumed self-defense."
"In our military jargon, we call such assaults a 'pre-emptive first strike,'" Ferencz told his audience, in a pointed comment on U.S. military strategy.
"That Ohlendorf argument was considered by three American judges at Nuremberg, and they sentenced him and 12 others to death by hanging." Ferencz said. "So it's very disappointing to find that my government today is prepared to do something for which we hanged Germans as war criminals."