A Dangerous Mistake We Shouldn’t Make Again

A lot of people have justified the extrajudicial killing of Anwar al-Awlaki by saying it was basically an aberration – a unique situation where we needed to wipe out a terrorist threat and the guy we targeted just happened to be an American citizen. Surely these assassinations are not going to become a new trend, and the government would never carry out such an act unless it was absolutely necessary to the national defense.

Let’s put aside for a moment that the “emergency” rationale has been used to enable countless examples of bad policy, from the Alien and Sedition Acts to the Japanese-American internment camps to the 2008 bank bailout. The real cause for concern is that even if you accept the premise that this killing, just this one time, was ok, there is no guarantee whatsoever that the next one will be. And given the government’s history of taking a few hundred miles when given an inch, there is no reason we should trust it to restrain itself here.

By any measure, al-Awlaki was not a sympathetic figure. It’s easy to say “good riddance” to this one death in the faraway and war-torn Middle East, even if we aren’t entirely comfortable with how it took place. It’s easy to assure ourselves that the government wouldn’t dare kill a “real” American citizen, one who actually lived here and wasn’t plotting acts of terror against us. If any president ever thought of doing so, the potential public outcry and pure injustice of it would surely stop him in his tracks.

Unfortunately, we once said the same thing about the president making war.

The Korean conflict was a “police action,” according to Harry Truman – a special situation that fell somewhere in legal purgatory and did not require a formal declaration of war. Of course, it was imperative that the United States become involved, but such authority would only be used under certain extenuating circumstances. We could trust the president to make the right choice.

About a decade later, there was another emergency, known as Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson promised not to “send American boys… to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves,” but of course he did. There was no declaration of war for this one, either.

And so it went in Lebanon, Iraq, Somalia, Libya, Afghanistan, and countless other places the American military has intervened since the 1950s, all undeclared in violation of the Constitution. The exception became the rule. If we had insisted that the president abide by the rule of law, perhaps there would be a lot fewer men and women dead today.

Arguing this point does not suggest that Barack Obama will begin rounding up his political enemies for execution tomorrow. The point is that absolutely no one can predict how such a policy will be used in the future. And with so much at stake, why should we take the chance that it will be abused? There must be an objective, lawful process for situations like this one, and our government must be held to it at all costs.


We cannot allow it to decide its citizens’ guilt, order a death sentence, and carry it out with no trial or proof of culpability. This is done in tyrannies and police states, not constitutional republics built on liberty and justice for all.

Americans living after World War II probably could not fathom that the president would one day start a war unilaterally, defying the will of the people, but that’s exactly where we are today. And it all started because we let the government make one tiny exception to obeying the Constitution.

Given the track record that we’ve seen, why on earth would we make that same mistake twice?

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