Our definition of “enemy combatant” is terrifyingly elastic. Far from being limited to armed men carrying out acts of violence, it stretches to cover men such as Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qaeda propagandist known, somewhat ridiculously, as “the bin Laden of the Internet.” Mr. al-Awlaki was probably guilty of treason and other serious crimes, but the Constitution contains specific provisions and standards for treason cases, which do not include assassination. Odious as he was, Mr. al-Awlaki came to the attention of our shockingly incompetent national-security administrators when, having been feted at the Pentagon and invited to offer prayers at the Capitol, he turned out to be a sympathizer with and encourager of Islamist terrorism. He blogged, he preached, he made propaganda videos — and that is what put him in the crosshairs. Government officials say there is more to the story, but that “more” is to be found only in classified documents, which makes real oversight — the kind exercised by informed citizens — all but impossible.
My friend and colleague Andrew C. McCarthy argues that we can trust the federal government to exercise a commonsense standard in these cases. He points to the Jose Padilla episode; Mr. Padilla, too, met the definition of “enemy combatant,” but he was apprehended on an airplane in Chicago rather than in some rathole in Peshawar, so there was no call to put him instantly to death. My own conception of citizenship is such that the convenience of the authorities ought not determine questions of life and death.
One of the great markers of civilization in republican Rome was a meaningful conception of citizenship as a sacred institution. A Roman citizen could be put to death, but only for a very limited number of crimes — treason notable among them — and according to very narrowly defined processes. (Patricide was punished in a particularly unpleasant fashion — projectio in profluentem
.) A Roman citizen could not be whipped, tortured, or crucified — which is what spared St. Paul from suffering the same fate as his Savior. When it came to citizens, certain lines were not to be crossed. But like our definition of “enemy combatant,” the Roman definition of “treason” was elastic, subject to liberal interpretation by the executive branch, and soon enough “treason” came to mean “disagreeing with Nero.” Barack Obama is no Nero. There are some conservatives who believe that he is the worst and most dangerous president we have ever had. I am not among them, being a hardline Wilson-hater. But even those conservatives who do believe he is the worst president we have ever had have no reason to believe that he is the worst president we ever will have, and I have spent enough time looking at the national budget to be fairly well armored against arguments that Washington is capable of behaving collectively in a prudent or responsible fashion.
Senator Paul is right to take this opportunity to, as somebody once put it, stand athwart, yelling “Stop!” Senator Ted Cruz and others are right to encourage him in this. If your government can put you to death without trial — not on the field of battle, but at breakfast — then you are not a citizen at all: You are a subject. And Americans were not born to be subjects.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent. His newest book, The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome, will be published in May.