The U.S. Constitution is the law of the land. Our nation’s founding charter was intended to reflect our British common law heritage, the lessons of Greek democracy, and the principles of the Roman Republic. It also contained historic protections of citizens dating back to the Magna Carta.
The Founders were keen on making sure the federal government’s powers were limited and few, and given their experience with King George III, they made a particular point to restrain the power of the executive branch. Unlike other countries at the time, in the United States the head of state would not be above the law. For many observers at the time, our Constitution was a crowning achievement of the West. It was the grand culmination of philosophies on governance spanning centuries and an affirmation of proper civilization.
President Barack Obama hasn’t seemed too bothered by constitutional restraint. To be fair, neither have most of his modern predecessors, who have steadily expanded executive power far beyond its constitutional bounds. President George W. Bush was considered by the Left to be one of the worst enemies of civil liberties, as legislation such as the Patriot Act, policies such as indefinite detention, and legal redefinitions of torture were considered unprecedented new lows. Yet despite promising “change,” Obama has maintained most of Bush’s anti-civil liberties policies, even expanding them in some cases.
Now, Obama has lowered the bar even further. When American-born Al-Qaeda collaborator Anwar al-Awlaki was assassinated by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen last week, The New York Times noted, “It is extremely rare, if not unprecedented, for an American to be approved for targeted killing.” There is little question that al-Awlaki was as evil as most reports indicated. He inspired radical jihadists to take up arms against the United States. There is also little question that fighting radical Islamists represents a war unlike any other in our history, but the problem with killing al-Awlaki is the precedent it sets. If President Obama’s overall domestic and foreign policies weren’t already bad enough, he has now taken the United States to a new low by undermining the most basic precept of American law: the protection of a citizen’s rights through due process.
In a 2004 Supreme Court case in which a father sought constitutional protections for his American-citizen son who had been imprisoned as an enemy combatant without charge or trial, conservative Justice Antonin Scalia gave the following opinion: “Where the government accuses a citizen of waging war against it, our constitutional tradition has been to prosecute him in federal court for treason or some other crime.”
Obviously, Scalia believes our Constitution and legal traditions should have some bearing on such matters. When the court decided the man must remain imprisoned, in his dissenting opinion Scalia quoted 18th century British judge Sir William Blackstone, widely considered to be an authority on English common law: “The very core of liberty secured by our Anglo-Saxon system of separated powers has been freedom from indefinite imprisonment at the will of the executive. Blackstone stated this principle clearly: ‘Of great importance to the public is the preservation of this personal liberty: for if once it were left in the power of any, the highest, magistrate to imprison arbitrarily whomever he or his officers thought proper … there would soon be an end of all other rights and immunities …”
Scalia further quoted Blackstone, “To bereave a man of life … without accusation or trial … would be so gross and notorious an act of despotism, as must at once convey the alarm of tyranny throughout the whole kingdom.”
We don’t have to imagine what the Left would have thought of George W. Bush if he had ordered the assassination of al-Awlaki. But if Bush was rightly criticized for imprisoning citizens without due process, Obama is now applauded for killing one of them. This issue is not about an obvious American traitor, but an American president’s traitorous new policy.
As of this writing, Reuters is reporting that “American militants like Anwar al-Awlaki are placed on a kill or capture list by a secretive panel of senior government officials, which then informs the president of its decisions, according to officials … There is no public record of the operations or decisions of the panel … Neither is there any law establishing its existence or setting out the rules by which it is supposed to operate.”
The alarm of tyranny throughout the kingdom Blackstone spoke of, Scalia cited, and our Constitution was designed to prevent is now one step closer to reality.
Jack Hunter is the official campaign blogger for GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul, and he co-wrote Rand Paul’s The Tea Party Goes to Washington.