Turbulent Priests and the Rule of Man

By Adam Bates

In 1170, Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was cut to pieces by four supporters of King Henry II after they overheard the king cursing the archbishop’s name.  “Will no one,” legend records the king as saying, “rid me of this turbulent priest?”  History suggests that this was not an order from Henry, but merely an exasperated utterance.  His supporters, however, did not take it that way and subsequently rid the king of the priest by chopping off the priest’s head.  There was no charge, no trial, just a declaration and an execution.

One would expect Americans to consider such a story an egregious example of the evils of absolutism and the rule of man.  No legitimate system of government, they might say, can invest in one man the authority of judge, jury, and executioner.  The ruler does not simply get to kill those who annoy him.  Our entire American system and the liberal thought out of which it sprang insist that such a concentration of powers in one person is anathema to a free and moral society.  Such concentrations exist only in despotic and tyrannical societies.

Becket Assassinated

Americans can be forgiven for thinking that way.  Not until last fall was it so painfully obvious that our society is not so far removed from Henry’s.  On September 30th 2011, another ruler (to wit, ours) rid himself of another turbulent priest, and he did it purely by executive fiat without regard for the Constitution, the principles that begat it, or the rule of law.

Witness reports suggest that Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen raised in New Mexico, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen.  al-Awlaki has long been considered an “enemy combatant” by the executive branch, and is accused of providing moral support and spiritual guidance to men who committed terrorist attacks against the United States.  He is not alleged to be a combatant in the conventional sense of the term; he didn’t fire guns or make bombs, he talked.  He told people things that the U.S. government considered threatening, and today they killed him for it.

How does one become an enemy combatant?  There is no hearing, no burden of proof, no judge or jury.  The president’s administration simply declares you an enemy and then you are so.  There is no appeal once the designation has been made.

How is an enemy combatant sentenced to death?  There is no hearing, no burden of proof, no judge or jury.  The president’s administration simply declares that you should die, adds your name to a list, and then sets about killing you.  There is no appeal.

How is the sentence carried out?  There is no hearing, no burden of proof, no judge or jury.  The president’s administration simply finds you and fires missiles at you until you are dead.  There is, as you might imagine, no appeal (not temporally anyway).

The Obama administration declared al-Awlaki an enemy combatant, the Obama administration sentenced him to die, and Obama administration effected his death.  There was no process, there was no evidence presented, there was no judge to whom to present, and there was no appeal (repeated attempts by al-Awlaki’s father to prevent the assassination of his son were dismissed on the grounds that to respond to the allegation the government would have to reveal state secrets and jeopardize national security).

The authority the president asserts when exercising this immense group of powers is the Authorization of the Use of Military Force that followed the 9/11 attacks.  The AUMF purports to give the president the authority to use “all necessary means” in pursuit of those who were responsible for 9/11.

Even granting the staggering assumption that such a broad interpretation of this authority is Constitutional, what are the limits on this power?  If the AUMF gives the president the power to kill American citizens in Yemen, doesn’t it also give the president the power to kill Americans in America?  Certainly there is no limiting language in the law itself.

The government will claim that it would never do such a thing within the borders of the country.  But is that the extent of my protection?  Is the only reason the president is not allowed to declare me an enemy and have me summarily killed, the fact that it would be unpopular?  Doesn’t the Constitution do more to protect the lives of its citizens than that?  Surely it must, or else it protects nothing at all.

Well, the argument goes, Anwar al-Awlaki was an enemy, and he deserved to die.  That may well be the case, but it is a case that must be made rather than assumed.    The Constitution explicitly provides more protections to Americans accused of making war against us, not fewer (and certainly not none).  Our Constitution, our principles, and the rule of law demand that the president not be vested with the power ours exercised today.

The fact that we didn’t care for this turbulent priest is no justification for ceding to the king the power to kill all the priests he pleases.

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