It was Wednesday, shortly before Senator Rand Paul’s bravura 13-hour filibuster, the Jimmy Stewart star turn in Paul’s crusade to have the Constitution ban a bogeyman of his own making: the killing of American citizens on American soil by America’s armed forces — a scandal that clearly cries out for action, having occurred exactly zero times in the 20 years since jihadists commenced hostilities by bombing the World Trade Center.
At a hearing of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Ted Cruz was grilling Attorney General Eric Holder. Cruz seemed beside himself — in the theatrical spirit of the day — over Holder’s refusal to concede that the imaginary use of lethal force conjured up by Paul would be, under any and all circumstances, unconstitutional. The attorney general preferred the fuzzier term “inappropriate” — at least until Senator Cruz finally browbeat him into saying that by “inappropriate” he meant “unconstitutional.”
Fuzzy was better. To be sure, Cruz is an accomplished constitutional scholar and a favorite of mine, and I can say neither of those things about the attorney general. Yet my sympathies were with Holder. I found myself wishing he’d stood by his equivocal guns.
I need to be careful here. To cross Paul admirers can mean being cast into the neocon darkness, along with all those other cogs in the military-industrial complex who dream of a global American empire — and that’s even when the offense is not compounded by suggesting that Eric Holder might have been right about something. So let me say outright: I am against using our armed forces to kill our citizens in our homeland.
That puts me in the same camp as about 99.9 percent of Americans. In part, that owes to our natural, patriotic predilection. But there’s another part of the explanation — just as important, but less well noticed: After 20 years, we understand the particular conflict we are in. We can confidently say that, in the war authorized by Congress a dozen years ago, we do not need to use lethal military force inside our country.
You see, there is a right way to do what Senator Paul says he wants to do, a way that does not involve messing around with the Constitution in a manner we will come to regret. Contrary to Senator Paul’s assertions, and those of senators Cruz and Mike Lee, who lent their voices and scholarly heft to Paul’s filibuster, the Constitution does not prohibit the use of lethal force in the United States against American citizens who collude with the enemy.
American history and jurisprudence teach that American citizens who join the enemy may be treated as the enemy: captured without warrant, detained indefinitely without trial, interrogated without counsel, accused of war crimes without grand-jury proceedings, tried by military commission without the protections of civilian due process, and executed promptly after conviction. That is because these measures are permissible under the laws of war, and the Constitution accommodates the laws of war — they are the rule of law when Congress has authorized warfare.
Under the laws of war, enemy combatants may be subjected to lethal force — that’s usually the idea. It makes no sense to conclude that the Constitution abides all the aforementioned departures from peacetime due process but prohibits the killing of American enemy combatants . . . particularly when the proponents of this novel claim are quick to concede that the government is free to use lethal force against American enemy combatants once they leave our territory.
The Constitution enables the government to marshal all the might necessary, under any conceivable circumstances, to quell threats to the United States. The Framers, with a humility that contrasts sharply with our certitude, understood that some threats could be existential in nature. While the senators busied themselves during the Paul filibuster with Alice in Wonderland and “Stand with Rand” tweets, it might have been worthwhile for someone to read Hamilton’s trenchant observation (from Federalist 23) that
it is impossible to foresee or define the extent and variety of national exigencies, or the correspondent extent and variety of the means which may be necessary to satisfy them. The circumstances that endanger the safety of nations are infinite; and for this reason no constitutional shackles can wisely be imposed on the power to which the care of it is committed.
Heedlessly, Senator Paul and his supporters figure they have a handle on the infinite. We can safely assume, they tell us, that the Constitution bars attacks in the U.S. on Americans who — if you can follow this — appear to be non-combatants, even if they may be working with the enemy, as long as they are not engaged in “imminent” violence.