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Lethal tactic merits due process

| November 23, 2010 8:00 PM

Shams though those courts may have been, even the so-called Salem witches were tried before being executed. U.S. citizens living here and abroad who are accused of crimes can expect a fair trial, or at least the offer of one, before sentence is carried out. That's what the federal constitution proclaims.

Unless you're on the kill list.

I'm not sure when this executive exception to the Constitution first occurred, but there it is nonetheless: A list of assassination targets, with at least one U.S. citizen on it. Well-educated cleric and lecturer Anwar Awlaki was born in New Mexico; he's also lived in California and Colorado. Yes, he's suspected of associating with known terrorists in or near Yemen, where he currently resides. He is very religious. He boasts some extreme opinions on a website. His friends are on scary watch lists.

As much as the next person I want Americans who fit that bill to be investigated, arrested, and incarcerated if a case against them is proven. I realize realities of war mean that if you find a den of armed ne'er-do-wells you send in soldiers or a drone and that's that. But if you're an unarmed talker, until recent years being a U.S. citizen gave you a few extra steps between suspicion and targeted for assassination. Little things like a judge reviewing some evidence, if not a trial. Not surprisingly, his family has sued the government on this basis: Does the U.S. plan to assassinate him without due process violate the constitution?

Due process is what most distinguishes democracy from fascism. It's the vital check against the power of the executive. It must reign above fear.

Do I really care if this guy is taken out? Honestly, no. It's the precedent that terrifies me. If it has become acceptable to target and kill a U.S. citizen without due process, that suspension of the Constitution lays a broader precedent than we may intend. If the president or executive branch can decide when and against whom to suspend constitutional rights without judicial branch oversight, and the past is a good predictor of our future, constitutional suspensions will not be limited to extreme cases only. Precedent works like that; it expands applications as new situations arise and convenience demands.

Have we so succumbed to fear that we can cry 'Constitution' when it suits us, but ignore it when applied to someone else? Do we really think some provisions just a matter of convenience? Is the president the guy who can make that call, and should he make it alone?

A society is measured not by how it treats its honorable citizens, but by how it treats its troublemakers. This is where the true test of our democratic principles lies.

Sholeh Patrick is an attorney and a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Sholehjo@hotmail.com

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