June 2011 Cato Unbound: Targeted Killing and the Rule of Law

When can the executive lawfully kill?

The rule of law itself depends on getting the answer right. Clearly that answer can’t be “never,” because then even defensive wars would be impossible. And it can’t be “whenever,” because that would be the very antithesis of lawful government. As F. A. Hayek wrote, “if a law gave the government unlimited power to act as it pleased, all its actions would be legal, but it would certainly not be under the rule of law” (p. 205).

The answer must be “sometimes”—but which times are those? In wartime? In peacetime? Against aliens? What about citizens? What role do the courts play? And what about the legislature?

In answer to these questions, Cato Unbound lead essayist Ryan Alford draws on the Anglo-American constitutional tradition, arguing that the killing of a citizen or subject without judicial authorization was so far opposed to our traditional legal safeguards that the American Founders didn’t even bother to prohibit it in the Constitution. And yet, he argues, the case of Anwar al-Awlaqi shows that our government now claims this power anyway. The themes of his essay are explored in much more detail in his forthcoming article in the Utah Law Review.

To discuss with him this month, we’ve lined up a panel of legal and historical experts: John C. Dehn of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Gregory McNeal of Pepperdine University, and Carlton Larson of the University of California at Davis. Each will offer a commentary on Alford’s essay, followed by a discussion among the four on this timely and important subject. Be sure to stop by often, or just subscribe to Cato Unbound’s RSS feed.

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