Rand Paul Progressives and the Poutrage Over Obama's Executive Powers

When Attorney General Eric Holder responded to Sen. Rand Paul's question about whether the president had the power to direct the military to use lethal force on American soil, he called Paul's question "entirely hypothetical" and pointed out that the US government neither has used nor plans to use such lethal force on US soil. But of course, Holder's response caused a total freakout among the Rand Paul Progressives simply because Holder contemplated hypothetical emergencies in which it may be necessary for the president to order the military to use lethal force against an American on US soil, such as Pearl Harbor and 9/11.
It is possible, I suppose, to imagine an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate under the Constitution and applicable laws of the United States for the President to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States. For example, the President could conceivably have no choice but to authorize the military to use such force if necessary to protect the homeland in circumstances of a catastrophic attack like the ones suffered on December 7, 1941 and September 11, 2001.
Oh. My. God. Set your hair on fire! The administration thinks that the president can kill American citizens on American soil!!! He's a dictator! Everybody freak out and like, totally have a cow over how Obama is making Bush look like a civil libertarian. Run up and down hallway and stomp your feet and draw some blood from the black dude in the White House.

If you are currently engaged in one of the above-mentioned activities, I can't help you. But if you are a dweller of reality, I would like to speak to you. Many liberals have correctly critiqued the Bush administration for its abject security failure on September 11, 2001. They have wondered how it was that aircrafts were allowed to veer off their scheduled flight plans without being pursued by NORAD in what is supposed to be the most secure airspace in the world. So what would these same liberals have a US military aircraft do, if one or more did pursue one of the flights on 9/11? Ultimately, if they weren't successful in getting the planes to change course and they were headed to the Pentagon and the Twin Towers and the White House, what do liberals believe would have been an appropriate action of the military?

The only action that could have saved some 3,000 lives in that instance would be, of course, for the military to shoot the airplanes off the sky. That would have meant the president authorizing and the military using lethal force within the territorial United States. Does anyone doubt that the president had then, and has now the authority to order exactly that operation?

I suppose one could argue that the president still wouldn't have the authority to order the Air Force to shoot the airplanes off the sky and therefore must sit there and watch terrorists ram airplanes into the Pentagon, the White House and New York buildings. But I am willing to bet that only a precious few among even the Rand Paul Progressives are willing to argue that. And anyone not willing to argue that has already conceded that in extraordinary circumstances, the president does indeed have the power to order the military to use lethal force within the United States.

But of course, such incidences are not limited to 9/11.  American history is full of examples in which presidents could - and did - order the army under their command to use lethal force on American soil. The most obvious example is the civil war. President Abraham Lincoln - who considered the seceded South a part of the United States, and thus its citizens American citizens - ordered outright a war against their army, directly killing people he considered to be Americans within the United States.

The power of the president to use the armed forces under his command to potentially lethal means dates back to President George Washington himself. During the Whiskey Rebellion, in which 500 armed men rebelled against the tax assessor, Washington himself lead a militia of 13,000 men to quash the domestic threat. 3-4 rebels were killed by government forces.

For all the libertarian Constitution trumpeters, the root of this power rests in the Constitution itself. Written at a time without a standing army, the Constitution gave Congress the power to "provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions" (Article I Section 8). Consistent with the power, Congress passed the Insurrection Act in 1807 to authorize the president to deploy troops within the United States to quell rebellion, lawlessness, and insurrection. Congress expanded the situations under the Act to include terrorist attack, public health emergencies, etc. in 2006. At the basics, Holder's response on presidential power is neither anything new, nor anything surprising. There is no honest argument to be made against this power, except by also making the argument that the president is powerless to shoot down civilian aircrafts headed straight for the seat of our government., or a large civilian center.

Being able to order the US military to use lethal force within the United States is without a doubt an immense power. But just because the power is immense and extraordinary does not mean that the president cannot possess it. It also does not mean that simply because such power may be legal in one extraordinary circumstance that it is then justified in every circumstance. Holder's response isn't about the claim of blanket authority nor a slippery slope. It is about the use of extraordinary power under truly extraordinary situations.

Leftists who believe that government should be stripped of extraordinary national security powers because of the intensity of these powers and the potential for abuse are no different than Right wingers who believe government should be stripped of extraordinary economic/social welfare security powers because of the reach of those programs and the potential for abuse. After all, the slippery slope arguments are strikingly similar. Libertarian Leftists argue that the distinction of extraordinary circumstances to use lethal force on American soil is but one without a difference, as the government is sure to claim that power in any circumstance if it can claim it for one. Libertarian Rightists argue that if the government can impose and regulate universal health care, then they can also force rationing, "death panels," and of course, the purchase and consumption of broccoli. After all, if you concede the government's power to solve one problem given a set of circumstances, you have essentially conceded its power to do anything it wishes in that arena, right?

We do not have an all powerful government. But we do not have an all powerless government, either. The Constitution charges the government with three primary responsibilities: to promote the general welfare of the people, to provide for the common defense, and to ensure domestic tranquility. For each, it gives the government extraordinary but limited powers. By its very concept, the Constitution, contrary to Libertarian Rightists and Leftists, rejects the idea that any power extraordinary is automatically unlimited.

As citizens, we must be vigilant to protect our liberties. But we do a poor job of it when we cry wolf over every legitimate use or claim of power under legitimate circumstances. The freakout artists on both extremes of politics do us more harm than good.