Secret. Murder. Panels.

In a wonderful piece published by Reuters this evening, we come to learn that “a secretive panel of senior government officials” is responsible for placing people—U.S. citizens included—on a “kill or capture” list.

Let me spell that out for you: The government of the United States of America, steward of freedom, fairness, and democracy, now includes a secret murder panel. A small number of unidentified officials who do not have the authority to do so under any law whatsoever meet in secret, off the public record, to conspire to use the government’s resources to commit acts of violence against anyone, including U.S. citizens.

It doesn’t get a lot clearer than that, folks. I’m going to hesitate to say that “the government” is claiming this or that authority, though. This isn’t about the government. It’s not about division of power or constitutional limits.

This is a conspiracy to commit kidnapping and murder, and to do so through abuse of the power of the government.

One of the basic pillars of a society bound by law is that it is unacceptable to murder human beings. No idea is more constant across all cultures, religions, and legal regimes then the prohibition on killing people. No crime is punished more severely than the taking of a life without valid, proven reason why it was necessary.

Over the years, many people have disagreed on what constitutes validity, proof, and other concepts, and out of this problem were created formalized court systems. These institutions bear the burden of deciding how to define the proper and judicious application of punishment for crime. They are the final authority on matters of criminality and civil conflict.

The courts are where Anwar al-Awlaki’s fate should have been decided. There are procedures for convicting people of crimes in absentia, and they certainly apply when the urgency of judgment overrides the fleeing defendant’s right to be present at trial. If he truly had committed crimes against the United States, he would likely be convicted and sentenced quickly. If his crimes were serious enough, the court could order his death or capture and empower someone to enforce it.

The word of a room full of secretive men is not a substitute for the court’s judgment. It is a crime on the same level as anything al-Awlaki could have been concocting. If a cabal of private citizens were to conspire to do the same thing in the same way, those people would be criminals under the law of any country. The conspirators’ involvement in the government does not make the secret murder panels any more acceptable. In fact, it makes their acts even more criminal. These individuals need to be brought to light and made accountable for their crimes.

This cannot stand. No secret murder panels. Not in my country.

I Won’t Shoot You / Don’t Be a Horse

I live in New Hampshire, and it is much easier to buy a firearm here than in most other states. There are no state laws limiting the purchase of any type of gun. The only real laws are these:

1. A person must be at least 18 years of age to purchase a long gun.
2. A person must be at least 21 years of age to purchase a handgun.

The federal government does, however, allege authority to impose firearms restrictions in the state of New Hampshire, so there are other hoops to jump through. There are special licenses and requirements for automatic and selective-fire guns, explosive devices, and other miscellaneous items. Purchase of any firearm from a federal licensee requires undergoing an “instant” background check.

But by and large, providing you’re not mentally unstable or a criminal, it is easy to get a gun here. There are even laws that bypass the federal licensing system by allowing firearms transactions without paperwork between certain parties. It’s also easy to get a permit to carry a concealed handgun—again, if you’re clean. There are no fingerprints taken or other criminal-handling procedures inflicted on the applicant. The issuing authority (usually local police) must respond to your application within 14 days with either a brand-new license or a damn good reason why you can’t have it. The fee is $10 for residents. That’s ten dollars, not a typo.

There are also no laws telling gun owners how to store their property. If you want to lock up your guns, do it. If not, don’t. Despite this, it’s common practice to lock up guns anyway, and to keep ammo separate. People who own guns tend to be quite aware of the potential for misuse or devastating accidents, not to mention that they can be pretty expensive. But no one has to tell them to do it.

Keeping and bearing arms here is a right that you have to forfeit by your actions, not a privilege that is contingent on the actions of others. The carry license is a sort of convenience, a way to simplify innocent encounters between the police and lawful gun-toters. The laws keep guns out of the hands of unsupervised children because that’s common sense. If there were no federal laws, the state would still work to keep known criminals from acquiring guns because, again, it’s common sense.

But overall, adults are treated like adults when it comes to firearms. In fact, adults are treated like adults in general. It makes sense in a state with “LIVE FREE OR DIE” emblazoned on every license plate. We aren’t required by law to buy any kind of insurance, not even for driving. No one has to wear a helmet while riding a motorcycle. The state doesn’t tax our income so that it can justify making our decisions for us. The state only ever attempts to make safety decisions for children, because they’re children and they can’t be expected to responsibly make those decisions yet. Until they’re 18, they have to wear seat belts and refrain from playing the lottery. After that, it’s up to them.

Personally, my decisions lean toward those that are mandated in other states. I have driver’s insurance because it is the right decision for me. I wear a seat belt whenever I’m in a car because I want to. If I were to get a motorcycle, I would probably wear a helmet out of pants-shitting fear. On the other hand, I don’t have health insurance because, without an employer subsidy, it’s an extremely bad deal. It’s the better decision for me to not make that purchase, and I have the freedom to do so.

I also have a pistol/revolver license, and on any given day I might choose to carry a loaded gun on my person or in my vehicle. With the laws the way they are, I could have any number of guns that invoke any number of media buzzwords—semi-automatic handgun, assault rifle, hollow-point ammunition, pistol grip, high-caliber rounds, extended magazines! Any day of the week, I could be standing in line next to you with a pistol and 48 rounds on my hip.

I might have all of that and more, but I won’t shoot you, ever. I promise. My promise goes back to the original idea of the social contract. I’m an adult and you’re an adult, and we solemnly agree not to do each other harm or to interfere in each other’s affairs. Unless your actions urgently force me to do it, I will not shoot or even point a gun at you. I also won’t force you to wear a seat belt or put away your cell phone while you’re driving (even if it makes me grit my teeth). In return, all I ask is that you respect my rights and my decisions the way I respect yours.

This is the ideal from which the United States grew. Freedom does come with risks, but it is exactly in our dealing with these risks that we grow to be mature, useful people. The best among us are allowed to flourish when their lives are left in their own hands, and the worst among us will fail anyway. But when we are deprived of freedom and the risks that go with it, all of us never really grow up. We assume we need permission for almost everything. Our confidence is stunted, and our minds develop around the idea of seeking approval rather than improving ourselves and achieving things. We become the opposite of free; we become dependent.

Free people say “yes” or “no” by their own choice, and they act of their own will. They don’t wait for orders and say “okay” to every request. They don’t defer their judgment and their decisions to well-dressed know-it-alls a thousand miles away. Dependent people need that bubble, that insulation from themselves. They agree to be put in social handcuffs for what they perceive to be their own good, and they consider a safety net a good deal at any cost (and anyway, they can’t say no).

The United States was partly designed as a sort of experiment, but not an experiment to see if democracy works. Citizens get to vote, but the system of government itself is a constitutional republic. It exists to safeguard our freedom and to govern within strict limitations so that we can become strong and independent. That, more than anything else, is the material purpose behind the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and every other revolutionary founding document of this country. The founders did not want their victory to go to waste on a nation of weak, dependent children who would only lose it all back.

When the government acts outside of its restrictions and betrays the purpose of freedom, that nation of weak, dependent people comes to life. We may feel safer, but in reality we are more vulnerable the less free we are. We grow into lives of perpetual servitude, constantly seeking out employers instead of ever doing anything for ourselves. We depend on others for everything we need to survive. Our skill sets become a list of traits that are desirable in slaves: works hard, speaks politely, has a positive attitude, doesn’t challenge authority, follows directions well, and so on. We never really demand anything, so we end up with whatever we are willing to accept to sell ourselves out. What we get is generation after generation of people that are indistinguishable at a distance from herds of livestock.

That is why freedom is worth defending—because it makes us strong, and its absence makes us weak. It gives us opportunities to learn and keeps us from developing into ignorant, helpless animals that would die without a master. Freedom is the difference between a man and the horse he rides. Every time we give up some of our liberty, we are getting on all fours and inviting anyone to mount us. We are proclaiming ourselves weak and in need of a master. And there is always someone ready to take up the offer.

Being a good citizen does not mean following the orders of men who want to make us their horses. Our country will never be better off because its people declared themselves beasts undeserving of liberty. Our best people earn honor by remaining steadfast while everyone else’s knees quiver. And they are remembered far longer and more fondly than their horses.

Why Do We Just Accept Things?

A couple days ago, I came across the photo below, taken from a wall in New York City. Under it was the caption, “Think about it, if only for a second.” So I did.

Photo by Andy Asimakis (2011)

I thought about it for several seconds. Then I went back to the photo and thought about it some more.

The things that we human beings will accept are absolutely amazing. On many occasions, large groups of people have managed to accept things that make people today think they must have been stupid or cowards. And people today accept things that, in the future, our descendants will probably regard the same way.

Acceptance is not all bad, of course. The world isn’t all roses and sunshine; humans do need to adapt, and before that can happen, we need to accept and absorb what is around us. No doubt, there have been some humans who had too much of a tendency to not accept the things around them, and they probably didn’t make much of a contribution to our gene pool.

But when it comes to our social environment, over-acceptingness can be a major point of weakness, and even a fatal flaw. “Doormat” is a pretty apt metaphor for one who consistently accepts too much. “Sheep” is another. Vast numbers of people have knowingly been led to horrible fates simply because they nodded their heads and submitted at the wrong moment. Those same people didn’t have much to contribute to the human gene pool.

Even for lesser situations than life-or-death, many people lack some mechanism that allows them to say “No” and to alter things when circumstances become unacceptable. So many times in our lives, especially for those of us in the lower socioeconomic tiers, we just say “Okay” and put up with whatever obstacle or injustice is put in our path.

Higher taxes? “Okay.” Big rent increase? “Okay.” Kicked out of one’s own home? “Okay.” That magic word okay lets us continue on the path of least resistance, even if it leads somewhere worse than the other path, where we’d have to say “No” and maybe fight our way through. Being obedient reduces conflict.

However, being obedient can often amount to surrendering our freedom. That’s what we are doing when someone tries to force something objectionable on us, and we just let it happen. Were we acting freely, we would not allow that objectionable thing, but we instead permit someone else to take control over our behavior. When there is an immediate threat to our safety or our lives, it makes some sense, but it happens much more often than that.

This supine attitude is behind nearly every successful infringement of our freedom. We just try to be good, obedient people, and it can easily result in some person or institution taking advantage of us—just like humans learned long ago to use shouting and the pounding of horse hooves to direct herds of livestock. We assume that the safe option is always the correct one, the option that will preserve our freedom and our security.

That is why we just accept things. Whether by conditioning or some innate quality, we lean toward the option that seems like it will keep us safe and free in the immediate situation, even if it won’t in the long term.

Is there a lesson in this? Maybe. Some people are just inherently cowards, and their responses will always be to accept the immediately safe choice, no matter the long-term consequences. But the majority of people fall somewhere between “coward” and “rebel without a cause,” and their responses can be guided with a little bit of foresight and will power.

Refusing to accept something—that is, resisting—often has the potential to land us in hot water. However, many of us need to learn and understand that taking the chance of landing in hot water is always better than foolishly sitting in warm, comfortable water while it is being boiled. Sometimes the correct option, the one that will keep us safe and free, is to resist.