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.

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.