There's ample precedent -- and common sense -- to support the claim that the executive branch can kill American citizens when they are sworn members of enemy forces and avowed traitors working with the enemy.
But those precedents start to fray at the edges when the whole world is the war zone and the war doesn't end until a diffuse, committed and often camouflaged army of suicidal religious fanatics defy their god and agree to leave the Dark Ages. And the common sense starts to drain away like water through your fingers when you contemplate that we may be facing these kinds of problems for half a century. So while it strikes me as a no-brainer that al-Awlaki should go, what about the next guy? Or the next?
And we know there will be a next guy. Indeed, homegrown terrorists are only going to become a bigger and bigger threat in the future. That's not right-wing cant but the judgment of the Bipartisan Policy Center's recent report, co-written by the former chairs of the 9/11 Commission.
Some civil libertarians seem to think we can never, ever kill an American citizen without a trial by jury (and perhaps not even then). That argument would have been silly during the days of conventional warfare. Now it's plain crazy.
And the Obama administration is right. This is no job for courts. Wars and how we fight them are political decisions, properly left to Congress and the president.
So, let's have Congress and the president come up with some clear, public rules. Better to start the debate over an easy case than a hard one.