Steve Chapman

Well, maybe, and maybe not. As a rule, people should not be killed by the government without a trial -- yet police often kill criminal suspects they believe pose a danger to them or others, simply because there is no good alternative. Paul, however, fears Obama will blow up Americans at home just for the heck of it.

In conjuring this scenario, the senator ignored the limits the Justice Department has imposed. The target must be a "senior operational leader of al-Qaida" and present a genuine threat of attack -- but he can't be killed unless "capture is infeasible." A terrorist savoring a burger at T.G.I. Friday's can be captured, making Paul's objections somewhat beside the point. Awlaki is the only American Obama is known to have targeted for a drone attack.

The administration could have defused the issue by explaining that American terrorists in America would be killed only if they pose an urgent peril that can't be eliminated any other way. On Sept. 11, 2001, fighter jets were scrambled to intercept hijacked airliners. Would it matter if they had been drones?

Yet for years, Obama's aides declined to explain the policy or concede any sliver of executive power. The Justice Department didn't release its white paper on the drone policy until it was leaked. It's still withholding other important material from the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Asked whether the administration could legally carry out strikes in the U.S., incoming CIA Director John Brennan replied that it had no intention of doing so. Asked whether it would be constitutional to kill an American "sitting in a cafe" on U.S. soil, Holder allowed that it would not be "appropriate."

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, had to use slip-joint pliers to extract an acknowledgment that the answer was "no." In his letter to Paul, Holder reiterated the point.

In the end, the Kentucky senator's alarmism may not have been realistic or justified. But you can't say it wasn't useful.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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