Democracies are fragile, and one of the worries about them is that the seeds for their overthrow are sewn and grown inside. That's a thought as old as Plato (see Republic IX's son of the democratic man, the eventual tyrant), but it's the Romans who lived it fully and provided us with a model for it: Julius Caesar. Invocations of Caesar haunt American democracy, and one point of interest is that John Wilkes Booth invoked Brutus in the aftermath of his assassination of Lincoln. The dangers of an imperial presidency has been a longstanding worry.
Kevin Williamson's essay in National Review Online has the same analogy at its core: Obama as Caesar. Now, we've seen this trope before with the Obamacare concerns and with the general teaparty invocations of the blood of tyrants nourishing the tree of liberty. But I think Williamson's point shouldn't be lumped with these. His, I think, seems considerably more reasonable. First, Williamson's concern is with the fact that Anwar al-Awlaki was an American citizen that was targeted for assassination. Sure, under conditions of combat, we don't need to arrest and mirandize our opponents, but those we know are citizens and not in the midst of a shootout deserve some legal concern. Yes, he was an al-Qaeda leader and planner. Still a citizen. Second, the Bush administration cleared the ground for both treating al-Qaeda operatives as combatants and as dialing back protections for citizens suspected of being in league with them. This yielded the following:
Running with the ball we passed him, Obama and his administration now insist on the president’s right not only to order the assassination of U.S. citizens, but to do so in secret, without oversight from Congress, the public, or anybody else. Barack Obama today claims powers that would have made Julius Caesar blush.
A good deal of the work on this blog is devoted to picking out fallacious forms of these kind of arguments. This time, I think it's appropriate. Even if you think the President's decision was right, you must admit that it is a considerable extension of his power to trump the Fifth Amendment's requirement of due process.