King John, the Bill of Rights, and Assassination by Drone

When I was in school, I read a poem entitled, "King John and the Abbot of Canterbury".  The poem relates how the Abbot of Canterbury was a kind and generous and loved man, who was well respected throughout England.  He was also one of the wealthiest men in England--wealthier than King John himself. The king became increasingly enraged by stories of the Abbot's goodness, kindness and generosity, and he coveted the Abbot's wealth, so one day he summoned the Abbot to appear before him in court. When the Abbot arrived, the king told him that he must return to court in three days time to answer three questions for the king. If the Abbot failed to appear or if he were unable to correctly answer each question, he would immediately be executed and all of his wealth and property would be forfeited to the king.  Following were the three questions for which King John demanded answers:
  • Question 1:  How long, to the minute, will the king live? 
  • Question 2: How much, to the penny, is the king worth as he sits on the throne with the  royal crown on his head? 
  • Question 3: What was the king thinking while the Abbot was answering the first two questions?
In the poem, the Abbot leaves the court in dismay and immediately travels to England's greatest scholars to try to find the answers to the questions.  He goes to the universities--he travels to Cambridge and to Oxford, he asks the wise men of the church, but everywhere he goes, he hears only that no one can answer such questions for another person.  Finally, at the end of the second day, he arrives back at his estate grief-stricken because he knows he will die the following day, and he is greeted by a faithful servant who tells the Abbot that he can answer each question for the King, and persuads the Abbot to allow him to go in his place to face King John.

I have been reminded of that poem several times lately as our government has reauthorized indefinite detention of U.S. citizens under the NDAA and most recently when the Attorney-General announced last week that the Administration does have the authority to kill American ciitzens on U.S. soil using drones.  Yesterday, Senator Rand Paul spent more than 12 hours filibustering CIA nominee John Brennan's nomination simply to make the point that no Administration should have power to assassinate U.S. citizens without due process.  Paul made some excellent points, including the one that once we give up our rights and freedoms, we cannot expect to get them back. 

What amazes me about the filibuster is that any American cannot see clearly that drone attacks against U.S. citizens on U.S. soil are an egregious violation of our Constitutional rights.  Yet, this morning the Wall Street Journal attacked Paul for his "political stunt" saying that he had managed to rally "libertarian  college students in their dorm rooms."  How demeaning and insulting!  I stayed at work an extra hour last night to send #standwithrand tweets so that he would know that, like millions of Americans, I appreciate what he is doing on behalf of liberty.  I am certainly not a libertarian and I have not been a college student in over 20 years. The men and women with whom I interacted on Twitter last night were largely people like me--working professionals who care about the Constitution, freedom and the Bill of Rights.  Regardless of what the WSJ, Senator John McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham like to pretend, we are not a mindless army of anarchists.  We know that in a free society, the government must operate under the boundaries of its own laws.  No person can be above the rule of law--not the Attorney-General, not the president of the United States, not anyone.

Our founding fathers understood this principle all too well.  They had lived in a society where the king was above the law--his whims and wishes trumped any written legislation.  While the story of King John and the Abbot of Canterbury is almost definitely fiction, it highlights the real abuses committed by King John against his subjects--abuses so severe that finally his nobles forced him to sign the Magna Carta guaranteeing some rights and protections to some portions of society.  While the Magna Carta granted very limited protections, the document became the basis for the concept that the king is not above the law, and that concept became the basis for our Constitution and Bill of Rights.  Each right we are guaranteed in the Bill of Rights--the right to freedom of speech, of assembly, of religion, the right to freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, the right to trial by jury, the right of due process, the right to keep and bear arms--all were guaranteed to us by people who understood what it meant to have no rights.  They wrote down our freedoms for us so that we could learn them and live under them. 

Today we have a society that has been free for so long that we have lost sight of what it means not to be free.  When the current Administration tells the American people that a senior level official should have the right to examine the evidence and determine whether to assassinate a particular person, an alarming number of people in this country seem to think that this is acceptable.  Many leaders of both parties, and many in the press, seem to believe that this power of assassination or imprisonment without trial would never be abused or used to destroy a person who was not guilty of a serious crime against the country and who did not pose an imminent threat to its security.  History suggests the opposite.  From the Old Testament Story of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, who murdered their neighbor Naboth and stole his vineyard because they coveted his property and he refused to sell it, to more modern examples of citizens living in the Soviet Union during the Stalin years who reported fellow citizens as traitors to the government and had them executed to get their apartments, history teaches that people are often motivated by greed, pride, envy, lust and a desire for personal gratification and that these are often the driving forces in their decisions to execute another person. What is to stop the "senior official" from killing the rival for his lover's attention, or executing the owner of a home he wants, or assassinating any person who stands between him and some desired goal. Perhaps, as in the case of King John and the Abbot, envy could be the sole basis for determining that a certain individual or group of individuals was a threat, or, as in the case of most tyrants, an honest disagreement with a certain policy or idea could target a particular individual for termination.  Due process and a trial by jury system is of paramount importance in a world where selfishness, greed and anger are basic human instincts.

Today, Jay Carney reluctantly read a statement from Eric Holder informing the American people that drone strikes are to be restrained under the guidelines of the Constitution and that the President does not have the power to assassinate non-combatant Americans on U.S. soil.  I applaud Rand Paul and the fourteen Senators who stood with him yesterday in getting this admission out of the White House.  As Paul said in his statement following Carney's announcement, "under duress and public humiliation" the White House decided to uphold the law.  I am just disappointed that it took a 12 hour filibuster to get the White House to admit that it has a legal obligation to uphold the Constitution, and I am saddened that on the day after the filibuster so many Americans do not seem to understand the importance of protecting and defending this document that was created to protect and defend each of us.

Alexandra Swann is the author of No Regrets: How Homeschooling Earned me a Master's Degree at Age Sixteen and several other books. Her newest novel, The Chosen, about one small group of Americans' fight to restore the Constitution and end indefinite detentions without trial, is available on Kindle and in paperback. For more information, visit her website at