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The Fading Sense of Citizenship

The late Fr. Richard Neuhaus did a classic piece once on the question of whether an atheist could be a “good citizen.” But to ask what a “good citizen” or a good member of the political community would be is to bring us back to the original question of what the polis or the polity is.

Is it more like a hotel, where people take up residence? In that case, the connection generates no moral demands apart from the requirement of paying the rent and obeying the house rules. Or is the polis more truly, as Aristotle taught us, a moral association:  a place where the members share certain understandings of the things that are just or unjust; where they agree to be ruled by procedures they regard, by and large, as just; and where they take it as their chief mission to cultivate that sense of justice among one another through the lessons they teach through the laws? 

Fr. Neuhaus had no doubt that an atheist could be a good citizen in a polity reduced in its moral character to the equivalent of a hotel. But a good citizen, he argued, was one who could actually give a moral defense of that regime to which he had knowingly given his allegiance. And there, he thought that the atheist who would call into question the ground of all of our moral judgments would be distinctly disarmed and disabled.   

Now of course, not all atheists will fit that description. But Fr. Neuhaus’s argument would apply to that army of moral skeptics or relativists who fill out the American academy these days. But I put that issue aside and focus mainly on that matter of citizenship, which keeps arising in different ways in our politics.

A couple of weeks ago we heard protests over the killing of Anwar Al-Alwaki, in Yemen. Al-Alwaki was a prominent figure in Al-Qaeda, connected with several attacks on Americans, including the shootings at Fort Hood. But he had been born in the United States, and by the standards shaped over the years by the courts, he was an American citizen. Yet nothing he had done had severed that moral link of  citizenship, and in the judgment of many lawyers and judges, nothing he had done would deprive him of the special protection that the laws would accord to a citizen, as apart from ordinary thugs directing murderous assaults on Americans.

Yaser Hamdi: legal precedent

Seven years ago, in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, Yaser Hamdi had been caught in Afghanistan with an assault rifle, and for all one could see, he was fighting on the side of the Taliban. By his father’s account, young Hamdi was there doing “relief” work, mainly minding his own business. For Justice Scalia, it mattered profoundly that Hamdi was an American citizen. The Congress had not suspended the Writ of Habeas Corpus, and so he thought that Hamdi should be either tried for treason or released. 

The Court was willing to order, at least, a review of the information that was used to justify the detention of Hamdi. But Clarence Thomas in dissent opposed this willingness of the judges to draw to themselves the power to review acts taken on the battlefield, and he saw even further:  As he reminded us, rights to “life” preceded rights to “liberty.” If it were necessary for  a court to review the decision to detain a citizen acting as an enemy combatant, would it not be even more imperative to review a decision to kill that man on the battlefield? Thomas recalled the killing of one such citizen by a CIA drone. And in that way he anticipated precisely the argument that would be made over Al-Alwaki.

But the Obama Administration has found its own “low door under the wall.” It doesn’t wish to detain enemy combatants in the Guantanamo prison it professes to find abhorrent; nor does it wish to have them interrogated, for the useful information they can provide, if it means interrogating with methods – shall we say? – severe. And so the Obama team eases its moral sensibility simply by ordering the killing of these people by drones. 

The point has been made aptly that the Biblical injunction “honor thy father and mother” could not have been referring simply to the biological parents. For in that case we would be enjoined to honor the man who sired us in the course of rape. Obligations can flow only to those who have fulfilled the moral definition of parenting – those who have been there to protect and sustain. 

We have recognized, then, that there are moral terms that mark even an association as natural as the family. And yet people can be expelled from the family – they can be cast away and disinherited – when they sever the moral bonds that connect them even to those who had borne them.  

Why is it so astonishing then to consider that the community may tenably sever the connection of citizenship with those who have come to reject the principles that mark their country and show a willingness to use deadly force against their countrymen? To say that this connection can never be severed without the consent of the citizen himself is to say that the polity has no moral character, no moral terms that could ever be broken.  

It is to say that we are no more to each other than fellow residents in a hotel.

Hadley Arkes

Hadley Arkes

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. His most recent book is Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is now available for download.