Government, Citizenship, and Treason

by Jason Stotts

Recently, the B.O. administration gave the green light to the CIA to kill the Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Typically, this wouldn’t have been any sort of interesting issue and something that the CIA could have decided for itself.  The problem with this case is that al-Awlaki was born in America and is a US citizen. For more information about this case, see the NY Times article “U.S. Approval of Cleric Causes Unease.”

I find this case very interesting and I want to look at the principles behind it.  That is, I want to discuss the philosophical problems related to the case and not the particular problems related to this case.

First, let’s start by noting that the function of government is to be a protector of the lives and rights of its citizens. This is both the purpose and justification of government.  Now, one interesting question you can ask is: how do you determine who is a citizen and who is not?  Typically, those people who reside inside the borders of a country are citizens and those people who do not, are not. However, clearly non-citizens can reside inside the borders of a country and so there must be some additional qualifications.  What these are is determined by each government, but typically include things like: being born to citizens of that country, being born inside the borders of that country, moving into that country and applying for official recognition from the government, etc.  While the process by which a person comes to be officially recognized by the government as a citizen can vary, it is the official recognition by that government that makes one a citizen.

Citizenship is not permanent.  One can move from one country to another and take on citizenship in the new country.  Sometimes a person can even maintain citizenship in multiple countries.  Otherwise, when a person becomes a citizen of a new country, he renounces citizenship in his old country.  Citizenship is not something about a person, but a relationship between a person and a government.  Since a government exists to secure the lives and rights of its citizenry, it is important that such a class be well delineated.  Obviously, in order to do this, the government must set specific criteria for citizenship and promulgate these conditions.

Now, the issue arises: can there be cases where the government ceases to recognize the citizenship of a person?  Yes, I think there are many such cases.  We’ve already seen that this happens when a person moves from one country to another and thereby stops being a citizen of the former country and becomes a citizen of the latter country.  I think it is also appropriate in cases where a citizen takes direct action to harm the nation itself.  Cases where one citizen attacks another, or even a group of citizens, are nothing more than simple criminal acts.  A citizen has broken a law and so must therefore be punished.  But when the object of attack is the very idea of Law, order, and the necessary conditions for the lives and happiness of every citizen, by directly attacking the government, then that citizen has committed the crime of treason.  Although it should be obvious, it is only treason when a citizen acts to bring down his own government.  When a non-citizen acts to bring down a foreign government, it is not treason.  When a foreign government acts to overthrow a government, then it is war.

Treason is much more than a simple criminal act: it is an act that harms every citizen of a country, if the country is good, as the country is protecting their lives and rights and so to attack the government, is to attack their lives and rights. This last point may not be obvious, but if the government is a necessary condition for rights, then without it there would be no rights and anarchy would reign supreme.  The idealistic optimism of anarchists notwithstanding, a government is necessary to protect our rights and therefore our lives.  Thus, in cases of treason, the government should revoke the citizenship of the treasonous person: it should not act to protect the rights and life of a person who is attacking the rights and lives of all of its citizens.

In addition to revoking all rights and privileges of citizenship, a government should move swiftly and decisively to end the threat to itself and its citizens.  It should ascertain the facts of the situation and act with unrestrained violence to deal with the former citizen: death is the appropriate penalty for treason to a good country.  To allow such a person to live is to allow its citizens to be in danger and it is the function of government to protect its citizens; so, to allow the treasonous person to live is against the function of the government.  The government should also not keep such a person in jail any longer than it takes to verify his guilt and the exact nature of his crime: to force the citizens to pay to feed and care for a person who intends to harm them all is an affront to the idea of Justice.  Once his guilt and crime is certain, then he should be publicly executed as a warning against future treason.  By acting swiftly and with focussed violence, the government is acting to ensure the future prosperity of its citizens and fulfilling its function.

So, to conclude, citizenship is the state of officially being recognized by a government as a person whose life and rights it must protect.  When a citizen acts to destroy his government, and thereby harm all of his fellow citizens, then the government is obligated to act swiftly and decisively to end the threat by killing the treasonous citizen.  This all, it is important to stress, is contingent upon a good government that is fulfilling its proper role.  In cases where the government is evil and is harming its own citizens, treason becomes impossible and acting to overthrow the government, and create a new government that does fulfill the proper function of government, is the duty of all citizens and the highest political virtue.

3 Responses to “Government, Citizenship, and Treason”

  1. Obloggers’ Carnival Number Eleventyhundred and Three! « Trey Givens

    […] Stotts presents Government, Citizenship, and Treason posted at Erosophia, saying, “How should the government respond to a treasonous […]

  2. oilboy

    I agree that a government should be able to revoke someone’s citizenship in a case of treason. However, what you have not addressed is, what is the due process by which a treasonous person’s citizenship should be revoked ? Just putting him on a ‘death list’ certainly is not a proper process. To keep a balance between government branches, I suggest that revoking citizenship takes place in the judicial branch, in court, where prosecutors need to show evidence as to what the treason consists of, a judge or a jury then need to judge on it. The Executive branch can then execute on it afterwards.

    And, it needs to be clearly defined, what treason precisely consists of, and please a bit more precise than the glibly way the latest terror laws have been formulated.

    What about any protection of citizens against a tyrannical government that would use such laws to knock out political opponents ? (You mentioned that it is right to overthrow a tyrannical evil government. Are you aware that these kinds of governments would use these laws to execute anyone who opposes their government ? )

    Would you regard VERBAL support for a country’s opponents as treason ?

    Would you have killed Jane Fonda who went to North Vietnam during the Vietnam War ?

  3. JasonStotts


    You make very good points and I generally agree with you. Even though I was trying to not discuss the issue in terms of concretes, I was thinking about the case referenced where not only is al-Awlaki living in Yemen, but is also actively aiding the terrorists there. This makes him an enemy-combatant and, I think, negates the governments obligation to follow due process. In general, though, I think that if a citizen is still in the US and is attacking the government, then he should still get due process and some protection of law. I should point out that I think that treason can only be an action, not words, that is a direct attack on the institution of government. I think it would need to be big things, like trying to blow up Congress, flying a plane into the Pentagon, etc. I think that no matter how much a person’s writings or speeches may make a government look bad, this person is wholly protected by his right to free speech and the government should be able to take no action against him. Indeed, a good government would have nothing to fear from speech, but only a bad one.

    There is, as you point out, a real danger in a good government instituting anti-treason laws. What if this government later is corrupted and these laws are used to stifle opposition to the tyranny? I think, however, that if the citizens of a country refuse to let their government become corrupted, then it cannot happen. Of course, as recent events in the US show, perhaps that is overly optimistic.