The New York Times puts this question to the GOP contenders. Sophistry ensues. “Under what circumstances, if any, would the Constitution permit the president to authorize the targeted killing of a United States citizen who has not been sentenced to death by a court,” the paper asks. Gingrich, Huntsman, Perry, and Romney take the same line: “Under wartime circumstances” says Newt; “If such an individual is engaged on a battlefield,” says Huntsman; “Due process permits the use of deadly force against all enemy combatants, including citizens,” Romney avers; and “The President would be so authorized … where a citizen has joined or is associated with a nation or group engaged in hostilities against the United States” according to Perry. Only Ron Paul describes the conditions in which extrajudicial targeted killing of Americans is permitted as “none.”

The others engage in Orwellian obfuscation, claiming that “battlefield” circumstances permit this — as if the situation the Times is asking about is one in which some American terrorist is shooting away at U.S. troops in combat or about to detonate a bomb on American soil. But that isn’t “targeted” killing. The practice Huntsman, Gingrich, Romney, and Perry — and President Obama — defend includes the assassination of Americans who are, in Perry’s words, only “associated with a nation or group engaged in hostilities.” In fact, the power claimed by these men goes far beyond that since, again, this is extrajudicial killing, in which there is no obligation for the executive to provide evidence to a judge or anyone else that the murdered man is guilty of what Uncle Sam accuses him of.

Stripped of the evasions, what they are saying is that you or anyone else can be killed if the president thinks — or claims to think — that you are “associated” with “a nation or group” that is engaged in hostilities with the United States. Janet Reno would approve. This doctrine would have saved her some crocodile tears over the slaughter of the Branch Davidians at Waco. Even the unarmed women and children there, after all, were “associated” with a group engaged in hostilities with the United States.

Needless to say, there are Americans who join extremist groups, but existing law-enforcement powers and military doctrines already permit killing them when they are actually engaged in acts of deadly violence. The Republicans’ invocations of a “battlefield” might sound reassuring, until you realize that the recently passed National Defense Authorization Act, according to two of its supporters, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), designates even the U.S. itself as a battlefield. The whole world is one.

I have trouble taking these claims to more-than-royal power seriously; more precisely, I have trouble ascribing good faith to the intellectuals who try to justify an omnipotent presidency. But it’s a nominally free country, so let them have their say, in elections as well as op-ed pages and the corridors of our think tanks and universities. It seems to me, though, that we ought to hear from those who believe in a limited and law-bound executive as well. Ron Paul shouldn’t be alone in this. The public needs to know what’s at stake here and just how few political leaders think there should be any restraints at all on the power of the president to kill.