George Washington was ruthless.
As commander in chief of the Continental Army, Washington was prepared to crush those who attacked American liberty. He set up military commissions to swiftly hang enemies. He sparked an international incident when he ordered the execution of a random teenage prisoner. He even justified torture. But he reserved his ferocity for foreign enemy combatants.
Following the firestorm of last week’s Boston bombing and the ensuing violent manhunt, we are trying to find our bearings. We need to aggressively extract information, identify additional threats and hunt down any accomplices, whether foreign or homegrown. Yet we must remain careful not to slide toward an Orwellian state – where Big Brother runs roughshod over local authorities, monitors Americans without probable cause, restrains the movements of innocent civilians or rains drone missiles on U.S. soil.
Consider his response to Benedict Arnold. Most everyone knows about Arnold and his treacherous attempt to sell West Point to the British in 1780. However, many people forget that he had two accomplices – a young British soldier, John Andre, and an American co-conspirator, Loyalist Joshua Hett Smith. Washington’s differing treatment of these men reveals an important distinction between the rights of foreign nationals versus citizens.
Washington captured Andre first. He made short work of the young Brit: Andre was speedily brought before a military commission and hanged within days. Washington believed foreign enemy combatants had little to no rights, as he ferociously defended his people.