There may be extraordinary occasions when killing a citizen is permissible, but it should never be acceptable for the government to refuse to acknowledge the act. How can we be free if our government has the power to kill us in secret? And how can a sovereign authority be accountable to the people if the sovereign can refuse to own up to its actions?
When Argentina’s military junta secretly abducted and killed its citizens during that country’s “dirty war” in the 1970s, the world labeled these acts “disappearances” and condemned them as violations of human rights. A disappearance is not just an abduction or killing, but an unacknowledged abduction or killing. To “disappear” citizens not only deprives them of their liberty or life without fair process but is deeply corrosive of democratic politics, casting a shadow of fear over all.
The late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said that if he had to choose between a country with the right to vote but no habeas corpus, or a country that had habeas corpus but no right to vote, he’d choose the country with habeas corpus every time. His point was that if the government has the power to lock up its citizens without having to justify its actions to a court, as habeas corpus requires, all other rights are meaningless.