Droning On and On, Off Message

Welcome to Washington, D.C., where a straight answer and some straight thinking would save a lot of trouble.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) is channeling the actor James Stewart, whose 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington featured the affable star fighting indecency and corruption with a marathon filibuster, that arcane Senate tactic that allows a nonstop speech to delay a vote or other action on pending legislation.

Problem is, Sen. Paul is fighting a ghost, a thing that has not happened, and is unlikely to happen.

“I rise today to begin to filibuster John Brennan’s nomination for the C.I.A.,” Mr. Paul began, according to the New York Times politics blog. “I will speak until I can no longer speak. I will speak as long as it takes, until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court.”

With all due respect, Senator: Huh?

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) filibusters against the confirmation of John Brennan, President Obama's nominee as CIA director. (Photo: Senate TV/AP)

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) filibusters against the confirmation of John Brennan, President Obama’s nominee as CIA director. (Photo: Senate TV/AP)

If the government were indeed even thinking of targeting U.S. citizens on U.S. soil without due process — be it with unmanned drones, rifles, or slingshots — that would be cause for concern. But it is not. The government uses drones in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other places to kill terrorists.

There are many important questions concerning the use of drones. Do they cause too many civilian casualties? (They well may; this is worrying, but also involves the Taliban custom of using human shields.) Is it moral to send unmanned aerial vehicles into war? (Here the analysis must balance the use of aerial technology to keep soldiers out of harm’s way versus the human cost of “traditional” warfare.) Are drones the blunt-instrument robots some people believe them to be? (They are remotely controlled by a human who uses a high-tech camera mounted on the drone.)

Closer to Sen. Paul’s line of thinking is the possibility that even in a foreign country, a U.S. citizen may be among the victims. But this debate is hardly worthy of the name. Only one U.S. citizen, radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, has been targeted by a drone; he joined al Qaeda — beyond doubt, an enemy of the U.S. — in Yemen, and was killed by a drone attack in 2011. (Three other U.S. victims in drone attacks in Yemen were not intended targets.) The suggestion that a U.S. citizen who has cast his lot with the enemy (and left the U.S. to do so) retains any claim on due process — indeed, on citizenship — is a ridiculous notion. From at least the time of World War II, U.S. citizens who have joined with the enemy have been held to have renounced their citizenship, and nobody in high places in U.S. government troubled much about it.

But no one in the administration, or anywhere, has suggested that drones be used to kill U.S. citizens on U.S. soil. Without a thought as to why that would happen, or where, or when, or to achieve what, the more strident segment of the president-hating right has used the confirmation process of Mr. Brennan as the new director of the Central Intelligence Agency to float the ratings-magnet, preposterous theory that because we’ve done it at war in Afghanistan, we’re about to do it in Abilene.

Where did this start? When American Volksdeutsch showed up in the Wehrmacht in World War II, and were killed in combat according to the then-current rules of war, did anyone scream that their ideological comrades, if found in the U.S., would have been pistoled without trial for treason or espionage? Did we, as a nation, fail in our due process obligation to every Confederate soldier before unleashing the might of the Union Army on them?

Of course not. Such people chose to act as military, or paramilitary, enemies of the United States. But if Taliban sympathizers who are U.S. citizens are found to be conspiring on U.S. soil, there are about a dozen methods of apprehension and trial that are easier to apply than a drone strike over, say, Lincoln, Nebraska. We even afford non-U.S. citizens due process, from the perpetrators of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing to September 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui. For Sen. Paul to raise the alarm about possible U.S. drone attacks on its own people on its own soil is not too different from urging a nationwide quarantine to fend of a U.S. epidemic of African sleeping sickness. The disease exists somewhere, but most — no, all of us who don’t travel to rural Africa are pretty unlikely to run into tsetse flies.

But there has been enough support for Sen. Paul’s baseless fantasy to force the Attorney General, Eric Holder, to address the possibility of in-U.S. drone strikes on U.S. citizens, be they traitors or no. And being a top lawyer, to whom concession of any point is anathema, Mr. Holder punted the opportunity to show Sen. Paul for the anti-Obama puppet he is. In a letter to Sen. Paul, and in testimony Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mr. Holder refused to rule out the use of drone strikes on U.S. soil against U.S. targets, should there be another September 11-style attack. Presumably, the American targets in such an attack would be the terrorists responsible.

The right wingers of Sen. Paul’s ilk have run with this, purposely mutating the reservation of the right to act in the interests national defense in a time of warlike emergency into the whiff of the idea that the law-abiding U.S. public could perish by a drone strike organized by a heartless government. This kind of ratings fuel also powers the engines of the insurrectionist alarmists who hold, against all evidence, that the Second Amendment was created to arm us all with assault rifles for the inevitable day when the government comes crashing through our doors to take all our guns, right down to that thing that shoots out cookie dough. Just like they have done in the 79 years since automatic machine guns were banned.

Oh, wait…

The Attorney General should have said to the Judiciary Committee, “This government has no intention, ever, of using weapons of war against U.S. citizens on U.S. soil, except and unless we encounter that rare circumstance in which such a person joins a terrorist organization that targets the nation for attack and executes its plan. Any American who has joined with such an organization has chosen his fate and forsaken the protections of the citizenship he so blithely denounced when he agreed to attack his own nation.” Indeed, in his letter to Sen. Paul, he described just such a situation, a specific set of circumstances that would justify such action.

Of course, if President Obama didn’t use drones to target terrorists abroad, he would be painted in the minds of his ordinarily hawkish Republican detractors as 1) soft on terror, and 2) putting U.S. pilots in danger instead of using the unmanned technology available to us. But as the president refuses to go soft on terrorism, the senseless right has no better option for their anti-Obama agenda than to make up stories of things that haven’t happened, and likely never will.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr

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