Saturday, March 9, 2013

A Rare Bipartisan Moment Over Drone Attacks

Last week saw a rare bit of political theater in Washington: an actual filibuster by a US Senator. Rand Paul (KY) took the floor and held it by speaking for some 13 hours to block confirmation of President Obama's nominee for CIA director.

The filibuster had little practical effect - other than reviving references to the Jimmy Stewart classic "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," it merely delayed confirmation by a day - but it did raise awareness of an issue: the administration's apparent stance that it has the legal right to kill American citizens, on American soil, with drone strikes if national security demands it.

This raised two interesting observations (at least, they're interesting to me...):

First, there was of course a social media buzz about Paul's grandstanding. Memes like these were common on FB throughout the day:

What was fascinating to me about the social media frenzy was that this same message was coming from both the right and the left. Tribes that usually have nothing but contempt for each other's positions - and who mock each other regularly as a matter of instinct - suddenly started singing in unison. I don't know if any of them noticed - I doubt it, given how little the most committed tribalists will listen to each other - but I found it fascinating nevertheless. If nothing else, this sends an interesting political message to the President: you've managed to piss off both sides on this one. Maybe it's time to back down.

Second, it is fascinating to me the extent to which the technology (armed predator drones) provided a red herring distraction on the entire debate (a taste of "squirrel sauce", as my friend Steve Saideman would put it). "Targeted killing" is a polite term for either "assassination" or "murder", depending on your taste, and the fact that it's done with one weapon over another seems largely irrelevant.

Imagine this thought experiment: what if Sen. Paul had gotten up and asked for the President to publicly declare that the administration has no legal right to assassinate American citizens, on American soil, without trial, using CIA snipers with rifles? Or with agents slipping poison into their coffee? The universal response would have been, "of course he can't do that". The violations of habeus corpus and other portions of the Constitution, not to mention Federal law, are numerous. So why does this become a "legitimate debate" when we change "sniper rifle" to "predator drone"?

Nearly a dozen years after 9/11/01, most Americans don't worry much about terrorism anymore - with good reason. Yet the political debates in Washington continue to be shaped (some might say mis-shaped) by this one event and our failure to come to terms with it. Perhaps the response of both the left and the right to this could start to move things back to some sense. In the meantime, we'll likely see more interesting political theater - which is always entertaining!

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