A word of advice for Rand Paul and anti-drone activists

MQ-1 Predator

So with Sen. Rand Paul launching a filibuster over the issue, we’re finally seeing some opposition in Congress to President Obama’s program of using drone strikes to kill suspected terrorists. And I say, good! We know the program has already killed at least one American citizen — radical Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki — and since the list of targets is a state secret, for all we know there may be other Americans who have ended up on the wrong side of a Hellfire missile too. The targets may indeed be traitors, but even traitors are supposed to be entitled to their day in court. And even if they won’t appear in court, the government should still have to lay out to the public the reasons why it believes a person poses an imminent threat before force is applied against them. Otherwise abuses of this awesome power are inevitable.

But while I applaud Sen. Paul and other activists for taking this up, I do have one bit of advice for them:

You keep talking about drones. If you want to win, you should stop. Here is why.

First, you’re not really against the drones per se, you’re against the drones being used to kill citizens without trial. If armed drones were only used on the battlefield, like any other weapon of war, they’d be much less objectionable. If someone’s shooting at Americans, it doesn’t really matter, morally speaking, if the Hellfire missile that stops them is fired from a manned F-15E or a remotely piloted MQ-9. And if the President was having American citizens knocked off by snipers rather than drones, you’d be right to be just as against that as you are against this. So setting up your message as “anti-drone” rather than “anti-assassination” just diverts the conversation from the heart of the issue. Your argument is about the why of this program, not the how.

Second, if you insist on positioning yourself as “anti-drone,” you will need to contend at some point with an unpleasant reality: drones are really, really popular. Somewhere between two-thirds and four-fifths of the American public supports their use. This may confuse you, but the reason why is not hard to understand; they’re not really in love with drones themselves, they’re in love with a mechanism that lets the President fight his little wars overseas without having to send their kids off to get shot at. When people hear “drones”, they hear “no boots on the ground,” and after a decade of boots-on-the-ground war in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are quite happy to let robots do their fighting for a while instead. So, looking at the question simply from a crass political perspective, being the guy who hates drones is a losing proposition. The guy who wants to uphold the Constitution and due process of law, by contrast, is in a much friendlier place.

So, as someone who agrees with you on this and wants to see you win, here’s my two cents: stop talking about the means, and start talking about the ends. Drones aren’t the issue. Assassination is.


Sandy Smith

March 7, 2013
4:18 pm

In this case, though, his question was about the use of drones on American soil, which something like 67% of people polled (the last one I saw) agree is unconstitutional (and now, apparently Eric Holder has discovered the first limit to Presidential power of Obama’s Presidency, up to and including the previous expansions Candidate Obama criticized under Bush).

So “Drones Over Your House” plays differently than “Drones oversees killing brown people.”

Jason Lefkowitz

March 7, 2013
4:21 pm

True, but I still think the issue there is the “over your house” part rather than the “drones” part. Focusing on the drones rather than the over-your-house just muddies what I agree should be a winning message.

Jason Lefkowitz

March 7, 2013
4:23 pm

And it’s worth noting that the only definite case we know of in which an American citizen was killed by the program (the al-Awlaki case) involved a brown guy getting killed in a foreign country.

Sandy Smith

March 7, 2013
4:37 pm

Much like police abuse, I suspect most Americans will take notice when it happens to suburban white people.

Alok Dhir

March 7, 2013
7:36 pm

This article, while true enough, misses an opportunity to further clarify/refine the conversation. “Drone” doesn’t just refer to unmanned, flying means of waging war – spying/dropping bombs/etc. There are plenty of interesting civilian applications of unmanned flying “bots” which may have nothing more than cameras, sensory equipment for research, etc. Given recent advancements in technology, I can see drones becoming commonplace for perfectly benign applications. The term “drone” in most of the current conversations should ideally be replaced with “military drone” – or something else like it.

An interesting article on the subject: http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2012/06/ff_drones

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