Republican Rand Paul took to the floor of the U.S. Senate this week to filibuster John Brennan's nomination to become head of the CIA. "I will speak as long as it takes," the junior senator from Kentucky said, "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."
I imagine many Americans following news of the filibuster, which lasted nearly 13 hours, were finding out for the first time that lawmakers such as Paul, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and a handful of others are gravely concerned about a possible threat from the executive branch against these unalienable rights. This makes the filibuster a success. As Paul said, sounding the alarm from "coast to coast" was exactly his aim.
Was this unusual event the filibuster heard 'round the world? At least the country has been alerted to the fact that the Obama administration, in the persons of the president himself, the attorney general and the CIA director-designate, has been alarmingly vague and/or downright unresponsive to repeated, specific questions from Paul and Cruz. The two senators want to know whether the administration believes the Constitution permits the president to order drone strikes against noncombatant American citizens on American soil, thus depriving them of their Fifth Amendment guarantee of due process and, of course, their lives.
It is important to note that neither Paul nor Cruz is questioning the power of the president to defend the country against an "imminent" threat -- any act of war or terrorism such as Pearl Harbor or 9/11. They are not even in this case questioning the legality of drone attacks on Americans overseas. Instead, it is the narrow possibility that the administration might target noncombatants here -- "at a restaurant in Houston or at their home in Bowling Green, Kentucky," as Paul dramatically put it -- that has focused the concern of these freshman powerhouses.
And so it should concern the rest of us -- and not just the Arab-American citizen Rand Paul invoked in hour one, who, for communicating via email with a terrorist-relative in the Middle East, Paul believes, could potentially become a drone target of the Obama administration. By hour four, Paul was discussing the many overseas drone attacks the U.S. has carried out on what we know as "caravans" -- people, Paul said, "going from a place where we think there are bad people to another place where there are bad people." Could it happen here, he wondered?
"So let's say there are people going from a Constitution Party meeting to a Libertarian Party meeting. Both these groups don't like big government. They hate big government ... They are nonviolent as far as I know, but they were on the fusion list for potential terrorists," Paul said, referring to a Department of Homeland Security report tagging anti-abortion activists; border advocates; supporters of Rand's father, Ron Paul; and others as potential members of paramilitary groups that law enforcement should monitor. "Are we going to kill people in a caravan going from one meeting to the next?"
People will say the question is absurd, he readily acknowledged. But if the Obama administration resolutely fails to acknowledge the constitutional limits that specifically rule out such an assault -- which already has plenty of precedent overseas in the secretly expanding "war on terror" -- is it really absurd?
Meanwhile, there is something else to consider. So long as the Obama administration continues to demonize its political opponents as potential domestic terrorists, as Paul says, the outlandishness of a domestic drone strike is further worn down, conditioned into weary complacency or even mob consensus. We've seen such transformations many times before in modern -- and not always totalitarian --societies.
All the more reason for the president to alleviate such fears with his affirmation that killing noncombatant Americans in America is unconstitutional. But I don't think he's going to do it. There's not enough political pressure on him to do so.
One of the stranger results of the popular Paul filibuster was the instant coalescence of an ad hoc "Calm down, Rand" (read: shut up) effort. This political eruption loosely and overlappingly linked "surge" and Arab Spring diehards, neocon-esque conservative journals and blogs, and establishment pooh-bahs such as Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham.
I think the common ground here is that these groups basically favor the Bush-Obama drone wars that allow them to believe we are winning, or at least fighting, the war on terror groups, even if the unacknowledged reality is that we are losing the free world to what we might call "noncombatant" (or pre-combatant) Islamization. Maybe they think deep inside that if drone wars were deemed unconstitutional in any way -- or, worse, ineffective -- the hollow offensives the U.S. continues to support would eventually collapse, giving rise to panicky paralysis. In such an event, the absurdity of picking off terrorist leaders worldwide as a national strategy to fight "terror" might emerge with distressing clarity, while the Islamic law and money that have almost wholly engulfed Western institutions might become frighteningly apparent.
Maybe that's why it seems as if blind trust in presidential discretion now trumps the bounds of the Constitution. But I hope not.
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