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It's not about drones

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Last week, Rand Paul, the junior U.S. Senator from Kentucky, managed to squeeze an answer out of the nation’s highest ups. In constipated Washington, it sure wasn’t easy.


Only via a 13-hour filibuster could Senator Paul capture the attention of the nation’s press corps, and thus, the American people . . . and in so doing, even reach the Obama Administration.

Rising to the floor of what once was billed, straight-faced, as the world’s greatest deliberative body, Sen. Paul stated, “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.”

The senator had previously sent letters to the president, the attorney general and to John Brennan, the president’s CIA director nominee, asking clear questions about the nation’s well known, but secretly conducted, drone assassination program. Most importantly, Sen. Paul inquired whether the Obama Administration believed it had the constitutional authority to murder a non-combatant U.S. citizen sitting at a sidewalk café in an American city (and those in his or her vicinity) with a Hellfire missile shot from a military drone aircraft.

The answers from the Obama Administration? Less than reassuring. As Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart explained it, Attorney General Eric Holder “kind of, sort of implied that, hypothetically, in the right circumstance — yeesss! We can do that. We can do that. Probably won’t, but yeah.”


The senator was not quite as concise as the comedian. “When I asked the President, can you kill an American on American soil,” Paul elaborated during the early hours of his oratorical barricade against the Brennan nomination, “it should have been an easy answer. It’s an easy question. It should have been a resounding and unequivocal, ‘no.’ The President’s response? He hasn’t killed anyone yet. We’re supposed to be comforted by that. The President says, ‘I haven’t killed anyone yet.’ He goes on to say, ‘and I have no intention of killing Americans. But I might.’”

The very next day, Rand Paul’s filibuster paid off. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder sent Sen. Paul and the media a letter admitting, “The answer to that question is no.”

The president of the United States does not have the constitutional authority to order a citizen’s assassination on U.S. soil. Good to hear.

But the answer raises additional questions. What if a U.S. citizen travels to London and sits down at a café there? What if the café is in Yemen or Egypt or Mali or Bahrain?

Do we forfeit legal due process from our own government and its adherence to the Bill of Rights when we take an overseas vacation?

“Overseas, one of the most famous citizens they killed, Anwar al-Awlaki, he worked with our enemies; I think he could have been tried for treason. I think if I were on the jury, from what I read, I would have voted for his death,” Dr. Paul explained. “The thing is, some kind of process might be helpful. His son, though, 16 years old, was killed two weeks later in a separate drone strike and he was on nobody’s list that I know of. [The Obama Administration] won’t respond. But I think the response by the President’s spokesman is reprehensible and really should be called out. It is sort of this flippant response that I think shows absolutely no regard for individual rights or for Americans. He said, well, ‘the kid should have chosen a more responsible father’. . . . If you happen to be the son of a bad person, is that enough to kill you?”


No one, certainly not Senator Paul, suggests that those actively engaged in combat — American or otherwise — have any right to due process. But drone strikes are killing folks far away from any battlefield. And those killed include by-standing civilians guilty of no offense.

Do we really think we can inspire freedom throughout the world through a secret program of assassination that has no check or balance from another branch of government or, for that matter, even within the executive branch?

Rand Paul stood up for the Constitution last week and reminded us of a basic underpinning of our system, namely, “you can’t give that much power to one person.”

Many nations sport constitutions bellowing about the rights of the people and the duties of government in protecting those rights. Rarely if ever are the people able to hold their government to the terms of the contract. Constitutions are mere words on paper, while governments marshal big guns and tanks to maintain their territorial monopoly on the use of force. (With the Second Amendment, at least that monopoly is popularly checked.)

Americans are fortunate: Our national charter was well-crafted, with the exception of slavery (at the time) and the amendment process of Article V (to this day). The anti-federalists, in opposing the Constitution, greatly strengthened it by insisting on the Bill of Rights. And the 14th Amendment, by applying those same rights to state citizenship and same prohibitions to state governments, completes the package.


But, if we Americans wield the greatest individual rights of any people in the history of humankind, it is because of individuals of courage and conviction who have taken principled action. It has often been someone like Rosa Parks; last week it was a U.S. Senator from Kentucky, Rand Paul.

Mrs. Parks knew when and where to sit; Sen. Paul knew when and where to stand.

Those of us who Stand With Rand will prove our mettle by asking the follow-up questions.   [further reading]

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