I don't want to sound alarmist, but at the moment I'm a potential target for drone strikes, and so are you. I'd really like to be formally and unambiguously taken off the list, unless due process is conducted following the discovery of evidence that I belong there. A simple "No, the President will not send robots to kill you" would suffice, but the current "we probably wouldn't do that" assurances aren't cutting it.
Specifically, Attorney General Eric Holder's written response to Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) said, "As members of this administration have previously indicated, the US government has not carried out drone strikes in the United States and has no intention of doing so. As a policy matter moreover, we reject the use of military force where well-established law enforcement authorities in this country provide the best means for incapacitating a terrorist threat."
"Has no intention of doing so?" Gosh, I sure hope your boss feels the same way tomorrow, Mr. Holder. But the point of having ironclad restraints upon the power of government is that the intentions and policy positions of the Unitary Executive are irrelevant. Those could change tomorrow, but the ironclad restraints will never rust away.
Likewise, relying on the media to keep the President on the straight and narrow, by shaming him out of... okay, stop laughing, I won't go any further with that thought.
But also insufficient are the threats of impeachment, and the grand illusion swallowed by far too much of the American public: "Our leaders would never do anything truly horrible, because they're afraid we'll vote them out of office." How much nonsense have our countrymen swallowed because they still imagine that they control the ruling class through the ballot box? The next votes cast for any given politician (or his successor, in the case of a lame-duck President) will be shaped by hundreds of considerations. They're pretty confident they can survive just about any single offense against public opinion, especially given a few years to use a combination of smooth political tactics and blatant vote-buying to modify it.
Our individual intentions and policy positions are also not sufficient to settle a question like the now-infamous "drone strike at the cafe." Personally, I've long been in favor of blowing up terrorists with a variety of methods, and would be in favor of hunting them down using hulking killbots that wear synthetic skin and speak with Austrian accents, to say nothing of unmanned aerial vehicles. I don't have much of a problem with the drone kills we've learned about thus far, although it's a bit disturbing that we don't seem to learn about all of them promptly. And in the hypothetical "terrorist racing toward a crowded area with a weapon of mass destruction in the back of his truck" scenario, I wouldn't want law enforcement or the military to waste a lot of time fretting over whether a drone should be used to take out the attacker.
But that sort of situation, besides being far more fanciful than the "ticking clock" scenarios that enhanced interrogation critics once sneered at, is not the sort of thing Senator Paul is troubled by. He specifically addressed the topic of mounting an effective defense against attacks in progress:
If our country is attacked, the president has the right to defend and protect the country. Nobody questions that. Nobody questions if planes are flying towards the twin towers whether they can be repulsed by the military. Nobody questions whether a terrorist with a rocket launcher or a grenade launcher is attacking us, whether they can be repelled. They don’t get their day in court. But if you are sitting in a cafeteria in Dearborne, if you happen to be an Arab-American who has a relative in the Middle East and you communicate with them by e-mail and somebody says, oh, your relative is someone we suspect of being associated with terrorism, is that enough to kill you?
Paul is asking for a simple, firm commitment to due process, not a ban on all domestic operation of UAVs. American citizens on American soil are very different from illegal combatants in a foreign land. This is one of the reasons American citizenship should be taken seriously, in all respects - from how it is earned, to the privileges and responsibilities that come with it. How tragically our appreciation for the full spectrum of citizenship has decayed over the last few decades!
But we can still come together to appreciate someone like Rand Paul, investing enormous intellectual and physical effort in standing on the principle that citizenship means we cannot be arbitrarily erased by cybernetic assassins. Or flesh-and-blood agents getting up close and personal with small arms, for that matter. There's a sense of apprehension growing around the domestic use of drones, armed and unarmed, that I would hesitate to describe as "hysteria" because it's not entirely unfounded. Certain aspects of the State's efforts to monitor its citizens become understandably more troubling when the efficiency of such surveillance increases tenfold, or a hundredfold. I'm also a tech nerd who has no trouble imagining phenomenal benefits from the coming explosion of domestic drone licensing, including life-saving rescue operations. If you're lost in the wilderness, you definitely want tireless robot eyes searching for you with inhuman efficiency... but you might well feel differently while driving to work on a typical weekday morning. People are nervous about drones... but when Rand Paul and others spent 13 hours talking about drone strikes on Wednesday, it was the "strike" part that really bothered them. The "drone" part just makes it easier for a very small group, or a solitary official, to swiftly apply deadly force.
Does it sound silly or overly dramatic to talk about robot weapons blowing away coffee-slurping Americans at the corner cafe? If so, then why shouldn't the possibility be ruled out with "Absolutely not!" instead of "the President probably wouldn't do that?" I hope Rand Paul's filibuster will lead to even more thorough, principled discussions about what the State absolutely cannot do to its citizens... no matter how much it fears or loves them.