Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) led a rare, old-fashioned filibuster Wednesday, refusing to yield the floor and stalling the Obama Administration’s nomination of John Brennan to lead the CIA. Mr. Paul cited concerns about the possibility of extrajudicial drone strikes in the United States.
“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,” Paul said.
Paul’s filibuster – unlike most of those launched by the Republican minority during the Obama presidency – is not strictly partisan. It echoes a small but persistent strain of criticism among independents and Democrats over Obama’s civil liberties record.
Progressive blogger Ian Welsh, for example, wrote Wednesday that Paul “is doing the right thing right now, and if you are attacking him at this moment, you are scum.” And Democratic Senator Ron Wyden (OR) has promised to vote for Brennan, but insisted that Paul’s filibuster was making “a number of important points”.
Is there anything to Paul’s filibuster? Sure. The rule of law is important, and due process is important.
But they’re important for everyone – not just Americans. And not just when it comes to drones.
A double standard for Americans
Rand Paul – much like his father, former Congressman Ron Paul – has forged his political identity as a principled defender of civil liberties.
“If there were an ounce of courage in this body, I would be joined today by many other senators saying that they will not tolerate this,” Paul said Wednesday.
But Paul sounded less concerned about civil liberties outside of the US.
“Maybe the standard can be less overseas than it is here for people involved in battle,” he said of laws governing military strikes. “It’s getting kind of murky overseas as well, but for goodness sakes in America we can’t just sort of have this idea that we’re going to kill noncombatants.”
It’s not surprising to hear a right-wing politician explicitly affirm a moral double standard – one for Americans, and another for everyone else. But people who should know better have tried to rationalize Paul’s rhetoric.
“Politically, it is simply easier to induce one’s fellow citizens to care about an abusive power if you can persuade them that it will affect them and not merely those Foreign Others,” liberal columnist Glenn Greenwald wrote in The Guardian.
But why bother opposing an “abusive power” if you can’t curtail the actual abuse: the civil liberties violations that are already taking place? Hypothetical future injustices against Americans might be easier to grandstand against, but why should they be more urgent than the plight of civilians in Pakistan and Yemen already being droned on dubious legal grounds?
A problem of solidarity
An elderly American woman stands a little too close to a known criminal. The government rains munitions down on both, and the woman – without trial or even suspicion of criminal activity – is killed.
A sinister, extrajudicial drone attack by a rogue, Constitution-flouting Obama administration on American soil? Hardly. Just another day of gun violence in the US – here, in Warminster, Pennsylvania, where 89-year-old Marie Zienkewicz was killed February 19th in the crossfire of a shootout between neighbor Andrew Cairns and the police.
Sudden, unjustified violence – sometimes, even violence perpetrated by our own government – isn’t just a hypothetical possibility to be tactically invoked on the Senate floor. For many Americans, it’s a daily fact of life, and the direct result of an inadequately regulated gun culture.
Just as civilians abroad already face the threat of extrajudicial drone strikes, American citizens are already under fire – literally – by rampant gun violence.
Both problems are infinitely more compelling and consequential than the hypothetical prospect of domestic drone strikes targeting US citizens. But both problems remain unaddressed, even as Rand Paul rails himself hoarse for 13 hours on the Senate floor.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone when (white middle-to-upper class) politicians and pundits demonstrate more concern about imaginary nightmare scenarios involving lawless robot planes than they do about (largely non-white and poor-to-working class) victims of actual violence. Maybe it is just “human nature,” as Greenwald puts it, for people to care more about neighbors than strangers.
But that’s not just a problem for people who live overseas. It’s a problem for Americans, too. So while right-wing radicals and contrarian centrists may #StandwithRand, I’d like to see him filibuster for everyone – from Warminster to Pakistan.
Carl Beijer is a writer who focuses on the Left, linguistics, and international affairs.