Sign up today and save up to 83% on a Hartford Courant digital subscription
CT Now

Goldberg: What Rand Paul got right

I hope I'm not too late to the fight.


FOR THE RECORD:
Filibuster: In a March 12 column about Rand Paul, Sen. Lindsey Graham was identified as (R-Ky.). He is from South Carolina.


Last week, freshman Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) held an old-fashioned filibuster against the nomination of John Brennan to head the CIA. Paul's stated reason for taking to the floor and talking for 13 hours was that the Obama administration wouldn't give him a straight answer on the question of whether the president can unilaterally order the killing of American citizens on American soil with "lethal force, such as a drone strike … and without trial."

In other words, if an American member of Al Qaeda is sitting at a cafe, can the president sic one of his death-dealing robots on him?

Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. had replied with a muddled yes and no in a letter to Paul: The White House "has no intention of doing so," but it would not rule it out if it was deemed necessary by the administration.

That response gave Paul the opening he needed for his filibuster. "When the president responds that 'I haven't killed any Americans yet at home and that I don't intend to do so, but I might,' it's incredibly alarming and really goes against his oath of office."

But here's the interesting part. A Democratic president, who made his bones as a holier-than-thou antiwar candidate, clings to his constitutional right to rain death from the sky on American citizens drinking Frappuccinos, and conservatives attack the Republican senator who complains about it.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-Ky.) have all but declared war on Paul. The Wall Street Journal poured sovereign contempt on him: "If Mr. Paul wants to be taken seriously, he needs to do more than pull political stunts that fire up impressionable libertarian kids." The Weekly Standard, in an editorial written by William Kristol, suggested that Paul was "semi-hysterical" and the "spokesman for the Code Pink faction of the Republican Party." National Review (where I am a contributing editor), Charles Krauthammer and others on the right were less scornful but still very critical.

While I agree with much of the substance of Paul's critics, I'm at a loss as to understand all the outrage.

As a constitutional matter, it's true that when America is officially at war, the president, as commander in chief, can kill the enemy where he finds them. If during World War II Nazi soldiers landed in New Jersey, nobody would dispute that FDR could have ordered them killed on sight, even if one happened to be a U.S. citizen sitting in a coffee shop.

Holder sent Paul a second letter that said the president did not have the authority to off an American on U.S. soil who was "not engaged in combat." This satisfied Paul, but it conjures the image of a loudspeaker on a drone announcing seconds before impact: "You in the Members Only jacket, this is formal notification you are an enemy combatant. Prepare to die."

I think many Americans recoil at death-by-drone. There's something creepily dystopian about this antiseptic way of war. We wouldn't be having this argument about whether a national guardsman or an FBI agent could shoot an Al Qaeda operative on sight.

But the novel nature of drones underscores an important point: The war on terror is not World War II, and Al Qaeda isn't a uniformed enemy. It's a confusing new kind of conflict, and that's why a reminder of our core principles — our American dogma — strikes me as a good thing.

Unfortunately, the dogma that dogma is a bad thing is an old fad in America. "Dogmas are not dark and mysterious," G.K. Chesterton wrote. "Rather a dogma is like a flash of lightning — an instantaneous lucidity that opens across a whole landscape."

A fundamental, dogmatic faith in the Constitution is a good thing. A dogmatic view that the president isn't a king but a servant of the people is a good thing. A dogmatic insistence that the president give a member of Congress a straight answer about when the government can kill Americans is a good thing. And a dogmatic conviction that an American life has special status in the eyes of the government is a good thing too.

Paul's filibuster briefly illuminated some very basic core convictions during a long gray chapter in international affairs, a chapter that isn't over yet, either. I can think of worse ways to waste 13 hours of the Senate's time.

jgoldberg@latimescolumnists.com

Copyright © 2015, CT Now
Related Content
  • U.S. must explain necessity of drone strikes

    U.S. must explain necessity of drone strikes

    The revelation that two Western hostages died in a U.S. counter-terrorism operation in Pakistan early this year is shocking. It will, and should, revive the largely dormant debate about the drone attacks on Al Qaeda figures and other militants.

  • Drones and the LAPD

    Drones and the LAPD

    A narrow debate over the LAPD's proposed, limited use of a pair of unmanned aircraft — popularly known as drones — is prompting a broader community conversation about the tension between technology and privacy in a city where police have not always traversed that boundary well.

  • State Senate should approve proposed drone regulations

    The use of drones could revolutionize business, government and law enforcement. Imagine, for example, small unmanned aircraft flying low to the ground to deliver precise measures of pesticides to agricultural fields, reducing the amount of dangerous chemicals used. Drones already have proved useful...

  • The drone warfare drawbacks

    The drone has become America's counter-terrorism weapon of choice. But does drone warfare really further U.S. goals abroad?

  • Officially, why it was OK for the U.S. government to kill Anwar Awlaki

    Officially, why it was OK for the U.S. government to kill Anwar Awlaki

    Better late than never, the American public has been provided with a redacted version of a Justice Department memo offering a legal rationale for the targeting of Anwar Awlaki, the U.S.-born Al Qaeda figure who was killed in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011. The document was made public Monday after...

  • What we don't know about the killing of Anwar Awlaki

    What we don't know about the killing of Anwar Awlaki

    The government must be forthcoming not only about the legal rationale for this extraordinary act of violence but also about the factual evidence.

  • How I kept worrying and learned to love drones

    How I kept worrying and learned to love drones

    Ted Rall is a cartoonist, columnist and occasional war correspondent. His next book, "After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back as Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan," will be published in March 2014. Follow him on Twitter @TedRall.

  • McManus: Rebooting the war on terror

    McManus: Rebooting the war on terror

    Obama clarified the terms of the fight and said the battle will end, someday. But it's still going to look an awful lot like war.

Comments
Loading
69°