Down the Rabbit Hole With Jabberwock and Drone Strikes
When it came to the Senate filibuster on drone killings, the stupid party held the floor, the craven party mostly kept quiet, and the victims had no voice – just another exceptional day in the contemporary clown show of American democracy
In the second minute of his half day filibuster February 6, Senator Rand Paul, R-KY introduced an apt reference to one of the absurdities of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” illuminating the abuse of unchecked absolute power. He started reading from Chapter XII, after the King says, “Let the jury consider their verdict” —
‘No, no!’ said the queen. ‘Sentence first — verdict afterwards.’
‘Stuff and nonsense!’ Alice said loudly. ‘The idea of having the sentence first! ’
‘Hold your tongue!’ said the queen, turning purple.
‘I won’t!’ said Alice.
‘Release the drones,’ said the queen, as she shouted at the top of her voice.”
“Release the drones,” was Paul’s interpolation of the Queen’s original order, “Off with her head!” And that’s where the Kentucky Senator stopped reading, still solidly rooted in the Wonderland of the U.S. Congress, a collective mad tea party of March hares, mad hatters, and dormice.
The Wonderland quality of Rand Paul’s theatre of the imaginary is clear from his focus on the threat that the President might kill Americans on American soil. And, while Paul didn’t mention it, the President might also take a feline crouch on his executive branch, smiling down and slowly fading from view till there was nothing left but his smile.
In reality, if this president – or any president – decides it’s necessary to kill an American on American soil, he will get her done one way or another. But wouldn’t a killer drone have made a neater job of it at places like Waco or Ruby Ridge?
Don’t Drone Me, Bro – I’m American!
Given the non-existence of the imagined threat, Paul’s performance amounted to little more than a solipsistic ceremony of American exceptionalism, pottering on sometimes incoherently about the fundamental non-threat of killer drones in America despite the paranoid assurance of some Rand Paul followers that the government is coming for them soon. That’s why Americans should be exceptions to presidential drone policy, Paul argues, just because we’re Americans. He offers no other rationale.
It’s not that his argument is wrong – it’s not – but it’s Lilliputian and quite literally narrow-minded. While some now celebrate his filibuster as some sort of defense of civil liberties, it’s only a defense of some civil liberties for a few people in a special class of Americans. Despite all the media overplay of this stand-your-ground stand-up routine, such ideological opposites as the Cato Institute and Anti-War.com were unimpressed with a moral argument that singled out only Americans for any sort of due process protection under law.
Why would Americans be concerned with other people in other places getting killed without due process of law? It’s not like they’re covered by the U.S. Constitution, is it?
Intentional or not, Rand Paul’s theatrics provide cover for acts that are arguably war crimes and impeachable offenses – leaving President Obama, like President Bush or any future president, free to continue assassinating brown people at will, regardless of their innocence or guilt, anywhere in the world.
The conventional Washington wisdom may preen over the “conversation” about drone strikes set in motion by Paul, but it’s a shallow conversation at the start, with little momentum, and less likelihood of reaching a rational goal – such as controlling or, better, ending attacks on anonymous people who may or may not mean us harm and too often turn out to be men, women, and children celebrating a wedding.
Don’t Worry, It Won’t Happen – Until It Does
Much has been made of the letters from Attorney General Eric Holder to Senator Paul. The first letter was dated March 4, several days after Paul had begun planning his Senate floor pseudo-event. Holder’s letter was an embarrassment of legalese, hedging every conceivable bet, while criticizing the Senator’s query for being “hypothetical, unlikely to occur, and one we hope no President will ever have to confront” – although, Holder said, it’s “possible.”
Does it matter, really, what the Attorney General says? If he promised there would never ever be a drone strike on an American on American soil, would that make it impossible? Would it even make it less likely, unlikely as it may be at present?
The day after Paul’s filibuster, on March 7, Holder wrote a second letter that reads, in its entirety: It has come to my attention that you have now asked an additional question: “Does the President have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?” The answer to that question is no.”
The loophole here is huge – “an American not engaged in combat.” How does the drone know who’s American? And who says what combat is, or who’s engaged in it?
In Afghanistan and Pakistan and Yemen and elsewhere, the United States has killed thousands of people no American has even seen, except through a surveillance camera. The victims are strangers, mostly never identified, but it is U.S. policy to consider any male who appears to be 18 or over as an “enemy combatant.”
Although he fits that description, Rand Paul has trumpeted the second Holder letter as a victory.
And the legal basis for lethal drone strikes – a White House argument, not a statute passed by Congress – remains secret.
There is no significant effort in Congress to rein in White House power.
Had Rand Paul continued with “Alice in Wonderland,” the next sentence he read would have been the court’s response to the Queen of Hearts’s order – either “Off with her head!” or “Release the drones!” That response was: “Nobody moved.”
And then Alice took matters in her own hands and, as they all flew into the air about her, she said, “Who cares for you? You’re nothing but a pack of cards!”
The wonderland of exceptional Americanism these days has no Alice, just the pack of cards and a President with a Peace Prize.