Rand Paul’s worthwhile filibuster

It focused much-needed attention on the U.S.’s drone assassination program

Sen. Rand Paul’s old-fashioned, 13-hour filibuster last week drew attention to the United States’ use of drones to assassinate suspected terrorists around the world. As Glenn Greenwald writes, “For the first time since the 9/11 attack, even lowly cable news shows were forced … to extensively discuss the government’s extremist theories of power and to debate the need for checks and limits.”

Polls show most Americans support the use of drones to kill terrorists, but that’s in part because most are unaware that far more innocent civilians, including children, are killed than terrorists.

As some analysts have noted, the program reflects an “empathy gap” whereby innocent people in Pakistan or Yemen are less worthy of living than those elsewhere. Imagine the outrage were the U.S. to target terrorists in London or Berlin, with the resulting “collateral damage.”

The drone assassination program is also deeply troubling because the criteria for targeting suspected terrorists are uncomfortably broad. Mere association with suspected terrorists, or being a man of a certain age in a certain village, is enough to generate a death sentence.

Then there’s the tricky matter of targeting people who happen to be U.S. citizens, as was the case with Anwar al-Awlaki. The Obama administration has been forced to twist itself into legalistic knots to justify taking the life of an American without due process.

Some people have pooh-poohed Sen. Paul’s biggest concern, which was that the administration might someday use drones to kill Americans on American soil. That would never happen, they say. But in fact the president has the power to label anyone anywhere, even an American on U.S. soil, an “enemy combatant” and do anything he wants to that person.

This represents an unprecedented expansion of executive power that every American should be concerned about. Sen. Paul did us all a service by calling attention to it.