I shall leave it to others to argue the legal and constitutional questions surrounding drones, but they are not without practical application. For the last couple of years, Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, has had Predator drones patrolling the U.S. border. No, silly, not the southern border. The northern one. You gotta be able to prioritize, right? At Derby Line, Vt., the international frontier runs through the middle of the town library and its second-floor opera house. If memory serves, the stage and the best seats are in Canada, but the concession stand and the cheap seats are in America. Despite the zealots of Homeland Security’s best efforts at afflicting residents of this cross-border community with ever more obstacles to daily life, I don’t recall seeing any Predator drones hovering over Non-Fiction E–L. But, if there are, I’m sure they’re entirely capable of identifying which delinquent borrower is a Quebecer and which a Vermonter before dispatching a Hellfire missile to vaporize him in front of the Large Print Romance shelves.
I’m a long, long way from Rand Paul’s view of the world (I’m basically a 19th-century imperialist a hundred years past sell-by date), but I’m far from sanguine about America’s drone fever. For all its advantages to this administration — no awkward prisoners to be housed at Gitmo, no military casualties for the evening news — the unheard, unseen, unmanned drone raining down death from the skies confirms for those on the receiving end al-Qaeda’s critique of its enemies: As they see it, we have the best technology and the worst will; we choose aerial assassination and its attendant collateral damage because we are risk-averse, and so remote, antiseptic, long-distance, computer-programmed warfare is all that we can bear. Our technological strength betrays our psychological weakness.
And in a certain sense they’re right: Afghanistan is winding down, at best, to join the long list of America’s unwon wars, in which, 48 hours after departure, there will be no trace that we were ever there. The guys with drones are losing to the guys with fertilizer — because they mean it, and we don’t. The drone thus has come to symbolize the central defect of America’s “war on terror,” which is that it’s all means and no end: We’re fighting the symptoms rather than the cause.
For a war without strategic purpose, a drone’ll do. Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen born in New Mexico, was whacked by a Predator not on a battlefield but after an apparently convivial lunch at a favorite Yemeni restaurant. Two weeks later, al-Awlaki’s son Abdulrahman was dining on the terrace of another local eatery when the CIA served him the old Hellfire Special and he wound up splattered all over the patio. Abdulrahman was 16, and born in Denver. As I understand it, the Supreme Court has ruled that American minors, convicted of the most heinous crimes, cannot be executed. But you can gaily atomize them halfway round the planet. My brief experience of Yemeni restaurants was not a happy one but, granted that, I couldn’t honestly say they met any recognized definition of a “battlefield.”
Al-Awlaki Junior seems to have been your average anti-American teen. Al-Awlaki Senior was an al-Qaeda ideologue, and a supposed “spiritual mentor” to everyone from the 9/11 murderers to the Fort Hood killer and the thwarted Pantybomber. On the other hand, after September 11, he was invited to lunch at the Pentagon, became the first imam to conduct a prayer service at the U.S. Congress, and was hailed by NPR as an exemplar of an American “Muslim leader who could help build bridges between Islam and the West.” The precise point at which he changed from American bridge-builder to Yemeni-restaurant take-out is hard to determine. His public utterances when he was being feted by the New York Times are far more benign than those of, say, Samira Ibrahim, who was scheduled to receive a “Woman of Courage” award from Michelle Obama and John Kerry on Friday until an unfortunate flap erupted over some ill-phrased Tweets from the courageous lass rejoicing on the anniversary of 9/11 that she loved to see “America burning.” The same bureaucracy that booked Samira Ibrahim for an audience with the first lady and Anwar al-Awlaki to host prayers at the Capitol now assures you that it’s entirely capable of determining who needs to be zapped by a drone between the sea bass and the tiramisu at Ahmed’s Bar and Grill. But it’s precisely because the government is too craven to stray beyond technological warfare and take on its enemies ideologically that it winds up booking the first lady to hand out awards to a Jew-loathing, Hitler-quoting, terrorist-supporting America-hater.
Insofar as it relieves Washington of the need to think strategically about the nature of the enemy, the drone is part of the problem. But its technology is too convenient a gift for government to forswear at home. America takes an ever more expansive view of police power, and, while the notion of unmanned drones patrolling the heartland may seem absurd, lots of things that seemed absurd a mere 15 years ago are now a routine feature of life. Not so long ago, it would have seemed not just absurd but repugnant and un-American to suggest that the state ought to have the power to fondle the crotch of a seven-year-old boy without probable cause before permitting him to board an airplane. Yet it happened, and became accepted, and is unlikely ever to be reversed.
Americans now accept the right of minor bureaucrats to collect all kinds of information for vast computerized federal databases, from answers on gun ownership for centralized “medical records” to answers on “dwelling arrangements” for nationalized “education records.” With paperwork comes regulation, and with regulation comes enforcement. We have advanced from the paramilitarization of the police to the paramilitarization of the Bureau of Form-Filling. Two years ago in this space, I noted that the U.S. secretary of education, who doesn’t employ a single teacher, is the only education minister in the developed world with his own SWAT team: He used it to send 15 officers to kick down a door in Stockton, Calif., drag Kenneth Wright out onto the front lawn, and put him in handcuffs for six hours. Erroneously, as it turned out. But it was in connection with his estranged wife’s suspected fraudulent student-loan application, so you can’t be too careful. That the education bureaucracy of the Brokest Nation in History has its own Seal Team Six is ridiculous and offensive. Yet the citizenry don’t find it so: They accept it.
The federal government operates a Railroad Retirement Board to administer benefits to elderly Pullman porters: For some reason, the RRB likewise has its own armed agents ready to rappel down the walls of the Sunset Caboose retirement home. I see my old friend David Frum thinks concerns over drones are “far-fetched.” If it’s not “far-fetched” for the education secretary to have his own SWAT team, why would it be “far-fetched” for the education secretary to have his own drone fleet?
Do you remember the way it was before the war on terror? Back in the Nineties, everyone was worried about militias and survivalists, who lived in what were invariably described as “compounds,” and not in the Kennedys-at-Hyannisport sense. And every so often one of these compound-dwellers would find himself besieged by a great tide of federal alphabet soup, agents from the DEA, ATF, FBI, and maybe even RRB. There was a guy called Randy Weaver who lost his wife, son, and dog to the guns of federal agents, was charged and acquitted in the murder of a deputy marshal, and wound up getting a multi-million-dollar settlement from the Department of Justice. Before he zipped his lips on grounds of self-incrimination, the man who wounded Weaver and killed his wife, an FBI agent called Lon Horiuchi, testified that he opened fire because he thought the Weavers were about to fire on a surveillance helicopter. When you consider the resources brought to bear against a nobody like Randy Weaver for no rational purpose, is it really so “far-fetched” to foresee the Department of Justice deploying drones to the Ruby Ridges and Wacos of the 2020s?
I mention in my book that government is increasingly comfortable with a view of society as a giant “Panopticon” — the radial prison devised by Jeremy Bentham in 1785, in which the authorities can see everyone and everything. In the Droneworld we have built for the war on terror, we can’t see the forest because we’re busy tracking every spindly sapling. When the same philosophy is applied on the home front, it will not be pretty.