I hope I’m not too late to the fight.
Last week, freshman senator 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 Starbucks, can the president sic one of his death-dealing robots on him?
Attorney General Eric Holder had replied with a muddled yes-and-no in a letter to Paul: The White House “has no intention of doing so,” but 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.
Senators John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) 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 on much of the substance with Paul’s critics, I’m at a loss to understand all the outrage over what most of them think was a waste of time.
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 had landed in New Jersey, nobody would dispute that FDR could have ordered them shot 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 mollified Paul for now, but for some 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.”
That’s because many Americans recoil at death-by-drone. There’s something creepily dystopian about this antiseptic way of war. I doubt we’d be having the same argument about whether a National Guardsman or an FBI agent could shoot an al-Qaeda operative on sight.
But the novel nature of drones does underscore an important point: The war on terror is not World War II, and al-Qaeda isn’t a uniformed enemy. And therefore it doesn’t seem unreasonable to want to update our laws to take that into account. More important, in a confusing new kind of conflict, 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.
I believe 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.
“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.” 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.
— Jonah Goldberg is the author of the new book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can write to him at JonahsColumn@aol.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.