Why Drone Paranoia Works

If you want to stop something, scream, “Tyranny!”

Protestors against the use of drone strikes by the US military hold a model of a drone aircraft during the "March On Wall Street South" rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, ahead of the Democratic National Convention, on September 2, 2012.
Sen. Rand Paul’s filibuster became such a sensation, so fast, that it’s easy to forget where anti-drone activism started

Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

His mind restored by sleep, his bladder finally emptied, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul gave his first interview after a 12-hour drone-policy filibuster to an awed Glenn Beck.

“This man is going to be the logical choice for president of the United States,” Beck told his listeners, just after 10:30 a.m. “He is reasonable, polite, and I believe in a teaching mode right now.” Paul was telling Americans that they “have the right to live, and to have a trial, and to have a warrant. Not just to be killed, gunned down in the streets, or in this case, killed by a drone, because this president or any president says, yeah, take him out.”

The last time most people saw Glenn Beck, he was hosting a Fox News show renowned for its use of a mobile blackboard. In white chalk on black slate, viewers learned that Barack Obama was building a private army, that the government would seize private land to peg a new post-dollar currency, and that the Arab Spring was an “Archduke Ferdinand moment” for Marxists.

That was the old Glenn Beck. The new Glenn Beck calls himself a “libertarian” akin to Penn Jillette. His news site and online video channel brim with stories about heroic applications of the Second Amendment (“Wanted fugitive fatally shot by gun-toting Kansas farmer”), left-wing censorship (“Do you count as an extremist ‘patriot’?”), and politicians alternately heroic (Rand Paul) and vile (John McCain).

Paul’s filibuster became such a sensation, so fast, that it’s easy to forget where anti-drone activism started. It started on the left. Last year, when Charles Krauthammer got spooked about domestic surveillance drones, he warned that he was taking the “hard left, ACLU” stance. If you showed up at any sizable anti-war rally since 2012, you probably saw the grey, phallic head of a papier-mâché drone hoisted over the crowd. The first city councils to debate drone bans were in liberal Charlottesville, Va. and even-more-liberal Seattle. “The request for our resolution came from the Rutherford Institute,” says Charlottesville Mayor Satyendra Huja. That organization, based in that college town, has called Barack Obama the “executioner-in-chief.”

If you want the government to regulate or ban drones—for domestic surveillance, for warfare, for targeted killings of Americans—this is exactly how you want the politics to work. There’s no scrutiny of government surveillance or warfare programs unless those programs stir up left-right paranoia. When that paranoia crests, a bill can be stopped, or a ban can squeak through. Ask the poor lobbyists for REAL ID, or ask one of the tech lobbyists who thought the Stop Online Piracy Act was going to sail through. You can’t win one of these battles unless the lumpen talk radio fan thinks the government will use its powers to steal his freedom.

Until this week, that was the problem facing anti-drone campaigners. One month ago, the Washington Post/ABC News poll asked voters whether they favored “the use of unmanned, ‘drone’ aircraft against terrorist suspects overseas.” Eighty-three percent said they did, and 65 percent said they favored even targeted killings of American citizens. That was more than a year after a drone attack killed al-Qaida’s “YouTube preacher” Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son, American citizens both. Most Americans didn’t worry about that.

So Paul gave them something to worry about. Unless the administration said otherwise, Paul argued that it was claiming indefinite authority to execute Americans. Any American. Maybe even you. “I don’t think the president would purposely take innocent people and kill them,” said Paul in his filibuster. “I really don’t think he would drop a Hellfire missile on a cafe or a restaurant like I’m talking about. But it bothers me that he won’t say that he won’t.” He invoked the shootings at Kent State in 1970, and asked whether the government could have used drones to kill Jane Fonda. A conservative who slapped a “Not Fonda’ Kerry” sticker on his Dodge Ram nine years ago didn’t hear a defense of anti-Vietnam War activists. He heard Paul, and thought about the government maybe targeting right-thinking Americans who rallied at Tea Parties.

Every wave of anti-state resistance has its science fiction novel, some dystopian vision of what might happen at the bottom of the slippery slope. The ur-text of the Tea Party’s anti-tax, anti-regulation campaigns was Atlas Shrugged. But the bumbling central government in that novel can’t even locate a gulch full of rebel geniuses. In his filibuster, Paul invoked a different novel—1984. When he read it originally, “we didn’t have the ability to look at people and the government couldn’t look at me in my house 24 hours a day.” But now, “we have drones [that weigh] less than an ounce, presumably with cameras … It is not impossible to conceive that you could have a drone fly outside your window and see what you’re reading, to see what your reading material is. It’s not impossible to say that they couldn’t send drones up to your mailbox and read … what kind of mail you’re getting and where it’s from.”

If that’s fanciful, it’s no more so than the questions liberals asked about Bush-era programs like warrantless wiretapping. Americans, bless us, are quick to consider the ways our leaders put on epaulets and dark sunglasses and turn into tyrants. “The president’s got the kill list,” said Rush Limbaugh in his own Thursday interview with Paul. “He’s bragging about it, senator! They’re trying to build up his tough national security credentials.”

The Limbaugh-Paul dialogue lasted longer than the dialogue with Beck. It was even more important in establishing Paul’s argument in the broader conservative movement, outside of the libertarian wing. Limbaugh, without agreeing 100 percent with Paul, thanked him for representing “the majority in this country,” people who mistrusted government power. “Nobody in the Republican Party has taken this guy on.”

If that becomes the story, that’s how drone skeptics—whether they fear for their privacy or oppose targeted killings abroad—move the needle on a debate they were losing. Paul’s Thursday media tour went like a dream, but nothing he said helped him as much as the action in the Senate. Shortly before noon, Sen. John McCain and Sen. Lindsay Graham walked onto the floor for a short colloquy. The subject: Rand Paul’s wrongness. McCain read from a Wall Street Journal editorial condemning “Rand Paul’s drone rant.” Graham displayed one of those low-information, maximum-impact charts that make C-Span great, contrasting the number of American territorial deaths caused by al-Qaida to those caused by drones—2,751 to zero. Had Rand Paul forgotten 9/11?

Paul couldn’t have asked for better enemies. Limbaugh dismissed these “Republican establishment” losers with a wave of his hand. “There are a lot of people today who can’t believe, literally can’t believe, that the highest law enforcement officials in the country cannot, with ease, assure the American people that they will not be randomly targeted by a drone!”