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Rand Paul Demands Answers to Obvious Questions for 13 Hours Straight, Draws Further Attention to Self and Away from Substantive Discussion

March 28, 2013

If you’ve ever wondered about whether or not the Constitution lets the government just go ahead and murder you without a trial, but you didn’t want to actually go and check in the Constitution, now you have your answer. See, a few weeks back, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul filibustered the nomination of John Brennan for CIA director to force the Obama administration to issue a firmer answer on whether or not it feels it has the right to use drone strikes on American citizens. The filibuster has made Paul somewhat of a hero of the moment; as this article from ABC News points out, the filibuster has earned Paul praise from fellow conservatives and some more left-leaning individuals and organizations like John Stewart, Code Pink, and the ACLU. But despite the near across-the-board support, I’m not jumping on the (I am so sorry) Randwagon.

But before I tell you why, a little more background: The filibuster comes in the aftermath of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in which Senator Ted Cruz pressed Attorney General Eric Holder about a letter in which Holder said it would take an “extraordinary circumstance” to justify the use of a drone against an American citizen on U.S. soil. Cruz posed a hypothetical question—is it constitutional to use a drone against someone “sitting quietly at a café in the United States” if that someone was suspected of involvement with terrorist organizations? Holder responded that this would not be “an appropriate use of lethal force,” but this wasn’t good enough for Cruz or for Paul, who were apparently hoping for a more explicit “no.” And so Paul’s filibuster was born.

A recent Gallup poll shows that an overwhelming majority of Americans agree with Paul that airstrikes against U.S. citizens who are suspected terrorists should be a no-no, because duh. As my sarcastic opening sentence above (in the industry, we call that a “lede!”) suggests, when faced with a question like Cruz’s, anyone with even the most rudimentary understanding of the notion of due process would also realize that the answer is “no.” And despite Holder’s wishy-washy response, it’s still a “no.” I am sure that no one—not Eric Holder, not John Brennan, not Barack Obama, not any president or presidential candidate past or future, and pretty much no one who isn’t in the Injustice League or in the employ of some awful evil dictator would think the answer is “yes.” I’m being glib, but c’mon—our track record on civil rights and liberties sure isn’t perfect, but we’ve got a looooong way to go before we’re living in actual tyranny, and I’d imagine we’d have to pass a whole lot of red flags between where we are now and the government assassinating citizens in cafés based on a hunch.

Let me be clear here. I’m as creeped out as anyone could possibly be by the idea of a top-secret capture/kill list that determines potential drone victims. I think that the Obama administration’s policy on drone strikes raises some terribly important questions, not least of all regarding the transparency of said policy. But whether or not anyone thinks these drones are going to be used on the average Joe enjoying a cup of joe who may have googled “how to make a dirty bomb” or something (y’know, just for curiosity’s sake) is not one of those questions. And I think that simply in positing such a far-fetched scenario and then demanding that it be addressed, Cruz and Paul divert attention away from the real moral and political issues raised by the use of unmanned drones. Note that Paul didn’t filibuster to oppose the use of drone strikes period; it’s drone strikes against American citizens that he’s concerned with. What about, y’know, the ­non-American people we’ve targeted and killed? Does Rand Paul trust that they were all unequivocally bad guys? And even if they were, were drone strikes the right way to deal with them? These aren’t questions that Paul ever addresses.

So instead of talking about the actual consequences of the use of drone strikes, what we’re talking about here is a ridiculous hypothetical on which there ought to already be unanimous agreement. I’ve half-seriously written about what I called “the rhetoric of misdirection” on this here weblog before, and I think we’ve got another great example here. I’m not sure if this sort of political discourse is on the rise, or if I’m just becoming increasingly aware of it, but just off the top of my head I can name multiple examples in recent history where I felt as though public discussion of important issues was completely overwhelmed by loudmouths making ridiculous statements that then had to be addressed instead. The best recent example that comes to mind is the birther movement, and as much fun as we had with that here at TSTHQ, it was a ridiculous debate over a complete non-issue that had a prominent place in the national political discussion for actual years of our lives that we will never get back.

And this filibuster has a lot in common with the birther movement in that at its heart it indicates a fundamental mistrust of the Obama administration’s policies—the implication, even though Paul denies that he thinks Obama himself would ever do such a thing, that drone strikes could ever be purposefully used on ordinary folks just sitting around having coffee indicates a worldview that sees in the government the potential for horrific evil. It’s a similar sort of insidiousness that would lead someone to lie and finagle their entire life in order to hide their actual birthplace on the off chance that they might grow up to be President. Now, I think that anyone that knows me knows that I see myself as a bit outside of the political mainstream, but that doesn’t mean that I think mainstream politicians (of either party) are evil. I just think they’re wrong. I also think that focusing the national discussion on confirming or denying their evilness slows the discussion down and prevents voices like mine from being able to speak up and tell our leaders just how wrong they are. In other words, debating radical hypotheticals prevents actual radicalism from having a public voice.

Like I said, I’m no fan of drone strikes, and I think that a very public discussion needs to be had about them. But I don’t think that Rand Paul’s filibuster contributes in any meaningful way to that discussion, because instead of focusing on reality, we’re discussing a hypothetical scenario with absolutely no basis in reality. That said, it does, at the very least, draw attention to the issue. I’m of a mind that says it draws attention to it in a wrong, incredibly America-centric way. But I’m interested in hearing your opinions in the comments below, especially those of you who were impressed by Paul’s filibuster yet wouldn’t normally expect to find yourself on his side.

If you want to know more:

  • Building consensus is an interesting thing, especially when you consider allegiances between individuals and groups like Rand Paul and Code Pink. When I think about consensus from a rhetorical perspective, my mind goes to Thomas Farrell’s “Knowledge, Consensus, and Rhetorical Theory,” wherein he argues that when we share values with someone, we can use those values to argue for particular courses of action in novel situations. So, in this case, affirming values like “due process” unites Paul with groups like Code Pink and the ACLU, whereas “limiting federal power” unites him with more traditional conservatives. The thing is, though, even though I share some of these values and care about them very deeply, I’m not taken by his application of them here because I don’t see this as a novel situation. As I argue above, I think the answer to the question he is posing is painfully obvious and therefore the question has to serve some other purpose.
  • With regards to what that other purpose could be, as I argue above, I think that it’s got something to do with further establishing a no-guff Washington outsider persona (a topic we like almost as much as Rand Paul does) by expressing a fundamental mistrust of the federal government in general, and the Obama administration in specific. All the times Paul says in his filibuster that Barack Obama is a good man and he would never abuse this power and so on remind me of what how Doug paraphrased Mark Antony’s funeral speech in Julius Caesar in a previous post: “Antony keeps saying over and over again that ‘Brutus is an honorable man’ and yet he clearly means to convey the opposite.”
  • I know I’m a little late to the game on this issue, and I’m sorry. But c’mon. Writing a dissertation is hard.
  • I’m a little weirded out by the fact that apparently on this issue I agree more with William Kristol than Code Pink or the ACLU, but as Kristol indicates in this editorial for The Weekly Standard, he also believes that Paul’s filibuster ignores “important questions about both the efficacy and safeguards of the real, existing drone program of the U.S. government” in favor of “demagoguery.” Which is kinda what I said. So shouldn’t I at least feel slightly less crazy for suggesting that Paul isn’t really just heroically taking some sort of stand against tyranny, no matter what some of my favorite NFPs think?
  • On the other hand, I suppose I’d rather side with William Kristol than Sarah Palin, who tweeted that she sent Paul some caribou jerky all the way from Alaska. Ugh. Ugh ugh ugh ugh ugh. I am rolling my eyes so hard that I am dizzy, but I suppose she earns points for her Daniel Day-Lewis-like refusal to break character.
  • When I say “TSTHQ” above, I imagine a badass underwater lair or something, but really I just mean the office I share with Doug. One time it rained a lot and we were worried it would flood, so there’s that, I guess.
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