Why Drone Paranoia Works
If you want to stop something, scream, “Tyranny!”
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!”
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.