Why Drone Paranoia Might Be a Winning Issue

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
March 7 2013 6:42 PM

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.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

“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.

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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.

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