WASHINGTON, April 24, 2013 — Senator Rand Paul’s sudden willingness to consider the use of drones against Americans in the United States has incited angry backlash from his libertarian supporters. That was predictable. There has been a lack of clarity in thinking on this subject.
Demanding an end to drones is like demanding an end to assault rifles. It isn’t about getting rid of a policy or a type of behavior, but only about the appropriate choice of tools. As Second Amendment proponents (and it would be a safe guess that libertarians generally support the Second Amendment) would point out, “assault rifle” isn’t a well-defined category of weapon, but even if it were, the problem of mass shootings isn’t a problem of assault rifles.
Drones are not the real issue and never have been. They are only a tool, not really much different than an assault rifle or a sniper rifle. Whether you’re going to kill a man with a drone or a sniper rifle, someone makes a decision, someone pulls a trigger or pushes a button, someone snuffs out a life. The real issue is, who decides under what circumstances which Americans to kill without an arrest, without a trial?
“Armed and dangerous” suspects have been gunned down by police without Miranda rights, warrants, indictments or trials for longer than any of us has been alive. It’s nothing new. Men holding hostages have been shot by snipers, men and women have engaged in shootouts with the police and been wiped out. Police have shot unarmed kids holding toy guns, they’ve burst into homes and shot the occupants (sometimes occupants innocent of any crime except being in the gun sites of police officers), they’ve shot Americans in the back.
And we’re upset about drones?
Drones are just another way of doing what we’ve always done. They ramp up the technology without changing anything fundamental in the way we think. But as with mass shootings and terrorist bombings, the problem is really with the way we think. If it were the technology, then it would be perfectly appropriate to ban pressure cookers, ban firearms, and put taggants in every last firecracker, sparkler and box of matches.
Technology is a scapegoat. We can point to an AR-15 and demand “ban that.” We can hold up a high capacity magazine and declare, “this is unnecessary.” We can filibuster against drones and say, “these things are an affront to liberty.” The real affront to liberty is the way we think about public order, the police and public safety, but it’s hard to put the thinking out there on display and demand, “fix this.”
The question being addressed in the press today after Rand Paul’s reversal is whether drones should be used against people like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. He was a kid cornered in a boat, possibly holding a bomb. Was it imperative for the sake of public safety that he be killed? If it was, the police were derelict in their duty; they took him alive. It was clearly not necessary that he be killed, not by a sniper, not by a drone, and to simply kill him would have been a pure act of revenge, not justice.
But what if it had been necessary? If it had been, would it have mattered whether they shot him from a rooftop or fired on him with a drone? Not really. We might even argue that the use of drones would have allowed the police to stand off at a greater distance, get a better idea of what was going on, and make a cooler decision about whether and how to take him alive, without worrying whether any police would be killed in the process. And let us not forget, it’s often the concern about the safety of police officers that induces the police to kill civilians — a do unto them before they can do unto us approach to public safety.
Rand Paul and his libertarian supporters should be demanding changes to the way police work rather than arguing over their tools. They should demand a greater respect for constitutional niceties. The danger of drones is that they’re intrusive. It isn’t the armed drones that are a problem, but eyes in the sky. But here we run into a whole onslaught of new technologies and tactics: devices that can see you by your body heat through a wall from across the street; devices that can sniff out marijuana plants in your basement by a trace of chemicals in the air; cameras mounted everywhere to watch you as you make your way down the street; ways to look into your computer files, the power to read your email without a warrant, the use of RFID devices to see where you go and observe your transactions.
Drones are just one tiny bit of technology. If we don’t change the way we think about privacy, security, and the Bill of Rights, arguing against drones will be like fighting a war against terror, a useless, deadly distraction from the real issues facing us.
The real question for Rand Paul isn’t “do you think the police should have recourse to the use of drones to kill Americans,” but “under what circumstances do you consider it appropriate to use deadly force at all.” It’s where he draws the line that really matters, not the tools he thinks we should use on the right side of the line.
James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the professor of Romance languages, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade. He likes his privacy. He tweets, hangs out on Facebook, and has a blog he totally neglects at pichtblog.blogspot.com.
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