[Note: I’ve been off dying for the better part of the past week. Well, not exactly dying, but it sure felt a great deal like it over the weekend, and like Strom Thurmond whatever invaded my lungs didn’t know when to pack its bags and leave gracefully.]
The past couple of days have witnessed a good old-fashioned political show that is vaguely reminiscent of the days when the U.S. Senate might have earned its self-proclaimed moniker of the greatest deliberative body in the world. A still fairly-junior senator from Kentucky decided Wednesday, and apparently on the fly, that he was going to filibuster the nomination of John Brennan, one of Dear Leader’s more unsavory characters, to be head of the CIA. Senate rules allow him to do that. He exercised his right to hold the floor until physically unable to do so for the purpose of extracting a yes-or-no answer to a fairly straightforward question: Does this administration claim it has the lawful authority to order the extra-judicial killing (that is, no warrant, no indictment, no evidence, no trial, no verdict) of an American citizen on American soil who does not pose an imminent risk of violent harm?
I’ve not heard anyone dispute that, for example, Geo. W. Bush could have ordered fighter interceptors to shoot down any of the Sept. 11 aircraft had we had sufficient advance notice of their intentions. My understanding (admittedly incomplete) is that under certain circumstances of civic unrest, such as massive rioting (think Los Angeles in the wake of the first Rodney King verdict) or natural disaster (Katrina), shoot-to-kill orders are lawful. But all those involve targets who are actually, you know, doing something which, if violent intervention is not interposed right-now-this-minute, will result in the actual destruction of lives or property. Rand Paul’s question, phrased colloquially, was whether Dear Leader claimed the right without any judicial process whatsoever and within the territory of the United States, to whack an unarmed someone sitting at a restaurant table eating supper, just because of his involvement in some sort of activity, not actually engaged in at the moment, the objectives of which tended towards violence towards . . . well, someone.
Since the administration leaked an internal memo setting forth its arguments that it does have that authority overseas, several people and organizations have been trying to get a straight answer as to whether Dear Leader claims that authority on U.S. soil. Eric Holder’s DOJ issued a really insulting letter to Paul which basically refused to answer the question, and the overall tenor of which was the functional equivalent of telling a female reporter not to worry her pretty little head and doesn’t she know there’s a special on shoes down at Nordstrom’s. Run along, children, can’t you see daddy’s working on closing a gun-running deal to Mexico?
So Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky decided he was going to shove a spanner into the works. And so he spoke, and spoke, and spoke. At first alone, but as the hours went by and it became apparent that he was quite serious about what he was doing, he got some help. And Twitter exploded in his support, including from some of Dear Leader’s most blinkered cheerleaders. Paul ended up holding the floor for roughly thirteen hours, the ninth-longest filibuster in Senate history.
But he got his yes-or-no answer yesterday. Dear Leader, in what may be a first, has disclaimed a legal authority to act on his own whim (which as we all know, is the highest law, an opinion he shares with the late Kaiser Wilhelm II). For the moment it is not asserted that the president lawfully may, sitting around a table with unknown folks — or even entirely on his own in the watches of the night — issue an order for a Hellfire missile to come screaming out of the clouds and into John Q. Citizen’s bedroom where he lies asleep with his wife and two year-old, solely on the basis that he’s a member of an organization at least some of whose members may have bomb-making equipment and supplies in their garage, over on the other side of town.
[Side note: Holder’s letter is an illustration of why English composition class is important. Look at the adverbial phrase “on American soil”; what does it modify? Adverbs can modify adjectives, verbs, or other adverbs. In Holder’s letter the two possibilities are “kill” and “not engaged,” and because of the way the sentence is written you can’t really tell which it is just from reading the text. If it’s the latter then it’s a reversal of a position which the administration has explicitly taken (and with which I actually agree, but that’s a subject for a future blog post), namely that it may lawfully kill an American overseas who is not at the moment of killing engaged in combat but who is otherwise generally actively engaged in the activities of organizations which do pursue combat against us. If “no” is the answer to the question whether the president can order the killing of an American, wherever located, who isn’t engaged in combat on American soil, then that’s a major reversal of position. So I think the only way intelligently to read the sentence consistently with Dear Leader’s already-staked positions is to apply “on American soil” to modify “kill.”]
You’d think this would be, in the language of the Pythons, a happy occasion. The minority party, which has a reputation for being less concerned with ordinary citizens’ liberties than is desirable, on a point of principle that addresses itself to the most basic nature of the relationship between citizen and state (“Under what circumstances may you lawfully kill me?” than which I suggest no question is more fundamental), and in the face of cynical refusal by an administration which has made bald-faced contempt for constitutional structures of government its habitual mode of proceeding, forces a fairly plain statement of principle from the administration. Whether from a partisan, bi-partisan, or institutional perspective, what’s not to love about it?
Plenty, according to John McCain of Arizona. You’ll recall him; he was the feller who did such a good job of keeping in good with the press corps during his 2008 run for the White House that he got his ass handed to him without ever actually engaging his opponent on any of that opponent’s gaping weaknesses. McCain’s an aviator and a combat survivor. I’m an old destroyer guy and never came close to hearing a weapon fired in earnest. But by God we had a saying on our ship that the probability of achieving a kill with an unfired missile was zero.
Since getting to the Senate McCain’s made something of an art form of the unfired missile. He’s so consumed with the gentility of the Senate that he’d rather abandon just about any position rather than kick up a fuss. And this is the guy who while a prisoner of war regularly got the snot beat out of him for gratuitously kicking up a fuss with his captors. He wasn’t willing to vote for his former colleague Hagel, perhaps the least appropriate nominee for civilian head of the armed forces ever. But he wasn’t willing to use the tools which the Senate’s own rules provide to prevent that nomination from being confirmed.
And now, according to McCain, what Paul did was “mak[e] the ‘offensive’ suggestion that the president could assassinate” non-combatant Americans on American soil; or, rather, that his demand that the president come out and say that he could not lawfully do so was “offensive.” According to Senator Comity, “To infer that our government would drop a Hellfire missile on Jane Fonda brings the conversation to a ridiculous tone.” Does it, now, Senator? Because this administration has already claimed — and in fact has exercised — the power to drop a Hellfire missile on Jane Fonda overseas. The morality of so-called “targeted killing” (as opposed to indiscriminate killing, in the manner of Dresden?), even in wartime, even in a combat zone, and even against a uniformed member of the enemy’s armed forces, is not a new topic. To remind Senator Collegiality, that specific question was perceived to be sufficiently legitimate that we actually debated the mission that shot down Admiral Yamamoto.
So no, Senator Back-Scratch, it is anything but “ridiculous” to ponder the implications of targeted killing. The moral and legal implications of drone warfare are anything but clear, anything but settled. It’s likewise not “ridiculous” to ponder those questions in respect of someone who is, so far from being a member of a declared enemy’s armed forces, not actually engaged in combat operations, either at the moment or generally. Think that’s a distinction without a difference? How about the guys driving the truck full of Iranian-supplied weaponry versus the guy who is part of Al Qaeda-in-whatever-hell-hole but whose actual job is more or less that of webmaster for one of their communications networks? As mentioned, Dear Leader has asserted and in fact exercised the power to deal with both those people in identical fashion, if they’re found overseas. And as mentioned I agree with him in that setting. Why then is it “ridiculous” to ponder the implications of that same distinction within the territorial boundaries of the U.S. and its possessions?
Not to be outdone by Senator PressCorps, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina chimes in with, “This president is not going to use a drone against an innocent person sitting at a café because it would be illegal. It would be murder.” Errrmmmm . . . Sen. Graham, isn’t that word “innocent” sort of the whole point? Holder’s first letter condescendingly refused to disclaim, within U.S. territory, the right to decide who’s “innocent” and who isn’t. Besides, illegality is nothing very troubling to this tribe. Dear Leader’s administration has intentionally run large quantities of weapons to Mexican drug cartels, all quite illegally. It made personal threats against individual employees and officers of bondholders of companies it desired to hand over to its labor union allies, again, illegally. It directly, and very illegally, intervened in a decision of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation to stick it to the non-union employees of a General Motors subsidiary in order to top off the pensions of the unionized employees. It — once more, quite illegally — flat-out lied to a United States court about bailing out a Canadian subsidiary of General Motors in order to get the GM bail-out approved. And I’m supposed to comfort myself that this outfit won’t do something because it’s illegal?
I’d also remind Sen. Graham and Sen. Limelight that Dear Leader is not going to be the last president of this country. I don’t know who will be president in six years, or ten, or forty. But my three sons will have to live under that unknown person’s administration. If we are silent now as Dear Leader refuses to disclaim the unilateral power of life and death, what is likely to be the state of the debate thirty years from now? When was the last time that an executive voluntarily relinquished a power his predecessors had either affirmatively claimed or had refused to disclaim?
This sort of muddled thinking, this inability to discern what is actually at issue, this willingness to pull in harness with people and groups whose unabashed tendencies are towards totalitarianism is why the Republican party brand is where it is. What does this party stand for? Does it stand for anything? Does it aim for anything more exalted than just taking back the same reins of power currently held by the other party? Is there any point at which it is willing to plant its feet, set its face against the winds, and say, “Thus far and no farther”?
Sens Hop-on-my-Bus and Graham are considered elder statesmen of their party. Perhaps they are. If they are then that party is in more serious trouble than their most sincere enemies could wish it.