Yesterday 205 members of the House, defying the partisan polarization that has recently characterized that body, voted for an amendment limiting the NSA’s blanket collection of telephone records. Last week a federal judge appointed to the bench by George W. Bush lit into a government lawyer claiming limitless executive authority to assassinate U.S. citizens in drone attacks. The tide may be turning. But most heads in the war on terror ultimately spring from one hydra, and that hydra lives: a post-9/11 authorization of force through which Congress ceded an enormous and amorphous swath of power to the President to wage war without end on an enemy without definition.
There is no dictum more central to Burkean prudence than the idea that one does not establish rules for the ordinary case based on the extreme one. So why is Rand Paul, of all people, on television speculating on what the Boston marathon case might mean for a policy on the domestic use of drones?
His answer, apparently leaning more toward his presidential ambitions than his 13-hour filibuster on the topic, was that he would not have objected to the use of a drone against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev during the manhunt for the alleged Boston marathon bomber. This is being interpreted as abandoning Paul’s general objection to the use of drones against U.S. citizens on U.S. soil.
Sunday’s New York Times reports what a long accumulation of evidence has already established: the policy of the United States is to kill rather than capture terrorist suspects. One reason, predictably, is that drone strikes are safer to U.S. troops than surgical capture operations. One assumes this is true, and the reason is compelling. It ought to be factored into prudential judgments alongside considerations of liberty and diplomacy, among others.
But it also put me in mind of a classroom conversation in which students made the same claim: namely, that drones were safer to U.S. troops and drones were therefore not only morally defensible but morally imperative. To this they added the fact that the risk of killing the wrong person or innocent bystanders was incident to the risk of them killing larger numbers of Americans. Significantly, in their mind, this concluded the argument in absolute terms, which is to say that any claim of danger to U.S. troops or citizens was itself a showstopper.