Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is not normally my kind of guy. Among the many sins embodied by his heartfelt embrace of a particularly obnoxious strain of libertarianism is his skepticism about the usefulness of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
He once said he probably would have voted against that historic legislation, if given the chance, because he believes that markets -- not government -- should punish bigotry. The "whites only" signs would've stayed until demographic shifts made Jim Crow economically untenable.
In an era when an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court contemptuously referred to section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act as an example of a "racial entitlement," now is not the time to take legislative landmarks for granted, especially when legislators who are skeptical of any role for government in enforcing justice are in positions of influence.
Mr. Paul may not be a champion of civil rights, but he's a giant when it comes to standing up for civil liberties in an age of encroaching drone use. Earlier this week, Mr. Paul took to the floor of the U.S. Senate for 13 hours to filibuster President Barack Obama's nomination of John Brennan as the next CIA director.
Mr. Paul was livid about Attorney General Eric Holder's written response to a query about the legality of drone strikes within the United States. Mr. Holder attempted to reassure Mr. Paul that the Obama administration wasn't interested in killing Americans on U.S. soil, but the attorney general added this caveat:
"It is possible, I suppose," Mr. Holder responded, "to imagine an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate under the Constitution and applicable laws of the United States for the president to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States."
The nation's top law enforcement officer added that "an extraordinary circumstance" could be something like disrupting a 9/11-level plot or another Pearl Harbor sneak attack. Basically, Mr. Holder was outlining a continuation of the Bush administration status quo -- a policy that drove many of my liberal brethren into fits of apoplexy when Republicans were in charge.
"I will speak as long as it takes," Mr. Paul said at the beginning of his filibuster, "until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court."
That these words were uttered by Rand Paul rather than one of the Senate's Democrats is a sign that cravenness defines that party these days. The failure of Democrats to consistently challenge Mr. Obama as vigorously as they once did President George W. Bush is the kind of hypocrisy that won't go unnoticed. Only Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden joined Mr. Paul and a bunch of Republicans in the filibuster.
Republicans who once gave Mr. Bush a blank check on everything from torture to reckless deficit spending have denounced Mr. Obama's drone policy with no sense of irony or embarrassment. When a neo-McCarthyite like Rep. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, is in a position to lecture a Democratic attorney general about civil liberties in an era of drones, that's grandstanding on an Olympian level, but it doesn't mean the argument is bogus.
It does make you wonder why a former constitutional law professor would allow his drone policy to remain so nebulous instead of stating unequivocally what he believes, or at least use a more capable surrogate than Mr. Holder to lay out the White House's argument. What, if any, would be Mr. Obama's legal rationale for killing Americans with drones at home?
This isn't just an academic question. One can legitimately ask what President Richard Nixon would've done to, say, Jane Fonda after her trip to North Vietnam in 1972 had he had a drone buzzing Hollywood. If the answer is nothing, would he have had the legal authority to kill her as she sat on an enemy gun turret overseas?
Once something like using drones at home becomes easy, it will be abused. This week, news broke that pilots operating drones thousands of miles away from their targets may be given higher medals than those awarded to soldiers in actual combat. This kind of distortion of values is endemic to drone warfare. One day we'll have an evil president who will use drones as casually on American citizens as overseas.
"I really don't think [President Obama will] drop a Hellfire missile on a cafe in Houston like I'm talking about," Mr. Paul said, nearing the end of his 13-hour filibuster, "but it really bothers me he won't say that he won't."
Tony Norman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1631. Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.