Whatever you think of Senator Rand Paul’s filibuster of John Brennan, President Obama’s nominee to head the C.I.A., one thing it doesn’t seem to have accomplished is to get people to focus on the president’s authority to kill people he designates as threats. This, rather than the use of “drones” per se, is the real issue–the one that needs serious debate and critical examination. Drones are just one means by which the president can order people on the “kill-list” to be dispatched. From a rule-of-law or civil-liberties perspective, it’s irrelevant if he uses a drone–rather than a missile, or a ninja, or whatever–to do this.
Confusion on this point allows defenders of so-called targeted killing to pose as humanitarians. They point out, not without justification, that unmanned drones can be more precise and kill fewer bystanders than other forms of aerial warfare. But this point–while not unimportant–obscures the issue that clear-headed critics of the program have been harping on. That issue is ordering the killing of people–whether U.S. citizens or not–without anything resembling due process as traditionally understood, and with a great deal of secrecy and with little by way of transparency or accountability. This power, rather than the use of a particular technology, is what should really worry us and is what we need to be debating.