Signs, by the Five Man Electrical Band, is a great song, First released in 1970, it tells the story of a young man who questions authority in the form of signs that want to exclude “long-haired freaky people” and trespassers. The song’s refrain is: “Sign, sign, everywhere a sign. Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind. Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?”
I don’t know many people who are disturbed by signs these days, even though there undoubtedly are many more signs now than there were in 1970. If the young man from Signs were around today, would he still be angry about signs, or would he be more concerned by other issues of liberty and freedom — like drones, or widespread video surveillance, or the wide-ranging governmental regulations of conduct that are far more prevalent than they were four decades ago? Or, because the young man would be in his 60s, would he be focused more on terrorists and public safety issues, and be grateful that the widespread use of security cameras by private businesses helped authorities to promptly identify and apprehend suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing?
Protest issues come, and protest issues go. The world is a different, more complicated place than it was when signs, and Signs, seemed so important.
I don’t agree with Senator Paul on many issues, but I applaud his use of the filibuster to draw attention to the drone issue, which I think has largely flown under the radar of the American public. We need to have a national discussion about our use of drones, both in America and in foreign countries. We should fully consider the costs and benefits of the use of drones overseas, and whether we think it is prudent for the President to have the unilateral authority to authorize drones to kill suspected terrorists in other, sovereign nations with which we are not at war. There is no doubt that the drones have been effective weapons in the fight against al Qaeda, but are they being used too frequently and too indiscriminately? The strikes have injured and killed apparently innocent civilians and deeply damaged the United States’ reputation in several countries. Is it worth it? That’s not a question that the President, alone, should be answering.
Domestically, do we really want to give the President the power to order the killing of American citizens in the United States — without a judge or jury or a finding of guilt by any other entity or branch of government? Reserving for the President the right to do so in “extraordinary circumstances” seems like an ill-defined limit on presidential power. Supporters of President Obama might trust him to make wise decisions with such power, but what about the next President, and the President after that? Presidential power runs with the office, not with its occupant. Gradual accretions of presidential power never seem to get reversed, they just continue to accumulate and accumulate until the president seems less like a chief executive of a three-branch government and more like a tyrant.
I’m not ready to yield the power to the President to order drone strikes on American citizens on American soil just yet. I hope Senator Paul’s old-fashioned, bladder-busting filibuster causes Congress, and the American public, to pay more attention to this important issue that addresses broad questions of individual liberty, due process, and how our government should work.
Our inability to police our borders is cited as justification for use of drone aircraft by the Border and Customs Patrol and the military; the advocates argue that we need the monitoring to enhance our security. Then, as those initial uses become rationalized and accepted, “drone creep” occurs, and more agencies and entities discover a purported need for the devices and the ability to monitor the population from the skies.
The reality is that we are an increasingly monitored society, whether it is through the use of unmanned drones or security cameras mounted on the corners of buildings or cameras attached to traffic lights that are supposed to catch scofflaws who run red lights. The monitoring is always justified on grounds of safety and security, as in the classic British poster touting the presence of closed-circuit TV cameras on British buses.
We are supposed to be trading our freedom and liberty for security — but that notion presupposes that the people who are doing the monitoring are truly motivated by security concerns and are capable of doing something about what they see. The recent performance of our government raises, I think, legitimate questions about the accuracy of both assumptions. Is the primary motivation for traffic light cameras security, or finding a cheap way to collect fines and add much-needed revenue to the coffers of hard-pressed local governments? How much of this monitoring is really to protect us from terrorists and invading criminals, and how much is to give a government that increasingly wants to control how we live our lives a platform to insure that we are complying with their edicts?