This Progressive Stands With Rand

Sen. Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster struck a much-needed blow at the Obama administration’s senseless drone warfare.

Zaid Jilani

Sen. Rand Paul, speaking here at the LPAC 2011 conference in Reno, Nev., was spot-on during his Senate filibuster in criticizing the use of drone strikes. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr/Creative Commons).

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I’ve spent my entire political life working with the Democratic Party and the progressive movement. I’ve worked for the Democratic Party-aligned think tank, the Center for American Progress (CAP). I’ve raised money and organized campaign volunteers to elect progressive Democrats like Elizabeth Warren, Tammy Baldwin, and Alan Grayson. I’ve never voted for a Republican.

No, Paul did not base his filibuster on overseas wars, focusing more on the question of whether Obama could apply these same policies to terror suspects in the United States. But by raising the case of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki and calling out the administration’s signature strikes—drone attacks on targets where we don’t even know who the target is, but are using behavioral clues such as the presence of military-age men—Paul began a discussion that almost all Democratic senators have failed to take part in.

Yet when right-libertarian Republican Senator Rand Paul (R‑KY) took to the floor yesterday to filibuster John Brennan’s nomination as CIA director, I was joining staffers at the Koch Brothers organization FreedomWorks and writers at Red​State​.com by tweeting out the hashtag #StandWithRand. I did so with the full realization that this would put me at odds with much of the progressive movement and partisan Democrats.

Such Democrats angrily denounced Rand and his filibuster last night. Fun to watch liberals cheer guy who hates Civil Rights Act as he deploys tactic perfected by segregationists,” tweeted Mother Jones national security reporter Adam Weinstein. Not sure why people are surprised that Dems aren’t participating in a filibuster of one of the president’s nominees, regardless of topic,” tweeted CAP’s Joshua Dorner in defense of Senate Democrats who refused to join Paul. (Ironically, Dorner works for an organization that frequently praises Republicans who object to their own party’s leadership.)

It’s none too startling that Paul’s political philosophy is anathema to progressives. The most striking example of this is Paul’s admission, during his 2010 Senate campaign, that he opposes a provision of the Civil Rights Act that would make it illegal for private business owners to discriminate against customers on the basis of their race.

While Paul’s statement was instantly denounced as evidence that he holds racist views, he claimed at the time that one can both oppose racism and oppose government efforts to mandate business owners’ activities.

I’ve frequently discussed this issue with libertarian friends who agree with Paul. They swear up and down that they aren’t racists. I believe them. Paul’s view, and theirs, is perfectly consistent with a philosophy that views certain government mandates as inherently illegitimate — Barry Goldwater held a similar view when he opposed the Civil Rights Act as unconstitutional.

But, just like most Americans of all political ideologies, I think Paul is deeply wrong on this issue. I grew up just outside of Atlanta, a city that was once burned to the ground by the federal government because it was engaged in a rebellion in defense of a slave economy. Not far from where I went to high school, there is a theater where you can still see the cramped Blacks Only” entrance that was used decades ago. One of my character education counselors, a conservative white Republican and local pastor, once tearfully described the necessity of forced busing and desegregation by the federal government that he experienced. Anyone who does not subscribe to an extreme anti-government ideology like Paul can clearly see why state intervention was needed to end this form of American apartheid. 

But in understanding why Paul holds such views on the federal government’s powers, you can also understand why what he was doing last night was principled, not political showmanship. If you subscribe to a philosophy that says that government should be so constrained that it can’t tell a business owner not to discriminate, why would you believe that government should be able to put a noncombatant citizen to death without trial?

And Paul, to his credit, has been remarkably consistent in his effort to restrain government violence. He has repeatedly called for substantial cuts to the military budget. In 2011, I attended his coming out” foreign policy speech at Johns Hopkins University. During that address, he said he’d much rather send some of your professors around the world than I would our soldiers, if at all possible. Even in Iran, does anybody want to go to Iran? Iran has a large undercurrent of people who like the West. They like our music, our culture, our literature, and so I think we can influence people in those ways. I’d rather do that than go to war with Iran.”

Yet for many who affiliate with the Democratic Party, including those who are skeptical of the drone program and U.S. militarism, praising Paul is just a bridge too far. He’s a nutjob,” tweeted one of my former colleagues at CAP, the smart law blogger Ian Millhiser. MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell called his filibuster a stunt.” The only progressive cable news host who offered supportive remarks was Rachel Maddow.

This reaction says a lot about what the Democratic Party — both its elected officials who overwhelmingly failed to join Paul on the Senate floor and its activist wing and pundit class — prioritizes, and what it doesn’t.

For most activist Democrats, the drone program is a distraction from issues they joined the party to tackle — economic inequality, gay rights, women’s rights, environmental degradation. These other issues, which also matter deeply to me, supersede any concern about, say, the sanctions regime on Iran that is denying people needed medicines, or a drone program that regularly kills innocent men, women and children. Restraining state violence simply isn’t high on their list of priorities.

It’s very high on mine. Here’s why. During an emotional moment last year following the killing of African American teen Trayvon Martin, President Obama said, If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” As a Pakistani Muslim American, if I had a brother, he would likely look like Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. As a Pakistani Muslim American, if I had a brother, he would likely look like Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. Like his father Anwar al-Awlaki, Abdhulrahman was an American citizen. Unlike his father, who preached support for terrorism, he was not known to be or accused to be engaged in anything like terrorist activity. Yet a drone strike ended his life two weeks after his father was killed. President Obama has never explained why, but Rand Paul explained last night before a worldwide audience what former administration flack Robert Gibbs told an activist about the attack.

Here’s the real problem: when the president’s spokesman was asked about Awlaki’s son, do you know what his response was?” noted Paul during his filibuster. He said he should have chosen a more responsible father.” Paul’s comment was the first time a U.S. Senator of either party brought up the killing of Abdulrahman, and when he did, I couldn’t help but cheer.

Whatever Paul’s views on other topics are, the hard fact was that he was the only Senator who was standing up and seriously questioning a process that was leading to the killing and maiming of people who look like me.

I’ve been going to Pakistan on regular trips my entire life. When I used to go as a child, people would beg my family to help them get visas to travel to the United States. Women wanted to wear American blue jeans. During a trip in 2007, Live Free or Die Hard” was one of the most popular films in the theaters of Karachi. But in the past few years, anti-Americanism has been on the rise. Gruesome drone killings have driven thousands of people into the arms of radicals who want to exploit the issue to spread their jihadist agenda. Approval ratings of the United States are at a record low, and are lower than under Bush. Obama’s policies are literally tearing the country apart, and even the former U.S. ambassador to the country admits that the CIA’s drone strikes have gotten out of hand.

No, Paul did not base his filibuster on overseas wars, focusing more on the question of whether Obama could apply these same policies to terror suspects in the United States. But by raising the case of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki and calling out the administration’s signature strikes — drone attacks on targets where we don’t even know who the target is, but are using behavioral clues such as the presence of military-age men — Paul began a discussion that almost all Democratic senators have failed to take part in.

This afternoon, the Senate confirmed Brennan by a vote of 63 – 34 after Rand ended a 13-hour filibuster. I’m probably not going to join the Libertarian Party anytime soon, and I’m sure I’ll butt heads with Rand Paul next time he calls for cutting Social Security benefits or claims that just about every federal department is unconstitutional. But what he did last night was incredibly heartening to someone like me — someone who is tired of seeing people who look like me needlessly killed over and over again in a perpetual war led by a country so powerful it could stop criminal terrorists without using killer robots, but rather with smart use of police and intelligence service. So I #StandWithRand.

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Zaid Jilani is a progressive journalist in the DC area.
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