The debate goes to the heart of a deeply rooted American suspicion about the government, the military and the surveillance state: the spectre of drones streaking through the skies above U.S. cities and towns, controlled by faceless bureaucrats and equipped to spy or kill.
That Big Brother imagery — conjured up by Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky during a more than 12-hour filibuster this week — has animated a surprisingly diverse swath of political interests that includes mainstream civil liberties groups, Republican and Democratic lawmakers, conservative research groups, liberal activists and right-wing conspiracy theorists.
They agree on little else. But Mr. Paul’s soliloquy has tapped into a common anxiety on the left and the right about the dangers of unchecked government. And it has exposed fears about ultra-advanced technologies that are fuelled by the increasingly fine line between science fiction and real life.
Drones have become the subject of urgent policy debates in Washington as lawmakers from both parties wrangle with President Barack Obama over their use to prosecute the fight against terrorism from the skies above countries like Pakistan and Yemen.
But they are also a part of the popular culture toys sold by Amazon; central plot points in “Homeland” and a dozen other television shows and movies; the subject of endless macabre humour, notably by The Onion; and even the subject of poetry. (“Ode to the MQ-9 Reaper”, a serious work by New York poet Joe Pan that was just published in the journal Epiphany, describes the drone as “ultra-cool & promo slick, a predatory dart” that is “as self-aware as silverware”.)
Benjamin Wittes, a national security scholar at the Brookings Institution who has written extensively about drones, said he thought Mr. Paul’s marathon was a “dumb publicity stunt”. But he said it had touched a national nerve because the technology, with its myriad implications, had already deeply penetrated the culture.
“Over the last year or so, this thing that was the province of a small number of technologists and national security people has exploded into the larger public consciousness”, Mr. Wittes said.
On the right, Mr. Paul has become an overnight hero since his filibuster. Self-proclaimed defenders of the Constitution have shouted their approval on Twitter, using the hashtag #StandWithRand and declaring him to be a welcomed member of their less-is-better-government club.
“The day that Rand Paul ignited Liberty’s Torch inside the beltway!” one Tea Party activist wrote on Twitter. “May it never be extinguished!”
But even as the right swooned, the left did, too. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, the only Democrat to join Mr. Paul’s filibuster, said the unexpected array of political forces was just the beginning, especially as Congress and the public face the new technologies of 21st-century warfare.
“I believe there is a new political movement emerging in this country that’s shaking free of party moorings,” Mr. Wyden said. “Americans want a better balance between protecting our security and protecting our liberty.”
P.W. Singer, whose 2009 book Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century anticipated the broad impact of drones, said he believed they had shaken up politics because they were “a revolutionary technology, like the steam engine or the computer”.
“The discussion doesn’t fall along the usual partisan lines”, he said.
The serious issues raised by the government’s lethal drones seem inextricably mixed with the ubiquitous appearance of the technology in art, commerce and satire.
A four-minute video by the Air Force Research Laboratory on “micro aerial vehicles” shows a futuristic bee-size drone flying in an open window and taking out an enemy sniper with a miniature explosive payload.
Since it was posted in 2009, it has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times and reposted all over the Web. — New York Times News Service