WASHINGTON — The debate goes to the heart of a deeply rooted American suspicion about the government, the military and the surveillance state: the specter 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 Sen. 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 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 fueled 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 humor, 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.")
A national nerve
Benjamin Wittes, a national security scholar at the Brookings Institution who has written extensively about drones, said he thought 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," Wittes said.
On the right, 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. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon — the only Democrat to join 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," 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 dozen states that have passed laws restricting drones do not fall into conventional red-blue divisions, nor do the score of states competing to be the site of the Federal Aviation Administration’s test sites for drones.
In popular culture
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.
When Amazon advertised a six-inch model of the Predator, made by Maisto, in its toy section, people wrote politically charged mock reviews that became Internet hits: “This goes well," one reviewer wrote, “with the Maisto Extraordinary Rendition playset, by the way — which gives you all the tools you need to kidnap the family pet and take him for interrogation at a neighbor’s house, where the rules of the Geneva Convention may not apply. Loads of fun!"
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was not laughing Thursday when he took to the Senate floor to chastise Paul and defend the use of drones. In an interview with The Huffington Post, McCain dismissed Paul and the other critics of drones as “the wacko birds on right and left that get the media megaphone."
Deeply rooted anxieties
But the issue is larger than Paul, whose ambitions may include a run for the presidency in 2016. For many, Paul gave voice to the dangers they whisper about to anyone who will listen: that the government is too powerful to be left unchecked.
“It’s not merely the black helicopter crowd of the folks on the far right," said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups. “What Rand Paul had to say about drones absolutely fired up conspiracy theorists on the left as well as the right."
Human Rights Watch plans to join other groups next month in starting an effort called the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. The technology, fully autonomous weapons that are still at the drawing-board stage, would find and fire at their programmed targets without requiring a human being to pull the trigger.
Some national security experts find the campaign overwrought, but Mary Wareham, the advocacy director for the arms division of Human Rights Watch, noted that the Defense Department in November issued a policy directive on autonomous weapons that recognized the challenges they pose.
At the same time, there are people like Everett Wilkinson, a Tea Party organizer and self-proclaimed conspiracy theorist in Florida, who is hailing Paul as a “rock star for the Constitution." On Wilkinson’s website, Liberty.com, he warns that the U.S. government is building “internment camps" for political dissidents. He is wary of what comes next.
“First they said we are just going to use drones to observe stuff, and then they put Hellfire missiles on them," Wilkinson said. “How soon are we going to have drones overhead with Tasers on them?"
In Washington, Code Pink, a leftist group of antiwar activists, showed up with flowers and chocolates at Paul’s Senate offices Thursday to thank him for standing up against abuses of power. Known around Capitol Hill mainly for disrupting congressional hearings, the group had found a new champion.
“People say: ‘Oh, my God, Code Pink is praising Rand Paul. Hell has frozen over!’" said Medea Benjamin, a co-founder of the group. “But we were glued to C-SPAN to the bitter end of the filibuster. We were amazed to see the education of the public that was taking place, and that has never occurred before."