Rogue ophthalmologist Rand Paul has been a disheveled weirdo for the entirety of his political career, because the apple does not fall far from the tree of liberty, but last night he won the hearts of many people on Twitter because he was up most of the night reading blogs aloud as part of a filibuster against Barack Obama's pick for the new CIA chief. (The last CIA chief resigned over sexting.)
The moral issue of drone assassins is very important, and there are obvious constitutional and police-state issues both domestically and internationally, but this is less a political shift than a technological evolution. Remotely controlled flying war machines are part of the Anthropocene Epoch, unlikely to be legislated out of existence. Labor unions have had little luck in stopping the progression of factory robots, bank tellers have done little to delay the planet-wide adoption of 24-hour ATMs, and underpaid journalists now protest the Internet era of computerized information sharing by posting pro bono jeremiads on the Internet.
Surveillance drones are so common and relatively cheap today that they are used not just by the government to watch over its citizens and perceived enemies, but also by Occupy Wall Street protesters, the illicit drug industry and wildlife conservation groups. As we've seen in the first decade of the 21st Century, the transition from surveillance to assassination is a matter of adding a few parts to existing aerospace technology. Drone technology is so cheap and so widely available that you can have dozens of different models delivered to your home with free shipping in two days, using Amazon Prime.
The most advanced of these consumer drones can be operated from your iPad, and they can both carry and drop payloads—this will be the year we first express national outrage over somebody dropping a small but deadly explosive from a toy drone onto a police station or a school. What's the difference between an iRobot bomb-defusal droid and a Terminator? There is no difference beyond the intent of the manufacturer.
And how far are we from the first Slate contrarian essay in favor of total drone warfare? Morally, it's an easier sell than much of what we tacitly allow our governments and military/police agencies to do right now. Drone warfare might be intellectually weird and it might occasionally create a scene like last night's Rand Paul 13-hour reading of Wired's Danger Room blog, but it's politically smart.
Barack Obama has continued the War On Terror without the weekly cargo planes full of flag-draped coffins from the Middle East and Central Asia. People are still dying on the other end of the remotely-flown missions, of course, but it is not hard to see a near future when drones could do the same work using non-lethal means. A spray of Spider-Man webbing from a low-flying drone could hold a group of suspected Al Qaeda operatives in a sticky ball until a squad of land-based drones could tractor over and release the children, brides and animals routinely killed by drone strikes today—and that may sound incredibly stupid and cartoonish until you realize these incapacitating non-lethal weapons exist today and are being further developed by the Pentagon. There's a reason why Obama won't close Guantanamo that goes far beyond finding another place to put the remaining prisoners of war: The future is non-lethal warfare and indefinite detention of those with a lasting commitment to asymmetrical warfare against the major political and corporate powers of the planet, and "the future" is so close at hand today that we will all need to come up with something better than Terminator jokes.
We are a violent species at last trying to figure out how to conduct our tawdry affairs without human-on-human violence, and aerial drone warfare may one day be seen as important progress in this shift of behavior and consciousness. Just as violent crime is apparently in permanent decline, our appetite for war casualties has reached a point that would be incomprehensible to the military leaders of the Vietnam era, let alone World War I with its 37,000,000 killed.
Rand Paul did something important last night, by making drone warfare a trending topic. But Rand Paul and all the libertarians in the country can't put the drones back in the box. And with the way private and public interests are creating a major technological boom in aeronautic robotics, it's unlikely they really want to do any such thing. The market wants killer droids. The market is buying killer droids.
All that's left to do is hope we get from "killer" to "non-lethal" before the droids don't want to listen to us anymore.