Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, waterboarding, selective murders by unmanned planes, illegal telephone taps within the US... Since September 11, the tension between Washington and human rights groups has been on the rise. Now we are looking at a new turn of the screw.
When the victims were foreigners, drones killing faraway terror suspects bothered no one in Washington. The fact that this went on in countries with which the United States was not technically at war didn't seem to matter much. After all, a "global war on terrorism" had been declared, giving a sort of legal pretext for dispatching Al Qaeda "operatives" impersonally and routinely, be they in Pakistan, Yemen or anywhere else. That there were "collateral victims," that is, bystanders, women and children, did not seem to strain the legal consciences of Justice Department lawyers.
But the winds shifted when Washington admitted not only to using a drone in Yemen to liquidate an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, but also to doing so under the legal coverage of a Justice Department memorandum, to the effect that the right to the presumption of innocence and a fair trial, which Al-Awlaki enjoyed as an American citizen, could be cancelled if he represented a clear and present danger to the security of the United States.
If drones are useful in Pakistan, why shouldn't they be just as useful on American soil?
For many people of good faith, in the United States and no doubt in Spain, this discussion is pointless: to kill someone who is about to murder your citizens is an act of legitimate self-defense, and that's that. But things are not so easy. A democracy establishing two spheres of differentiated rights, according to who and where you are, is as shocking from the moral viewpoint as it is at odds with the idea of universal human rights. A dangerous line has been crossed here. It is serious enough that Washington has once again resorted to the term "enemy combatant" to apply the law of war to an American citizen instead of the criminal code. Moreover, the Justice Department has left in the hands of the Executive branch - the government, not the courts - the power to decide when an American citizen located in a foreign country can become a legitimate military objective.
Remember the warning of the Protestant pastor Martin Niemöller (often wrongly attributed to Bertold Brecht), which begins with: "When the Nazis came for the Communists I said nothing, because I wasn't one of them," progresses through cases of increasing proximity, and ends with: "When at last they came for me, there wasn't anyone left who might have protested."
The next step down this dangerous path comes from the huge pressures of the aeronautical industry - to which the American government is highly receptive - to use drones (in principle, unarmed) in American airspace. In this context, the senator Rand Paul has resorted to the old tactic of filibuster - that is, of blocking parliamentary business by taking the podium and talking indefinitely.
If drones are useful in Pakistan, why shouldn't they be useful on American soil? What is to stop their being used in operations against drug traffickers? Why not arm them to protect the lives of police agents in an antiterrorist operation? After all, a remote-controlled plane is no different from a rifle with a telescopic sight. It is just another weapon. Why not use it?
After almost 13 hours on the podium, the senator wrung from the US Attorney-General a statement to the effect that "the president would not use drone strikes against non-combatant American citizens suspected of terrorism on American soil." Does this mean that Obama could indeed use a drone on American soil to kill a "combatant," American citizen or no? This seems to be it. And who decides when this person has turned from citizen (or tourist) into a combatant?