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John Winters Columnist

Published Sunday, March 17, 2013

Due process, drone style

So a few days ago I’m in the backyard hanging with the SONs of Thunder.

We’re watching Gigantor, the Dog Who Thinks She Can Fly and Miniature Sheepdog, barking at the sky. The object of said barking are about a dozen beautiful hawks just gliding overhead.

The Little Black Dress worries the hawks may sweep down, and Flying Dog will actually do that, but not of her own accord. And I’m wondering why in the world a bunch of hawks are in our backwoods.

It finally hits me - drones.

And I’m wracking my brain trying to figure out which story piqued our government’s interest so much that they’ve brought in the surveillance drones. At least, for now, it’s just surveillance.

Drones are in the news a lot lately. The unmanned plane-like devices can be flown remotely from continents away. Armed with cameras, they can conduct surveillance and, in other cases, fire rockets.

From a military standpoint, I’m all for them. I’d rather lose equipment than people on the battlefield. Let the drones do the deep, in-country espionage work; let them swoop in with rockets blazing to take out targets.

I’m going to rely on The New York Times’ account and spelling for the following.

Anwar al-Awlaki was a senior operative in Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen. He and another man, Samir Khan, who ran the militant group’s Inspire, an English-language Internet magazine, were killed by a drone missile. Al-Awlaki was the target; Khan was not deemed a serious threat and was not targeted. He died being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Two weeks later, Al-Awlaki’s son, Abdulrahman, 16, was killed in another drone attack while searching for his father. He was not the target. Who cares? Who can even spell their names?

“Within just two weeks, the American government had killed three of its own citizens in Yemen,” The Times’ article said. “Only one had been killed on purpose.”

Yes, they were Americans. And the whole concept of “due process,” of trial by jury, just went out the window.

All this came out recently, highlighted by a 13-hour filibuster in the U.S. Senate on whether the federal government planned to kill Americans with drones in the U.S. I say only came out because the events above happened 18 months ago.

Attorney General Eric Holder, who originally said the government “could” use drones in America under extreme circumstances, backpedaled.

“Does the president have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on U.S. soil? The answer to that is no,” he said in response to Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who led the filibuster.

So we can all rest easy now. Sort of.

Because now everyone is focusing on four words - “not engaged in combat.” And what does that mean?

I get the War on Terror. But what about the War on Poverty? The War on Drugs? The War on People Who Don’t Agree With Us? And all the other “wars” our government is fighting on our behalf within our borders.

A bunch of terrorists are discovered meeting in Somewhere, U.S. Should we send in a drone? The nation’s top drug lords are together in Anywhere, U.S. - chance to wipe them all out. What about those in deep in child slavery, child pornography? Gambling and prostitution?

Where do we draw the line? We are starting down a slippery slope. Terrorists, drug lords, those dealing in child slavery are killing our country. I’m all for taking them out. But not with drones. Not without due process. Not because whoever is in the White House thinks we should.

That is why we have due process. That is why our country remains great, especially in terms of personal rights and freedom. We arrest the bad guys; we put them on trial. If convicted, we put them away.

That is the American way, and despite all our faults, it is better than some individual or entity becoming judge, jury and executioner. It is why we have the Bill of Rights.

It is why I can write this column and not worry, as journalists in most countries do, as to when my door will be broken down and I’m carted off somewhere.

And it’s why smart American entrepreneurs are busy designing and making “stealth clothing” that makes it harder for drones to spot targets by blocking thermal surveillance cameras. Seriously. A hoodie will set you back $487.45

I just hope we don’t need the clothing.

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