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Rand Paul, a civil liberties hero and civil rights villain

By Van Jones, CNN Contributor
updated 8:37 AM EST, Fri March 8, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Van Jones: Rand Paul deserves credit for his filibuster on drone policy issues
  • Jones says Paul spoke out against excessive executive power and for civil liberties
  • He says the Kentucky senator is completely wrong on civil rights, abortion, entitlements
  • Jones: Progressives can salute Paul's filibuster even as they disagree with his other views

Editor's note: Van Jones, a CNN contributor, is president and founder of Rebuild the Dream, an online platform focusing on policy, economics and media. He was President Obama's green jobs adviser in 2009. He is also founder of Green for All, a national organization working to build a green economy.

(CNN) -- Yes, I said it, and I will say it again: On Wednesday night, Sen. Rand Paul was a hero for civil liberties.

I love and respect President Obama, and I was honored to work for the Obama White House. That said, the executive branch of the United States government today has an extraordinary level of power. Progressives like Rep. Keith Ellison and conservatives like Paul can all agree it has a disturbing license to wage a never-ending, ill-defined, even un-defined "war on terror," including the use of drones.

I applaud Rand Paul for standing up and calling attention to an important and vexing set of questions.

Van Jones
Van Jones

Now, let me say to my conservative friends: Do not get too excited. I still believe Paul is as much a villain on civil rights as he was a hero this week on civil liberties.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s successful strategy was to force the federal government to intercede not just with states, but also private businesses that denied equal treatment. Paul would have robbed King's strategy of its teeth, because he does not believe the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution grants the federal government the right to protect individuals from racial discrimination in the marketplace. In fact, he once said businesses should be able to turn people away based on the color of their skin.

Also, please do not get me started on his votes against the Violence Against Women Act. Nor on his opposition to a woman's right to make private medical decisions. Nor on his desire to cut Social Security and Medicare, while preserving tax loopholes for the wealthiest people ever born.

But we cannot be so balkanized as a nation that we refuse to say "well done," when someone does right, even if we disagree on everything else. We are bigger than that.

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The idea of using military drones inside U.S. borders should trigger concern and scrutiny from all points on the political spectrum.

To my progressive friends: The argument should not be whether we trust THIS president not to abuse that kind of authority. The next president might. If a GOP president refused to rule out killing U.S. citizens on U.S. soil without due process, we progressives would be marching down the street.

We must be vigilant and consistent. There is a risk that any White House will develop delusions about its own power. The amount of information that top officials get is so overwhelming, and the level of responsibility so crushing, that there is always the temptation to think, "We know more than the public."

It is a shame that it was Rand Paul, not progressives and liberals in the Senate, who led this filibuster.

Not only that, we can admire that Paul used the filibuster the way it should be used. He did not simply stick a Post-it note on a door somewhere and leave town, solely to gum up the government. Too many Republicans have done that during this president's time in office.

He said that this is an important issue, and we should be talking about it more -- repeatedly, for 13 hours. That's not a stunt. That's the way the filibuster is supposed to work. If you want to see a stunt, pay more attention to the excessive abuse of the filibuster over the last four years.

Fortunately, Attorney General Eric Holder sent Paul a commendable letter ruling out strikes on noncombatant Americans on U.S. soil. But at the end of the day, I still do not believe the American public has a clear understanding of the extent and limits of the drone program.

For example, what about Americans overseas -- and what about the hundreds of innocent civilian lives lost to terrifying drone strikes around the world? Getting rid of unilateral kill lists will not elevate our moral position if we continue to be responsible for innocent deaths.

In addition to the lives lost, we inflict tremendous trauma on children who witness these attacks, and unmeasurable psychological damage on parents who never know if this day will be their last. Decent and fair-minded Americans should focus not only on drones that target Americans, but also on drone strikes that shock our conscience.

We need to have a national conversation, and that is what Paul started on Wednesday. No matter what you think of his other views, we can all agree that this conversation cannot end here.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Van Jones.

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