On Nov. 30 my friend, Iowa peace activist Brian Terrell, presented himself to the Federal Prison Camp at Yankton, S.D., to begin serving a six-month sentence for a protest against drones.
I met Brian in Washington, D.C.last January at a Witness Against Torture protest on the 10th anniversary of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. Brian has spent a good deal of his life protesting the instruments of war, be they indefinite detention and torture, nuclear weapons, or drones.
Brian was convicted of trespassing at Missouri’s Whiteman Air Force Base to protest the use of armed, unmanned military drones. Whiteman houses the 20th Reconnaissance Squadron, which operates a drone ground control station launching attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan by remote control.
At the Whiteman base on April 15, Brian, along with two other men, approached the gate on behalf of a group of peaceful protesters assembled in the highway right of way outside the base.
The men asked the base sentries for directions to headquarters to deliver an “indictment” for drone-related crimes to the base’s commander, Brig. Gen. Scott Vander Hamm.
Their request was denied and their way was blocked by military police who handcuffed them and led them away.
In Brian’s sentencing statement before Judge Matt J. Whitworth in U.S. District Court in Jefferson City, Mo., on Oct. 11, he maintained that his conduct “does not constitute a crime but was a response to one.”
The document the men attempted to deliver charged the chain of command from President Obama down to the drone crews at Whiteman with crimes including “extrajudicial killings, violation of due process, wars of aggression, violation of national sovereignty, and the killing of innocent civilians.”
The United States has killed over 2,500 people by drone, without benefit of trial. Drones cross national boundaries on search-and-destroy missions in countries with which we are not at war, such as Pakistan and Yemen.
At his sentencing, Brian said, “We know that even children are sometimes named as targets to be killed by drones. Children regularly are among their ‘collateral damage.’ The targets themselves are often victims of assassination rather than legitimate casualties of war.”
Brian and his fellow protesters have put their bodies on the line to protest the U.S. embrace of a new kind of war that makes the entire world our battlefield and any person a potential target. They expose the mythology that technology can provide us a surgically precise tool that will allow us to fight evil without incurring any harm to the good.
Independent studies have reported that drones have caused significant numbers of civilian deaths.
While the Obama administration claims drones have caused few civilian deaths, the New York Times reports that the administration uses a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”
This method left me wondering what it would feel like to have my own sons counted as militants solely on the basis of gender and age, subject to a policy of kill first, ask later. What is it like to live daily with one’s family under constant and unreasoning threat?
According to a Stanford/NYU report entitled “Living Under Drones,” our drones have caused “considerable … harm to the daily lives of ordinary civilians, beyond death and physical injury.”
The report describes drones hovering 24 hours a day over villages In northwest Pakistan, ready to strike without warning, terrorizing women, children, and men, causing continuous anxiety and psychological trauma.
According to the report:
One man described the reaction to the sound of the drones as “a wave of terror” coming over the community. “Children, grown-up people, women, they are terrified. . . . They scream in terror.”
Interviewees described the experience of living under constant surveillance as harrowing. In the words of one interviewee: “God knows whether they’ll strike us again or not. But they’re always surveying us, they’re always over us, and you never know when they’re going to strike and attack.”
The report cites several examples in detail, including a March 17, 2011, drone attack that killed 40 men attending a jirga, a meeting of community figures and local elders, called to resolve a dispute over a nearby chromite mine.
Noor Khan, whose father Malik Daud Khan presided over that jirga and was killed, described the effect on the community:
Everybody is scared, especially the elders. . . [T]hey can’t get together and discuss problems . . . [I]f a problem occurs, they can’t resolve it, because they are all scared that, if we get together, we will be targeted again. ... Everybody, all the mothers, all the wives, they have told their people not to congregate together in a jirga. ... [T]hey are pleading to them not to, as they fear they will be targeted.
Saeed Yayha, a day laborer who was injured from flying shrapnel in that attack, said:
I can’t sleep at night because when the drones are there ... I hear them making that sound, that noise. The drones are all over my brain, I can’t sleep. When I hear the drones making that drone sound, I just turn on the light and sit there looking at the light. Whenever the drones are hovering over us, it just makes me so scared.
After a drone strike, a second strike targeting the rescuers may follow.
According to the report:
Those interviewed for this report were acutely aware of reports of the practice of follow-up strikes, and explained that the secondary strikes have discouraged average civilians from coming to one another’s rescue, and even inhibited the provision of emergency medical assistance from humanitarian workers.
Family members are often afraid to attend funerals, because drones have attacked funerals processions. People report being afraid that having guests enter their homes or congregating outside in groups of more than two will invite attack. Fear causes some children to drop out of school or parents to keep them home.
These stories give the lie to any claim that drones can give us “clean” war. We hope in vain that technology will allow us to turn violence into an exclusively constructive force that leaves no shadow of harm.
Instead we have created an instrument that knows no borders of time or space, that gives no respite from anxiety or threat, and that utterly destroys peace of mind and community.
It honors no sovereign boundaries, no tenets of just war, no rule of law.
Even as Brian was reporting for his prison sentence, the New York Times published an editorial that endorses creating “rules for targeted killing.” The Times would have us believe that rules will supersede international law and neutralize moral consideration.
Brian and his fellow protesters, however, will have none of it.
Brian, who is a member of the Catholic Worker Movement, acts in a long line of public witness given by Catholic Workers around the country since the movement was founded by Dorothy Day in the Great Depression. Brian lives with his wife, Betsy, on the Strangers and Guests Catholic Worker Farm in Malloy, Ia.
The scriptural passage on the masthead of the farm’s Catholic Worker newsletter expresses the hope I take from Brian’s act of resistance:
True justice is the harvest reaped by peacemakers from seeds sown in the spirit of peace.
-- James 3:18