May 1, 2012
Look at these photographs. See the eager faces among the
children at the school — they could be anyone’s kids at any
moment in America. And the baby, so precious and new, reflecting the
light of his proud parents, the hope of everyone around him.
Now imagine that the school is attacked by Predator drones
launching Hellfire missiles directly into the classrooms. The
children are ripped to shreds where they sit on the carpet. Imagine
that a similar flying machine, directed by an agent thousands of
miles away in a windowless room, has targeted militants on the ground, but shrapnel from the blast slices
through the walls of a nearby house, cutting into the crib where the
sleeping baby lies unknowing, now eternal.
The very thought would tear the American mind asunder — on
normal days, we worry almost neurotically whether our children are
exposed to too many germs, eat too much junk food, are doing all the
right things to get into college. We hand-wring over the clothes
they wear, the video games they play, whether they are friendless
and bullied, or sufficiently popular with their peers.
Pondering what attire to place on their little mutilated bodies
before lowering them into the grave would be too much to bear. If
this actually happened, there would be a conflagration of outrage in
U.S cities and towns fearsome enough to build a funeral pyre to the
Yet Pakistani and Yemeni adults face this merciless task all of
the time from drone attacks they can neither control nor protest.
to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, there have been
upwards of 350 U.S. military and CIA drone strikes on Yemen and
Pakistan since 2004, with the majority in Yemen (20 to 36) occurring
in the last two months. As if their children were less valuable than
our own, most Americans either ignore or remain passive-aggressively
ignorant of the civilian carnage associated with these so-called
Sadly, this has translated into broad
public support of what has become the third
post-9/11 American War following Iraq and Afghanistan —
the Drone War. As coldly as the remote control technology behind
these killing machines, Americans appear perfectly accepting of the most self-centered and weakest
justifications: drones are making us safer
at home, or, it is their fault for allowing the militants to
hide among civilians.
Drones make for a cleaner, more precise war against the
A sizable group of human rights activists, law scholars and
antiwar campaigners came together last weekend in Washington to not
only turn that thinking completely on its head, but to formulate a
strategy to stop the use of drones in warfare altogether. It is a
herculean task, but aided in the fact that these groups already are engaged in a number of simultaneous lawsuits,
Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests and field investigations with
the goal of first bringing the brutal truth — perhaps their
best weapon — to public light.
Syed Wali Shah, killed in an October 2008 airstrike in Waziristan
"The stories are really important to be told here, first
of all, we have to see exactly what is going on the ground and what
is happening to these people," said Shahzad
Akbar, who was finally able to obtain a travel visa to the U.S
after repeatedly running into the brick wall of the "homeland
security structure," ostensibly because he is helping drone
victims from Waziristan in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas
(FATA) — the epicenter of the U.S strikes in Pakistan —
file lawsuits against the CIA in Islamabad courts.
Akbar was a special guest of the weekend’s Drone
Summit: Killing and Spying by Remote Control, which was probably
the first event of its kind and hopefully, not the last. It was
sponsored by CODEPINK (led by Medea Benjamin, author of the new
book, Drone Warfare), the Foundation
for Fundamental Rights (represented by Akbar) and U.K.-based
(led by founder Clive Stafford Smith, an American lawyer who
represents Guantanamo Bay detainees)
Akbar and others, like journalist Madiha
Tahir, who is working on a documentary about the Waziristan
victims, were able to bring disturbing photo images, video and
personal testimony to the forum, more than a few times shocking the
audience with the brutality of the injuries and the horror of
knowing that many of these victims, so many of them children, never
knew what hit them, the strikes came so fast.
— There was Tariq
Aziz, a Waziri who was killed by a drone attack, along with his
cousin, days after attending a Jirga in Islamabad convened in
opposition to drone attacks in Waziristan. He had been planning to
use the camera he received in Islamabad to help document the attacks
back home. He was 16 years old.
Wazir, who was then 15 years old, lost both legs and an eye in a
strike on his North Waziristan home in 2009. The blast also killed
his two young cousins and wheelchair-bound uncle. He is filing one
of the lawsuits through Akbar.
— Other children who have perished and whose immortal images
haunt through grainy funeral photographs include an entire family wiped out in the
Sept. 2008 strike on houses in the village of
Darpkhel. Eight children were among the dead. No militants were
home at the time.
— Upwards of 40 people were killed in the March 2011 Datta
Khel airstrike, with disputes of how many Taliban were actually
present. This wasn’t the first time the region had been
struck. The audience Saturday was shown children playing with
Hellfire missile shrapnel after six of their peers were killed in a
The audience also saw the postmortem photo of Maezol Khan, age
8, who died from shrapnel from a bomb that was meant for the house
next-door in the 2009 strike on Makeen.
It was one of many failed attempts to assassinate militant Baitullah
Mehsud, who was "pretty
conclusively" killed in another strike in August 2009. Other
eerie photographs — before and after life — included Nasir
Khan and his brother, Mohammed Khael and sister Fatima, Kareem Khan
and Naeem Ullah. Sometimes the children did not die right away, but
because of the dirt-poor conditions in the FATA, there was nothing
more to offer them than a hospital bed, said Akbar.
"You really have to have informed judgment, you need to
know who is getting killed in these drone strikes," Akbar told
the swelling crowd at the United Methodist Church conference center.
"These people are being killed in your name and certainly not
making America safe… you need to spread the word around,
reach out to more people in the United States, ask these questions."
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which was represented at
the summit by Chris Woods, has
a comprehensive list of the strikes and has paid close attention
to child victims, including the 16-year-old son of suspected
pro-al-Qaeda operative Anwar al-Awlaki. Both U.S. citizens, they
were killed two weeks apart in drone attacks in Yemen late last
Woods pointed out a particularly heinous day in which the
headmaster of a madrassa, or religious school, was reportedly
targeted by a CIA drone, which flattened the building and killed 70 children ages 7
through 17 inside.
"Journalists are doing their jobs on the ground in Pakistan
to a certain extent, but the facts are not being conveyed here in
the U.S," Woods complained.
Based on official reports, field interviews and official
affidavits, the bureau has estimated that 2,429 to 3,087 people have
been killed in the Pakistan drone strikes since 2004. Of them,
upwards of 811 were civilians, including 174 children, not to
mention nearly 1,200 reported injuries. In Yemen, there have been
nearly 100 drone and conventional missile strikes, with 294 to 645
killed. Of them, upwards of 105 civilians are reportedly dead,
including 24 children.
Most recently, Woods reported that dozens of civilians in
Pakistan had been deliberately targeted
by CIA drone strikes as they attended funerals or attempted to
rescue earlier drone victims. This horrifying revelation barely made
a blip on the mainstream radar.
"We probably know more than we think we know. It’s
being reported and being put up on websites," Woods shared
with the audience. "The question is why, particularly in the
United States, is this not being told?"
That’s because most people still listen to their
government and believe what their leaders say, especially if what
they say absolves them of national guilt. Last year, White House
counterterrorism director John Brennan said "there hasn’t
been a single collateral death because of the exceptional
proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to
develop" in the covert Drone War the White House has yet to
fully acknowledge or explain.
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, Brennan was forced to
qualify his tune in a Sunday morning interview on April 29, in
which he claimed, "Well, what I said was that over a period of
time before my public remarks that we had no information about a
single civilian, a noncombatant, being killed." Thank you for
clearing that up, after nearly a year.
Unbowed, Brennen nevertheless uttered this unforgivable
Orwellian dogma: "Sometimes you have to take life to
The President, alluding
to the drones for the first time in an online Town Hall event in
January, hailed the "precision" of the strikes in
Waziristan and claimed they "have not caused a huge number of
This bogus messaging and the public’s apparent credulity
with which it has swallowed it, is probably why no one outside of
this community even blinked when it was reported last week that the
White House is seeking broader authority to move beyond "targeted"
drone assassinations and on to "signature" strikes,
which would allow the military and CIA to kill not only specific
individuals fingered as terrorists in Yemen, but to launch strikes
against unknown targets based on "patterns of behavior that
are detected through signals intercepts, human sources and aerial
surveillance, and that indicate the presence of an important
operative or a plot against U.S. interests," according to The
"The United States is creating a 'new normal’
that we would certainly oppose if other states — like China,
or Russia — would seek to use (these powers) in other parts of
the world," noted ACLU lawyer Hina Shamsi.
"Part of what is making me so upset," Sheila
Carapico, who teaches political science and human rights at the
University of Richmond, "is the example we’re setting
for the Yemeni government, that extrajudicial killings are okay …
that suspicious behavior in itself is evidence for a targeted
The ACLU is part of a FOIA
request filed in April that hopes shed light on the first
missile strike on Yemen under the Obama Administration in December
2009. The ACLU believes that cluster bombs were launched from a Navy
ship or submarine, killing 41 people, including 21 children and 14
adult civilians. Official documents released by WikiLeaks indicate
that this was a U.S. bombing for which, under political
considerations, the Yemen government initially took responsibility.
"It is the worst recorded loss of human life in Yemen to
date," Shamsi said.
Several participants described how civilians in Waziristan were living
with the constant presence of drones — buzzing "like
bees," like monster police. No one knew when they would strike
but when they did it was ruthless, in part because most of the
survivors recalled afterward they had "thought little"
of seeing the drones overhead, and had done nothing in preparation.
writer Pratap Chatterjee in an article published last week about
But now these unmanned planes have become an almost constant,
and deadly presence. Their deep, low dirge a terrifying
symphony accompanying the villagers’ daily lives. They fly in
packs, sometimes as many as a half dozen, circling the villages for
hours, hovering over roads, before firing Hellfire missiles.
We must ask ourselves what we would do in the same situation, to
wake up every morning to see these killing machines circulating
ahead. "What worse terror could there be," asked Amna
Buttar, a member of the Pakistani parliament who traveled to
Washington for the summit, than knowing someone thousands of miles
away could suddenly "push a button and your dead?"
Perhaps if we thought in those terms more often we would be more
interested in what was going on in Pakistan and Yemen and places
like Somalia, where there have also been reported drone strikes. We
would see that civilian killings are creating more terrorists, not
making us safer. We would recognize with horror, not indifference,
that the proliferation of drone technology has already brought
their use stateside.
"The debate we want to happen," said Smith, "is
to get American to see how the drone age as we know it is affecting
In other words, wake up.
UPDATE: On Monday, White House Counterterrorism Adviser John Brennan for the
first time formally acknowledged the U.S. drone program in a speech at a
Washington think tank. The remarks, however, were lacking in detail,
though he insisted the strikes were "in full accordance with the law."
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