Tough Minds and Tender Hearts

I spent Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in Washington, D.C., as part of the Witness Against Torture fast, which campaigns to end all forms of torture and has worked steadily for an end to the indefinite detention of people imprisoned in Guantanamo, Bagram, and other, secret sites where the U.S. has held and tortured prisoners. We’re on day nine of a 12-day fast to shut down Guantanamo, end torture, and build justice.

The community gathered for the fast has grown over the past week. This means, however, that as more people sleep on the floor of St. Stephen’s church, there is a rising cacophony of snoring. Our good friend, Fr. Bill Pickard, suggested trying to hear the snores as an orchestra when I told him I’d slept fitfully last night.

There is a young boy in Mir Ali, a town in North Waziristan, in Pakistan, who also lies awake at night, unable to sleep. Israr Khan Dawar is 17 years old. He told an AP reporter, on Jan. 14, that he and his family and friends had gotten used to the drones. But now, at night, the sound grows louder and the drones are flying closer, so he and his family realize they could be a target. He braces himself in fear of an attack.

We’re told that we will be more secure if the CIA continually attacks the so-called lawless tribal areas and eliminates "the bad guys."

In late May and early June 2009, while visiting in Pakistan, a man from the village of Khaisor, also in North Waziristan, told us about his experience as a survivor of a drone attack. Jane Mayer, writing in the New Yorker, mentioned that the people operating the drones and analyzing the surveillance intelligence have a word for people like him who managed to survive a blast and run away. They are called "squirters." So, I suppose he would have been considered a squirter.

This man, at some risk to himself, walked a long distance and took two buses to meet with us. Because of travel restrictions, we would not have been allowed to visit him in North Waziristan. His village is so remote that there are no roads leading up to it. Five hundred people live there. Often, the Western media refers to his homeland as "the lawless tribal area." One day, three strangers entered Khaisor and went to the home of village elders. For centuries, villagers have followed a code of hospitality, which demands that when strangers come to your door, you feed them and give them drink. It’s not as though you can point them toward a Motel 6 or a 7-11. The strangers were welcomed into the home they approached, and they left after having been served a meal. They were long gone when, at 4:30 a.m. a U.S. drone, operated by the CIA, fired two Hellfire missiles into the home they had visited, killing 12 people, two of whom were village elders. Children were dismembered and maimed.

"What do people do," I asked, "if you’ve no emergency medical teams, if you’ve no roads?" I was wearing a tbutta, the long scarf that Pakistani women traditionally wear. "You see your scarf?" my friend said. "We wrap it around the wounded person, as tightly as we can, to stop the bleeding." I could imagine the white scarf I wore becoming blood-soaked, in seconds.

The CIA uses sophisticated technology, extensive education and a great deal of money to collect intelligence. The drone surveillance produces picture images so vivid that when the CIA targeted a Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, they knew that he was on the rooftop of his in-laws’ home. His wife’s parents, both doctors, were tending him, and had inserted an IV into his arm, giving him fluids. The drone attack killed all of them and Mehsud’s wife.

The CIA made 15 attempts to kill Baitullah Mehsud. In the 14 previous attempts, people were killed who may not have been members of a Taliban group. Some may have been family members of the murdered victim. Baitullah Mehsud’s successor, Hakimullah Mehsud, was known to be more violent and unpredictable and also media-savvy. According to speculation, the Jordanian suicide bomber who killed nine CIA agents, Dr. Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, had gained credibility with those same agents by providing information about drone targets. But the information he supplied named political rivals of Hakimullah Mehsud, people suspected of disloyalty, or people considered to be expendable.

This past weekend, celebrating the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s birth, we’ve been guided by his words. One mantra for us, from Dr. King, urges us to develop tough minds and tender hearts. With tough minds, we must ask why we are being told that the drone attacks are successful.

With tender hearts, let us mourn for the families, friends, and community members of the nine CIA agents who were killed in the suicide bomber attack at a CIA base in Afghanistan. Their arms will ache, longingly, for loved ones who will never return. In the spirit that says everyone in, nobody out, let us realize their humanity.

The CIA asks who the bad guys are so that they can eliminate them.

We are fortunate to be guided by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, who asked the same question, but Dr. King actually, earnestly wanted to understand the humanity of his adversaries. At the time, he was speaking of the Viet Cong. He urged his listeners to try to understand how they are seen by their adversaries.

We need tough minds and tender hearts to build a world in which the United States will not be seen as a menacing, fearful force. Let’s work toward a world wherein 17-year-old youngsters won’t lie awake at night, listening to low-flying drones and readying themselves to die.

Read more by Kathy Kelly