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 sky.
Yet Pakistani and Yemeni adults face this merciless task all of the time from drone attacks they can neither control nor protest. According 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 “targeted strikes.”
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 enemy.
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.
“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 Reprieve (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.
— Sadaullah 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 Daande 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 2009 bombing.
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 year.
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 save lives.”
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 civilian casualties.”
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 Washington Post.
“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 attack.”
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.
From writer Pratap Chatterjee in an article published last week about Tariq Aziz:
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 them.”
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.”
Follow Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos