Resistance Against Drone Warfare Heats Up
While President Obama’s inauguration was underway, three antiwar activists sat in jail in a Syracuse, NY suburb for protesting the use of Reaper drones at Hancock Airbase, one of countless air bases that operate drones in the US. The three activists are part of a growing resistance to the use of drones by the US military. On December 16 they were sentenced along with nine others for protesting outside the base’s main entrance. Two other activists already spent time in jail for taking part in the actions.
Senator Chuck Schumer made a recent visit to Utica to address a pressing issue. It was not however the deteriorating local economy or public school budget cuts. The pressing issue of the day was the need to revive the F-16 fly-over at the end of the Boilermaker Road Race. A more pressing issue Schumer danced around was the reason why the F-16s no longer do the fly-over. Hancock Airbase in Syracuse switched its primary function from piloting F-16s to remotely pilot un-manned drones in 2010.
Schumer is a fervent supporter of drone warfare. In 2011 he pushed for the use of drones to fly over the Adirondack Park for testing and surveillance purposes. Drones are the unmanned military aircraft that have greatly expanded the theater of war. President Obama has greatly increased the use of drones for surveillance and targeted assassinations from his predecessor. Although the US military argues drones are safer than using troops on the ground, create little to no “collateral damage” (military speak for civilian deaths) and ultimately protect US soldiers, the reality on the ground is a drastically different situation.
President Obama has increased the use of drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. And although his administration claims the use of drones is to target al Qaeda militants, the majority of deaths have been civilian. The President personally signs off on the names of people to be assassinated on an ever-growing “kill list” that has human rights and civil liberties supporters worried.
In Washington D.C., social critic and author Cornel West and rapper Lupe Fiasco made statements critical of the President’s pro-war policies and use of drones. In a panel moderated by Tavis Smiley, Dr. West criticized President Obama for placing his hand on Martin Luther King’s Bible for the inauguration.
“You don’t use his prophetic fire as just a moment of presidential pageantry without understanding the challenge that he presents to all of those in power no matter what color they are,” said Dr. West. He distanced the pro-war President from Dr. King who called the US government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world” in his famous 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam: Time to Break the Silence” given at Harlem’s Riverside Church. West also challenged Obama for the use of drones in killing “our precious brothers and sisters” in Pakistan and other nations. Lupe Fiasco was thrown off a stage by security during an inaugural celebration he performed at after stating he didn’t vote for Obama and performing a piece highly critical of the president’s foreign policy. Fiasco has made statements in the past criticizing the use of drones.
The targeted assassination of US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki on September 30, 2011 was the first apparent targeted killing of a US citizen since the War on Terror started. Al-Awlaki was once viewed as a moderate imam and was an invited guest to the White House during George W. Bush’s presidency, but the War on Terror pushed him to more extreme views and eventual involvement with al Qaeda. The Obama administration took an even more extreme measure when Al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old American son was marked for assassination. He had never committed any acts of terrorism. He was looking for his father he had not seen for two years and was assassinated two weeks after his father.
The Obama administration stresses that the use of drones is legal but the entire program remains largely secretive, with the administration still refusing to divulge any details of the program or any legal justification for it. The use of the Reaper Drone, which operates out of Hancock Airbase, was called “al Qaeda’s best recruitment tool” by Syracuse antiwar activist Ed Kinane. Faisal Shahzad, who attempted to bomb Times Square, justified his terror plot against civilians by stating to his judge during his 2010 sentencing, “When the drones hit, they don’t see children.”
An antiwar activist for most of his life, Kinane was in Baghdad to protect civilians during the “Shock and Awe” invasion of Iraq in 2003 with the peace group Voices in the Wilderness. He said the experience was “terrifying” as he described in court the shaking of his hotel and having no idea when or where the next bombs would hit. It was not the first war zone he was in as a peace activist and would not be the last. He traveled to Afghanistan in 2011 where he witnessed the harrowing effects of the US occupation. He told the packed courtroom, which included three uniformed Air National Guard soldiers from Hancock, about the drone attack that killed an entire jurga, or political council, in Afghanistan.
In the aftermath of the mass shooting tragedy in Newtown, CT, author Vijay Prashad highlighted the deaths of children that the US public ignores and the US government sanctions. He wrote in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on December 17 that, “No memorials exist as well for the 178 children killed by U.S. drone strikes in the borderlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan.” He also lamented the loss of 83 children who were killed while in their school in Bajaur, Pakistan on October 30, 2006 from a US drone strike. There was no mass mourning in the US over that tragedy.
Eyewitnesses on the ground in Pakistan describe how drones attack people. The first hellfire missile is shot by a drone to kill its intended target. After neighbors and first responders arrive on the scene, a second hellfire missile is shot in a scene of indiscriminate killing. This pattern has led first responders to wait, sometimes hours, before going to sites suspected of being targeted by drones.
“Everyone is scared all the time. When we’re sitting together to have a meeting, we’re scared there might be a strike. When you can hear the drone circling in the sky, you think it might strike you,” said Dawood Ishaq (anonymized name) who lives in Pakistan. The fear of death is a reality and Ed Kinane and his fellow activists tried in court on December 16 for protesting Reaper Drones argue that because of what the drones operated out of Hancock are doing in Pakistan, Central New York, and De Witt in particular, are now part of the war zone and are at risk of future attacks.
John Hamilton was tried along with Ed Kinane and 10 other co-defendants. His family came from the South and grew up during the Civil Rights era. He learned about lynching growing up, an act of terror that had a profound impact in shaping his worldview. “Judges allowed extra-judicial murder in their jurisdictions in the South,” he told the packed courtroom. He drew comparisons between Southern judges that refused to go after whites who lynched Black civilians and judges today who refuse to do anything about the “lynchings” of Pakistani children.
De Witt Judge Robert Jokl was not swayed. Five of the activists were sentenced to 15 day jail terms each. But many agreed that their sentencing would not deter future actions at Hancock. A Ground the Drones, End the Wars weekend of education and action is planned for April 26-28. As the death count of civilians killed by drones rises, more resistance is inevitable at Hancock. As John Hamilton said in court, people need to “end lynching, not in some backwoods Alabama town, but here in De Witt in 2012.”
Brendan Maslauskas Dunn
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