Emilia Kaiser: No Rest for the Weary – Drones, Funerals and Black History
A man named George Santayana said, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This came to mind a few weeks ago as I listened to a radio broadcast that was airing in celebration of the 50 year anniversary of the pivotal March on Washington for Jobs and Justice. The program I was listening to was about the history of black American funeral homes and as I drove and listened, the woman being interviewed mentioned that in order to understand the importance that black funeral homes have had in communities for the last 15 or so decades, it helps to understand the history of funerals and worship during slavery. She told about how after the Nat Turner Rebellion, there was a change in the way black people were allowed to conduct their funerals, how black funerals were subjected to surveillance by white overseers or not allowed at all. I was angry when I heard this because adding the insult of denying slaves even the simple dignity to be able to bury their dead in peace to the already horrendous hurt of slavery was just too much. As I thought about it, my indignation grew into rage because I realized that in a way this is still happening today. Being a peace activist, the best thing I know to do with rage is this, research and write.
So that we don’t continue to repeat our past, let us remember some history. In 1831, Nat Turner, a slave and preacher in Southampton County, Virginia, led a rebellion of slaves against the white owners in a violent and failed attempt to combat the horrors of slavery. In the course of the gruesome rebellion, which lasted several days, around 60 white people were killed. In the brutal weeks of retaliation that followed, almost as many black slaves were convicted of participating in the insurgency and executed by the state while hundreds more black people were murdered without trial by white militias and fearful slave owners across the South. State Governments were quick to respond to the rising fears of rich white slave owners by enacting legislation that outlawed the gathering of black families (whether freed or bound by slavery) for any sort of religious meetings including funerals. Legislators believed their actions were justified by the fear that black people are a dangerous threat to society and that if given the chance to gather, even if it is to mourn their dead, black people may use that opportunity to plan a rebellion. After the Nat Turner Rebellion, the black funeral, which was one of the only times blacks had been allowed to gather in dignity and privacy, became illegal in many states unless the funeral was under surveillance by a white man.
The violent actions of Nat Turner and his followers fueled an already raging fire of racist ideology and were used to further condemn an entire race of people in the US, resulting the horrendous murder, surveillance and punishment of hundreds of black people. In the much the same way, the violent acts of terrorist groups like al Qaeda appear to have been projected onto the entire Middle Eastern Islamic community and used to justify not only the surveillance of funerals and other religious gatherings, but the murder of often innocent people who are dismissed by the US government as “casualties”- or worse- falsely labeled as militants simply because they happen to be military aged males.
Funerals have been a repeated target among the hundreds of drone strikes launched by the US and CIA in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, and Afghanistan. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and many other sources have reported that US drone strikes have specifically targeted funerals. In a tactic that the Bureau refers to as a “double-tap strike” a drone strike attacks a more easily targeted lower level suspect with the objective of drawing out higher level militants, then a second drone strike is launched to target the higher level individuals. In many cases- the second drone strike is carried out at the site of the first attack within the hour, targeting rescue workers attempting to remove the bodies of injured victims from the first strike. In other cases, the drone operators wait until the funerals of the victims from the first strike if they suspect other militants will attend the funeral, and then proceed to attack the mourners with hell fire missiles.
The US government’s justification for what has been described by UN official Christof Heyns as war crime is that the attacked funerals (or rescue operations in many cases) constitute a gathering of suspected terrorists who pose a (get ready for this) continuing and imminent threat to the United States. Our Government’s actions, which are predicated on fear and result in untold terror and loss of innocent lives, deny people living in the affected regions one of the most time honored and universal markers of human dignity-- a decent funeral. This is sad and strikingly familiar. Yet again, the US government and corporate interests have targeted an entire group of people, framing funerals as potential sources of terror and acting to deny or discourage the gathering of families to mourn their dead out of fear that these gatherings will lead to attacks against US interests.
I have been hesitant to make this comparison publically out of concern that someone might interpret what I’m saying as likening current terrorists groups like Al Qaeda to American slaves. I want to be clear that I’m not trying to compare the terrorist attacks of al Qaeda to the Nat Turner Rebellion; in fact my discussion of these events is only relevant in the context of my larger discussion about our government’s response to the perceived threats that resulted from these violent acts. The common thread that I see between what happened after the Nat Turner Rebellion and what is happening today when US drones attack is that those in power are using fear and deeply ingrained racist ideologies to fuel further violence by condemning, spying on and attacking an entire group of people when they are most vulnerable.
All people have a right to practice their faith and to lay their dead to rest with dignity. A funeral should be a time of mourning and healing, not a time to be subjected to humiliation, intimidation or terror, no matter what your family looks like. When we allow the Government to frame funerals as a threat and target them, the values we hold most dear, justice, freedom and human dignity are lost along with people’s lives.