Women. Power. Peace.

Emilia Kaiser; Lifting Our Eyes to Peace and Justice: the End of Drone Warfare

IMG_1171Our values call upon us to care about the lives of people we will never meet.  When Europe and America lead with our hopes instead of our fears, we do things that no other nations can do, no other nations will do.  So we have to lift up our eyes today and consider the day of peace with justice that our generation wants for this world.

This beautiful excerpt from Obama’s speech in Berlin on Wednesday speaks to an ideal that diverges from our current reality significantly. What would it look like to care about the lives of people we will never meet? To lead with hope instead of fear? It would necessitate an end to the CIA’s drone program.

For the last 10 years, the drone program has resulted in the deaths of thousands of people in countries with whom we are not at war, including close to 1000 civilians, of whom roughly 20% were children (Bureau of Investigative Journalism). This form of state sanctioned violence reinforces xenophobia and racism by creating a false profile for terrorists based on religion and race, which results in the death of innocent people and fuels the flames of a continuing cycle of violence.

A report by NBC news examined classified documents which revealed that the CIA did not even know the identities of many targeted by drones in a practice known as “signature strikes”.  The term “signature strike” denotes an attack against unidentified enemies, who have revealed themselves as an enemy through a “signature” of some sort. In this context it describes a practice where drones are used to attack people suspected of engaging in or planning terrorism whose identities are unknown. That is, they simply look like terrorists.

The term “signature strike” is not new and has long been used to describe attacks on low-level, unidentified enemy forces, however, it takes on new layers of complexity amidst the reality of war today. In a recent panel discussion of the legality of drone warfare, Professor Laurie Blank, Director of International Humanitarian Law Clinic at Emory University School of Law, pointed out that historically enemy combatants have revealed themselves through the clearly marked uniforms of an enemy state’s military; civilians and military were relatively easy to tell apart simply by how they dressed. This is not so when it comes to the United States’ current war-- the ideological War On Terror. The U.S.’ current enemy has no state, no uniform, no headquarters or single secret lair and despite what many think, terrorism has no religion or race.

So how do we know whom we’re fighting? What makes someone look like a terrorist? In June 2011, then Chief Counter terrorism advisor, John Brennan, claimed that no civilians had died in US drone attacks in Pakistan for almost a year. Considering that many of the strikes in Pakistan were “signature strikes,” Brennan’s comment indicates a very high level of confidence in the U.S.’ ability to guess who might be a terrorist. However, just a few months prior to Brennan’s statement, on March 17, 2011 in  the Shiga Village in Pakistan a signature drone strike targeted a “suspicious” meeting of individuals, launching two hellfire missiles into the crowd of people.  According to articles published by the Associated Press, the Huffington Post, NBC and others, an anonymous U.S. official claimed that individuals present at the gathering “acted in a manner consistent with AQ [al-Qaida] linked militants”. As it turns out, this suspicious gathering of “terrorists” was a jirga-- a community gathering which was called to settle a mining dispute. Of the 42 people who lost their lives that day, 38 were civilians.

This is not the first time the CIA has targeted civilian gatherings of individuals in Pakistan. In fact there is a long, heartbreaking record of drone attacks on weddings, funerals, Muslim religious gatherings including Ramadan feasts and other community assemblies of people who were definitely not gathering to plan a terrorist attack. While signature strikes give particularly egregious examples of profiling that promote racist and xenophobic stereotypes of terrorists, even attacks against targeted individuals have led to regular tragedies through “collateral damage” and mistakes in targeting. One example is the targeted assassination of a 16 year old boy, Tariq Aziz, which also killed his 12 year old cousin, Waheed Kahn, just days after Tariq attended a gathering to learn to use a camera to document drone casualties. Another is the assassination of Zabet Amanullah; a popular man campaigning for the Afghani Parliament who was mistaken for Muhammad Amin, a Taliban deputy governor. The mistake was caught when a Harvard Taliban expert later interviewed the supposedly dead Amin, revealing that maybe it would not have been so difficult to just detain him to begin with.

How is it that Brennan was able to delude himself, or perhaps just the rest of us, with the claim that there had been no civilian deaths due to Drones for almost a year in Pakistan? It turns out to be a creative choice of diction that may result in more than a little cognitive dissonance for those who are paying attention. Government documents referred to most victims of signature strikes as “unknown militants,” a misleading way to say that the dead were military aged males who fit the racial and religious profile that our government has pursued as “terrorists” and that they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Apparently that’s all it takes. Is this Obama’s idea of leading with hope, of lifting our eyes to peace and justice? A hellfire missile serving as judge, jury, and executioner?

In Berlin Obama made the claim that in moving toward freedom “we must move beyond the mindset of perpetual war,” stating that this “means tightly controlling our use of new technologies like drones.” While “tight control” sounds like a step in the right direction, talk like this is cheap in the face of the Administration’s record. Increased pressure from citizen groups like Georgia WAND, Code Pink and Drones Watch, both in the U.S. and abroad have led to intensified scrutiny of the drone program and resulted in Obama Administration’s release of new guidelines for drone warfare in May this year. Should the CIA and military follow the new guidelines, there is some hope for a reduction in signature strikes. The Administration claims that drone strikes will only take place when there is no possibility of capturing the suspect, the suspect is posing a “continuing and imminent threat,” and there is “near certainty” that no combatants will be harmed. I have to admit that I’m both doubtful and a little confused as to what the administration means by the oxymoronic phrase “continuing and imminent threat,” a phrase which according to former CIA analyst Paul Pillar, leaves an uncomfortable amount of wiggle room.

If, as Obama suggests, our goal is to move toward freedom and lift our eyes to peace and justice, our best bet would be to stop the CIA’s drone program, one which is predicated on fear, perpetuates racist, xenophobic stereotypes and violates human dignity and rights. Perhaps then we could all get a little relief from the sad irony in Obama’s choice of words to end his Berlin speech, the famous quote of peace activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Emilia Kaiser serves as Development Associate at Georgia WAND.

Emilia Kaiser serves as Development Associate at Georgia WAND.

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