Drone warfare panel brings home the civilian carnage U.S. policy produces around globe

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Medea Benjamin of Code Pink spoke at a New York panel on drone warfare. Here, she’s pictured protesting in August 2012 outside a building in Florida where drones are built.
(Photo via PressTV)

Surgical strikes, terrorists and high-level militants–those are the buzzwords most Americans are accustomed to thinking about when a conversation turns to drone warfare. Shaped by a largely compliant mainstream media which parrots the U.S. government, the majority of Americans support drone warfare as a way to help secure the homeland. But the Americans who attended the Culture Project’s talk on drone warfare last night got a much different take. It was a discussion that bluntly said that drones are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of civilians and are the cause of visceral hatred against the U.S.

A packed house listened raptly to Medea Benjamin, the social justice crusader who is now using her skills to take on the immense power of drone warfare, and Sarah Knuckey, an New York University professor whose “Living Under Drones” report helped spark a conversation about the downsides of drones. The panel was moderated by Democracy Now!’s Nermeen Shaikh, and the discussion jumped from Pakistan to Gaza to Yemen and back to the U.S. The takeaway was: drone warfare is being conducted totally in the dark, away from transparency and accountability, and is responsible for immense suffering in the areas where the U.S.’s never ending war on terror has traveled. I walked away appalled at what the U.S. government was doing.

Both Knuckey and Benjamin cut through the lines mainstream media have been feeding Americans about drone warfare and targeted killings. “Very rarely do you read accounts of civilian harm” from drones in the U.S. media, noted Knuckey, a former advisor to the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions who was also tapped to be part of the recently announced UN inquiry on drones. Shaikh agreed, and said that it was “startling” that the U.S. media has largely kept the harm done to civilians by American drones out of the discussion.

But the civilian harm done by drones is of paramount importance to understand, and it’s something that last night’s event was focused on. The night started off with a theatrical performance, where the actors cut back and forth from renderings of dead civilians to proud American soldiers singing patriotic tunes. Benjamin, who was promoting her new book Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control, told the story of Tariq Aziz, who has become a symbol of how drones are wrecking civilian lives.

Aziz was a 16-year-old boy living in Pakistan. He attended a gathering in Waziristan, Pakistan to speak about the impact of drones; his cousin had been killed by a U.S. drone strike. Three days later, a missile launched from a drone incinerated Aziz. Benjamin showed a picture of what looked like a charred body, though it was so disfigured it was tough to make out what it was. “This is all that remains of Tariq,” Benjamin said. The U.S. government has remained silent on why Aziz was killed, as they remain silent on the vast majority of deaths caused by drones.

Aziz’s story brings the question of drones down to a personal level. The more abstract statistics of deaths don’t do the civilians justice, but they’re shocking enough that it’s important to hammer home. In Pakistan, between 475-891 civilians have been killed by drone strikes carried out by the Bush and Obama administrations. (There are no hard numbers of civilian deaths due to U.S. government secrecy and the inability of many journalists to travel to the tribal areas in Pakistan where most of the strikes take place, but the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has done the most extensive work getting the numbers.) But while Bush oversaw 52 strikes, Obama’s administration has carried out 310. 178 of the civilians deaths have reportedly been children.

And it’s not just Pakistan. In Yemen, drones strikes have killed between 72-178 civilians, including 27-37 children, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. The U.S. has also carried out strikes in Somalia, and the latest place where the U.S. will operate drones from is Niger. North Africa is fast becoming the latest front of the U.S.’s perpetual war. And Benjamin, who was just back from a trip to Pakistan where she led a U.S. delegation to protest drone strikes with Pakistanis on the ground, was also recently in Gaza. Gaza is home to 1.5 million civilians, but also plays unwilling host to Israeli drones, called “zanana” in Arabic (buzz). One woman in Gaza told Benjamin: “Everybody thinks that drone is for them.”

That sense of terror that drones produce in the civilian populations was a theme echoed throughout the night. “We are using terrorism to fight this war on terror,” quipped Benjamin. The constant buzzing of drones has led to dramatic shifts in the lives of Pakistanis living in the tribal areas, so much so that they’re sometimes afraid to gather in groups because it could be construed as a “militant” gathering by the U.S. Knuckey noted how U.S. drone warfare in Pakistan has also had an impact on humanitarian workers. “Because of the risks of ‘double taps,’” humanitarian workers have been told by their employers not to rush to the scene of a drone strike, said Knuckey, who has done on the ground research in Pakistan. “Double taps” refer to how “the CIA’s drone campaign in Pakistan has killed dozens of civilians who had gone to help rescue victims or were attending funerals.”

The impact on civilians has bred an intense hatred of the U.S. in Pakistan and Yemen. The “hatred” Pakistanis feel towards the U.S., according to Benjamin, crosses ideological and class lines. Whatever the pros of drone warfare are, the cons are immensely damaging and consequential and likely outweigh the benefits of taking out top terrorists.

The conversation also turned to the legal framework the Obama administration’s drone warfare is operating under. Knuckey said that accountability for killings carried out by U.S. drones was hard to come by, and that the executive branch has successfully asserted the right to keep most of the program secret.

And the issue of John Brennan, the soon-to-be CIA chief and current Obama counter-terror adviser, came up as well. Brennan has presided over the expansion of the drone program and was the first U.S. official to confirm its existence. He “has been involved with acts of murder,” said Benjamin, mincing no words.

But Brennan is hardly controversial in Washington. In 2008, he had to withdraw his name from consideration to be the CIA head because of the vociferous opposition to his involvement in CIA torture. But four years later, there’s been only a murmur of protest among the left. It’s an indication of how normalized perpetual warfare has become–and the fact that it is Barack Obama in the White House has done a great deal to tamp down dissent.

Still, Benjamin says she “feels positive” about the change in attitudes among Americans in regards to drones. It’s true that the vast majority of Americans support drones. But a recent poll, as Benjamin noted, puts American civilian support for drone strikes at 62 percent. An earlier poll taken by the Washington Post found that a stunning 83 percent of Americans support U.S. drone policy.


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I don’t blame these countries subjected to our drones for hating us, I hate us too. Hand to hand combat is a shit sight more ‘civilized’ than killing indiscriminately by remote control…it’s really ‘more’ inhuman. It’s’ something isn’t it?…..such high tech warfare to kill people …and yet we have 40,000… Read more »

I’m not certain that drones either improve or endanger America’s “security”. After all, the “enemies” (I use quotes for all the government-favored buzz-words) are far away and unable to do much to endanger America. On the other hand, the GoUS has created a military empire of military bases scattered around… Read more »

Thanks for putting this subject on the front burner here at Mondoweiss. How can we even begin to imagine achieving justice in Palestine when our own government is being run by murderous thugs and racketeers who are slaughtering people all around the globe? These guys are nothing more than a… Read more »

I can’t even imagine how terrifying it must be to live under the drones. When Obama was talking about the children of Newtown, I kept thinking of the children killed by his murderous drone strikes in Gaza, Yemen, and Pakistan. When will he cry for them?

America must “lead the world in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good.”

Barack Obama, April 2007