Note from the Editor: The use of drones to spy on, attack and kill with impunity has become a key American security and privacy issue—particularly since drones are not only in widespread use in the Middle East, but also increasingly being deployed by U.S. law enforcement here at home. On the level of popular culture, a hint of what's brewing can be glimpsed in the new film The Bourne Legacy. For those whose hackles are raised after reading this article, we recommend checking in with the Center for Constitutional Rights and the ACLU, and following the issue online (Counterpunch, Alternet, Truthout).
By Chris Barsoum
Visiting the Pakistan-Afghan border in Peshawar, Medea Benjamin tells the story of a young girl named Roya from a poor family on the outskirts of Kabul. "One day while her father was out selling candies, Roya and her two sisters were trudging home carrying buckets of water. Suddenly, they heard a terrifying whir and then there was an explosion: something terrible had dropped from the sky, tearing their house apart and sending the body parts of their mother and two brothers flying through the air. The Americans must have thought Roya's home was part of a nearby Taliban housing compound. In the cold vernacular of military-speak, her family had become 'collateral damage' in America's war on terror. When Roya's father came home, he carefully collected all the bits and pieces of his pulverized family that he could find, buried them immediately according to Islamic tradition, and then sank into a severe state of shock."
This summer, in the midst of a countrywide book tour for Drone Warfare: Killing By Remote Control, author and activist Medea Benjamin came to town to discuss her anti-drone activism in a public conversation with journalist and editor Robert Scheer. The forum was presented by Code Pink, the organization that Benjamin cofounded with Jodie Evans, and provided the public with a general synopsis of her book, in which Benjamin attempts to disprove the claims of safety and precision surrounding this choice of weaponry. Since coming into office, President Barack Obama has opted for the use of drones rather than more traditional forms of warfare. During Obama's first two years in the Oval Office, the rate of drone strikes rose drastically from an average of four or five a month to 118. The Obama administration has used these weapons heavily in Pakistan and the Arabian Peninsula to attack the al Qaeda terrorist organization—without having to put American boots on the ground. The administration has been quick to note this point, resulting in high approval ratings. In response, Benjamin researched and wrote her book to reveal to the general public the negative repercussions and flaws of drone warfare.
The first claim that Benjamin tackles is that of drone precision. Having traveled throughout Pakistan and the Arabian Peninsula to meet people on the ground, Benjamin uses personal narratives to illustrate the collateral damage and humanize the victims of drone warfare. While a drone may be successful in taking out its target, it often results in the death of many more innocent civilians in the surrounding location. Furthermore, she noted, it may take multiple strikes to successfully eliminate a target, increasing the amount of collateral damage.
President Obama has ordered well over 300 drone strikes throughout Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Consequently, as many as 4,000 people have been killed in US drone strikes since 2002 in those areas, of which a significant proportion were civilians. Clearly, drones may not be as precise as commonly believed.
The use of drones not only takes its toll on the victims, but also on those who fire them, Benjamin asserts. Prior to shooting, a soldier often monitors his target for an extended period of time, becoming familiar with the target and their family. These pictures are often embedded within the mind of a soldier, causing great psychological distress after the launching of a drone.
During the Code Pink forum, Benjamin excoriated the U.S. government for its lack of transparency with the American people. For instance in the aftermath of a "successful" drone strike, the public is informed solely that a top militant or terrorist has been killed. What the military or administration fails to mention is that scores of others may have been killed in the attack, or it may neglect to reveal the number of failed strikes previously launched. In addition, the Obama administration has often concealed the extent of collateral damage by distorting its internal estimate of those killed in drone strikes. Thus, it is understandable that the American people are generally supportive of Obama's drone campaign, but this can be attributed to a lack of information. Benjamin stated that there is simply no violent solution to the problems at hand, and that diplomatic and peaceful means must be exhausted prior to any attack.
Benjamin also looked to the future, noting the grave threat that the proliferation of drones poses. This threat is both domestic and international. Though many Americans may not know it, the U.S. government has drones hovering over the states as well. If it so chooses, the U.S. government could come to use these weapons against its own citizens. In the international arena, more and more countries have come to possess drones, meaning virtually any person could become a target. Thus, this proliferation not only presents a threat to national security, but to global security as well.
Despite the gloomy outlook that Benjamin provides, she finished her talk on a positive note, stating that change can be accomplished. Through activism and political participation, Benjamin believes that the American people can bring an end to the current drone campaign. Indeed, Benjamin has done her part by writing a book and touring the country in the hopes of educating the American populace.
Read a related alternet.org article about peace activists ejected from a drone conference in Las Vegas.
Chris Barsoum is a program associate at the Levantine Cultural Center and a student in political science at USC.