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Remarks at NYU

Drone Island in the East River

by DAVID SWANSON

Remarks at New York University forum with http://NYACT.net

The primary problem with weaponized drones is that the weapons murder people.  And they murder people in a way that looks more like murder to a lot of observers than other forms of military murder do — such as murder by indiscriminate bombing or artillery or infantry or dropping white phosphorous on people.  When President Obama looks through a list of men, women, and children at a Tuesday terror meeting, and picks which ones to murder, and has them murdered, you can call it a war or not call it a war, but it begins to look to a lot of people like murder.

Many of the victims are civilians, many are men suspected of or just of the age for combat — and in fact the policy has been to define military aged males as combatants — and other victims are alleged to be serious criminals; not indicted, not charged, not tried or convicted, just alleged. And they’re blown up along with anyone too nearby. It begins to look like the killing spree of a disgruntled employee at a shopping mall.  But there’s a key difference.

It’s happening in a foreign place to people who don’t all look or talk like we do.  I’ve been asked, more than once: Aren’t drones preferable to piloted planes or ground troops, since with drones nobody dies?  This is what drones do to foreign policy: they create deceptively easy and deceptively cost-free solutions.  The drone war on Yemen didn’t replace some other kind of war that was worse.  It added another war to the list.

Here is the real danger: We’re making murder in its most recognizable form acceptable.  And we’re defining it out of existence when the victims belong to that 96% of humanity that’s never been considered quite all the way human in this country.  Which leaves only the slightest step to include certain traitorous Americans as well.  President Obama jokes about sending drones after his daughter’s boyfriends, and the press corpse laughs.  Former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden jokes about adding Edward Snowden to the kill list, and everybody laughs.

If we can be at war with individual criminals, why not add whistleblowers to the list?  They reveal the powerful secrets that give our high priests their prestige.  They reveal crimes and abuses that outrage us but outrage foreign nations too.  They open a door through which we can begin to question what the distinction really is between joking about murder by million dollar missile and joking about murder with an ax, such that we admire one and are horrified by the other.  The fact is that the most realistic mass-murder costumes you’ll see in a Halloween Parade will be on men and women who’ve wandered up from Wall Street in their stylish suits.

The drone industry seems quite pleased with our acceptance of their technology for murder, but frustrated that some of us are resistant in our backward superstitious ways to favoring the use of killer drones that are fully automated.  That is, we’ve accepted drones as a good moral killing device when a human at a desk pulls the trigger, but we find something vaguely disturbing about the drone pulling the trigger itself.  Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International says, “Right now, in human nature, its unacceptable for a machine to kill a human being,” but he’s confident that will change as we begin to wise up and see the advantages.  In fact, there are those who would like to ban automated drones and automated killing robots of all types, and I agree with them in so far as they go.

Any weapon we can ban, let’s ban it.  But let’s not, in the process, make non-automated drone murder acceptable.  If you listen to the accounts of some former drone pilots — so-called pilots who dress up in flight suits to sit at a desk and who drive past a sign on their way home from work every day letting them know that driving on U.S. roads is the most dangerous thing they do, so they should buckle up — if you listen to these people, there’s just not significantly more moral consideration going into the human pulling of the trigger than there would be with the drone pulling the trigger.

The majority of volunteers in experiments are willing to inflict what they believe is severe pain or death on other human beings when a scientist tells them to do so for the good of science. These are usually known as Milgram experiments, and the pain or death is faked by actors.  Drone pilots take part in Milgram experiments where the deaths are real, the injuries are real, the suffering is real.  Drones don’t just kill, of course.  They traumatize children and adults.  The buzzing overhead, threatening imminent death for weeks on end is a severe form of cruelty, and an extreme case of power over others at an extreme distance — and as indiscriminate as poison gas.  Mothers in Yemen teach neighbors’ kids at home for fear of letting them go to school.  In Gaza people refer to Israel’s drones with a word that means buzz but can also mean a relentlessly nagging wife.

The Living Under Drones report produced by NYU and Stanford, I think made a lot of people aware of what drones do in Pakistan.  (By the way, Pakistan’s prime minister told Obama today to stop the drone killings, and Obama slipped the Washington Post evidence that Pakistan’s been in on it. Don’t expect them to give Bob Woodward the Chelsea Manning treatment. And don’t imagine the murders-by-drone are OK because some lying scheming Pakistani officials are sometimes in on it.) Whole societies are devastated by the ongoing threat and the sporadic murders.  Israel has killed hundreds in Gaza with drones.  But the drone “pilot” sits at his desk and follows the instructions of his authority figure.

On June 6th NBC News interviewed a former drone pilot named Brandon Bryant who was deeply depressed over his role in killing over 1,600 people.  He described watching his victims bleed to death and wondering what if anything they were guilty of.  It became clear why drone pilots suffer PTSD at higher rates than real pilots.  They see everything, including the children they kill.

“After participating in hundreds of missions over the years, Bryant said he ‘lost respect for life’ and began to feel like a sociopath. … When he told a woman he was seeing that he’d been a drone operator, and contributed to the deaths of a large number of people, she cut him off. ‘She looked at me like I was a monster,’ he said. ‘And she never wanted to touch me again.'”

Somehow, members of the United States Congress, where drones have their own caucus to represent them, seem less turned off and more aroused.  But what about the rest of us?  Where do we come down?  A majority in the U.S. — a shrinking majority, but still as far as I know a majority — favors using drones to kill non-Americans outside of the United States.  Pew surveyed 39 countries this past summer and found three that supported this U.S. policy: Kenya, the United States itself, and Israel.  And within the United States there’s not a big partisan divide on the matter.  There’s more concern over killing U.S. citizens or killing anyone within the United States, but less if they’re immigrants on the border, less in hostage situations, etc.  The first place the wars come home is in our own minds.

The U.S. Congress recently gave the Capitol Police the longest standing-ovation since Osama bin Laden’s Muslim sea burial for what quickly turned out to be the shooting of an unarmed mother trying to get away.  Congress members are in the habit of cheering for senseless murder abroad in the form of wars.  Drone victims are labeled militants after the fact, by virtue of being dead.  Transfer those habits to the streets of Capitol Hill, and it’s easy enough to imagine that a dead woman deserved to die — after all: she’s dead.  Our police are beginning to look like the military.  The public is the enemy.  Murderers are cheered if they wear a uniform.  Bloomberg claims absurdly to have the seventh largest army in the world.  And small-town police departments with nothing worse than drunk driving to confront them are stocking up on weaponry, including weaponized drones (with tear gas, rubber bullets, and all kinds of anti-personnel devices).

In Montgomery County, Texas, the sheriff showed off a drone to the media but crashed it into his armored vehicle (thereby, I guess, proving that he needed the armored vehicle).  Also in Texas, when the Department of Homeland Security challenged the University of Texas-Austin to hack into a drone and take control of it, the response was “No problem,” and it was quickly done.  Is this a part of U.S. wars people are really going to sit back and watch come home?

Many of the drones going into U.S. skies are for surveillance. A drone can sit too high up in the sky to see it from the ground but record everything on the ground for hours and hours of video.  A drone as small as a bird or a bug can listen to you and your cell phone inside your house.  Drones can threaten and intimidate potential protesters, as well as racially and religiously profiled groups, with surveillance and with weaponry.  The NSA has been a big part of the kill list program, the same NSA that tracks all of us in the land of the free.  A Congressional Research Service report arrived at the obvious conclusion that drones are incompatible with the Fourth Amendment.  I would add the First Amendment.  I would add representative government.  So the fact that the technology is exciting or that drones can perform lots of useful and harmless functions is all well and good.  But figure out how they’re compatible with Constitutional rights first, and then allow them in those ways if that’s possible.  And if it isn’t, then instead of using drones to watch forest fires let’s focus on halting climate change.  I’ve survived this long without having my coffee delivered by drone, and I can survive a bit longer.

It’s not the technology’s fault, we’re told, by those more offended by insults to technology than by assaults on humans.  “Drones carrying hellfire missiles over houses on the other side of the world don’t kill people, people kill people.”  But, as it happens, drones don’t hunt deer, drones don’t protect grandma, the second amendment right to have an eighteenth century musket when taking part in a state militia doesn’t create a right to killer flying robots.  This is a new technology and it needs to be dealt with as such.  This is the technology of legalized murder.

It’s always struck me as odd that in civilized, Geneva conventionized, Samantha Powerized war the only crime that gets legalized is murder.  Not torture, or assault, or rape, or theft, or marijuana, or cheating on your taxes, or parking in a handicapped spot — just murder.  But will somebody please explain to me why homicide bombing is not as bad as suicide bombing?  It isn’t strictly true that the suffering is all on one side, anyway.  Just as we learn geography through wars, we learn our drone base locations through blowback, in Afghanistan and just recently in Yemen.  Drones make everyone less safe.  As Malala just pointed out to the Obama family, the drone killing fuels terrorism.  Drones also kill with friendly fire.  Drones, with or without weapons, crash.  A lot.  And drones make the initiation of violence easier, more secretive, and more concentrated.  When sending missiles into Syria was made a big public question, we overwhelmed Congress, which said no.  But missiles are sent into other countries all the time, from drones, and we’re never asked.

The U.N., which has been looking at U.S., Israeli, and U.K. drone use, has just submitted a couple of reports on drones to the General Assembly ahead of a debate scheduled for this Friday.  The reports make some useful points: U.S. drones have killed hundreds of civilians; drones make war the norm rather than an exception; signature strikes are illegal; double-tap strikes are illegal; killing rather than capturing is illegal; imminence (as a term to define a supposed threat) can’t legally be redefined to mean eventual or just barely imaginable; threatened by drones is the fundamental right to life.  However, the U.N. reports are so subservient to western lawyer groupthink as to allow that some drone kills are legal and to make the determination of which ones so complex that nobody will ever be able to say — the determination will be political rather than empirical.

The U.N. wants transparency, and I do think that’s a stronger demand than asking for the supposed legal memos that Obama has hidden in a drawer and which supposedly make his drone kills legal.  We don’t need to see that lawyerly contortionism.  Remember Obama’s speech in May at which he claimed that only four of his victims had been American and for one of those four he had invented criteria for himself to meet, even though all available evidence says he didn’t meet them even in that case, and he promised to apply the same criteria to foreigners going forward sometimes in certain countries depending.  Remember the liberal applause for that?  Somehow our demands of President Bush were never that he make a speech.  And did you see how pleased people were just recently that Obama had kidnapped a man in Libya and interrogated him in secret on a ship in the ocean, because that was a step up from murdering him and his neighbors?  We don’t need the memos.  We need the videos, the times, places, names, justifications, casualties, and the video footage of each murder.  That is, if the UN is going to give its stamp of approval to a new kind of war but ask for a little token of gratitude, this is what it should be.  It might slow down the march of the drones — which is in fact being led by the United States and Israel.

Israel developed drones in the 1970s.  Medea Benjamin’s book begins with the story of how an Israeli engineer who had worked for an Israeli military contractor, developed the prototype of the Predator drone in his garage in southern California in the 1980s with funding from DARPA and the CIA. And the first thing he came up with was called the Albatross — not a bad name really.  Israel is the world’s top exporter of drones.  Technion is a leading developer of drone technology, including drones that can fly 1,850 miles without refueling and carry two 1,100 lb. bombs, as well as miniature surveillance drones, bulldozers, and other weapons of fairly massive destruction used in illegally occupied lands, where Israel has used chemical and all other sorts of weapons while continuing to receive billions of dollars worth every year of what the U.S. Orwellianly calls “military aid.”

Creating Drone Island in the East River no doubt appeals to those in the Israeli government who spy on the U.S. and those in the U.S. government who spy on Israel, but especially to those who want to legitimize and Americanize the U.S. image of Israel’s militarism, to make it as unquestionable in the U.S. as U.S. militarism sometimes is.  The U.S. media questions the cost of feeding the hungry, while treating militarism as a jobs program — even though programs to feed the hungry would more efficiently produce jobs.  The federal government’s trillion dollars a year for wars and war preparations doesn’t count contributions from state and local governments and universities.  The plans of Cornell and Technion to advance the technology of death on Roosevelt Island were apparently approved because of the money involved.  And in the process a hospital will be destroyed.  That’s a typical trade-off.  For a fraction of what we spend on weaponry, we could provide food, water, and medicine to the world.  Many, many more people are killed through what we don’t do with our money than through how we do spend it on wars.

Of course, we could also choose to invest in education instead of militarization. It’s no coincidence that the nation that spends $1 trillion every year on war has created $1 trillion in student loan debt, and no coincidence that universities corrupted by military contracts are holding forums promoting war in Syria.

An early supporter of Technion who would be outraged at its current practices is Albert Einstein, who said “You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war.”  He was right. We have to choose one or the other.  A lot of people are doing so.

In September, the University of Edinburgh responded to student protests and withdrew its investment from Ultra Electronics, a company that produces navigation controls for U.S. killer drones.

Here in New York, the Granny Peace Brigade and Know Drones and the World Can’t Wait and lots of other groups have been pressuring the U.N. and the City Council and Congress and educating the public.  The Center for Constitutional Rights is doing legal work against drone murder, and it just may be that lawsuits turn out to be a major tool in stopping the drones.  An organization I work for called RootsAction has set up a petition at BanWeaponizedDrones.org that now has 99,000 signatures in favor of banning weaponized drones. We’re going to deliver it to the U.N. and governments when it gets to 100,000, so please go sign it at BanWeaponizedDrones.org

Where I live in Charlottesville, Va., we passed the first city resolution against drones — weaponized or surveillance, since when three other cities have done the same.  And eight states.  But the state laws have dealt only with surveillance.  They have not sought to limit the weaponization of domestic drones, including with non-lethal weaponry.  Some of them have made exceptions to their surveillance restrictions for the U.S. military.  Four cities is not a lot, and I think one reason why is the complexities of the surveillance issue. I think cities would more readily pass resolutions commiting not to use weaponized drones, and I’d love to see New York City asked to do that.  Even a failure on that would wake a lot of people up to a new danger.

Drone bases around the country are facing endless protests, as I’m sure a Drone Island in the East River will if created.  If New Yorkers can chase David Petraeus away, I’m sure they can chase Technion away!

Nowhere has seen more or better nonviolent resistance to drones that Hancock air base in upstate, New York.  But people have been risking and serving serious jail sentences to call attention and build resistance to these operations all over the country, including in Niagara Falls this past weekend, where activists are advancing a plan to turn the military airport into an array of solar panels that could power half the state.

This November, like this past April, will be a time of drone protests everywhere, and of Code Pink’s drone summit in D.C.

Next Tuesday Congressman Grayson will hear testimony from two kids injured in Pakistan by a U.S. drone, although the U.S. won’t let their lawyer come.  And yesterday, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch released reports on drones full of great information, but still maintaining that some drone murders are legal and some aren’t.  They and the UN special rapporteur will be at NYU Law School on Tuesday and you have to RSVP at the Open Society Foundation.  And on Wednesday Brave New Films will release its film on drone killing.

As we take on the drones, I think we should bear a few key points in mind.  Foreign lives are not worth less than local ones.  Killing with one kind of weapon is not worse than killing with another kind.  Killing is evil and illegal whether or not you call it a war.  The killing is multiplied by the spending of funds on it that could have been spent saving lives.  A war is not an activity marred by atrocities and war crimes.  War is the crime.  We shouldn’t oppose waste at the Pentagon more fervently than we oppose efficiency at the Pentagon.  If we can stop believing in just torture or humane rape or good slavery, we can stop believing in acceptable war.  If the government of Israel makes war we should employ every nonviolent tool to resist it — and the very same goes for the government of the United States of America.

ADDENDUM: I mentioned and there was discussion of at this event Amnesty Intl.’s recommendations to the world:

To the international community including the UN, other states and intergovernmental organizations:

Oppose unlawful US policies and practices on the deliberate use of lethal force against
terrorism suspects, and urge the USA to take the measures outlined above. States should officially
protest and pursue remedies under international law when lethal force is unlawfully used by the
USA or other states, in violation of the right to life, against individuals on their territory or against
their nationals.
Refrain from participating in any way in US drone strikes, including by sharing intelligence or
facilities, conducted in violation of international human rights law and, where applicable in specific
zones of armed conflict, international humanitarian law.
Refuse to permit the international transfer of drone weapons in circumstances where there is a
substantial risk the recipients would use the weapons to commit serious violations of international
human rights law or international humanitarian law.

It seems that a U.S./Israeli university on Roosevelt Island would be constantly transfering drone technology either to the U.S. or to Israel, either of which would be a violation of the law.

David Swanson is author of War is a Lie. He lives in Virginia.