The natural gaze of human beings is to the heavens. The welcoming light of the dawn. The warmth of the noonday sun. The beauty of a multi-colored sunset. The stars that invite wonder and provide a compass for exploration. The vastness of the heavens inspires the mind to expand its horizons. Their boundlessness offers meaning for everyone. People of faith look to the heavens for inspiration, guidance and strength, offering their prayers upward, for only the spaciousness of the skies is big enough to house their god. There is infinite space for the reflections and feelings of all kinds of people, including lovers: “Blue skies smiling at me,” an inspired Irving Berlin composed, “nothing but blue skies do I see . . . when you’re in love.” The heavens are for lovers—and for worshippers, and stargazers, and beachcombers, and everyone else. Unless you live in one of the Muslim countries in which the United States is waging its preemptive global “war on terrorism.” In those distant lands—far from the eyes of us Americans—US drones have turned the heavens into hell—in our name.
In a recent speech at the National Defense University, President Obama sought to counter critics of his drone warfare by dressing it in morality. His lofty words demonstrate the extent to which evil can take the high road. Our conscience-robed president’s speech needs to be seen in the context of what his administration’s criminal drone warfare has done to the beloved heavens of countless people– from which blessings no longer descend, but rather missiles and death—and constant fear.
A Stanford/NYU nine months study, beginning December 2011, reveals what life is like for people in Pakistan “living under drones.” The study’s Executive Summary begins by undermining President Obama’s attempt to put a moral spin on his drone warfare policies now spearheading America’s unending war against so-called “terrorists.” “In the United States,” the Summary states, “the dominant narrative about the use of drones in Pakistan is of a surgically precise and effective tool that makes the US safer by enabling ‘targeted killing’ of terrorists, with minimal downsides or collateral impacts. This narrative is false”[italics added]. The Summary continues, “Based on extensive interviews with Pakistanis living in the regions directly affected, as well as humanitarian and medical workers, this report provides new and firsthand testimony about the negative impacts US policies are having on the civilians living under drones.” (“Living Under Drones: Death, Injury and Trauma to Civilians from US Drone Practices in Pakistan,” International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic of Stanford Law School and the Global Justice Clinic at New York University School of Law, www.livingunderdrones.org)
The Stanford/NYU report provides a reality check for President Obama’s speech on drone warfare. Obama is adept at clothing his administration’s policies in righteousness. “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.” He then continues to reassure the American public with more self-serving enlightenment: “For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power– or risk abusing it. That’s why,” he says, “over the last four years, my Administration has worked vigorously to establish a framework that governs our use of force against terrorists—insisting upon clear guidelines, oversight and accountability that is now codified in Presidential Policy Guidance that I signed yesterday.” (“Obama Drone Speech At National Defense University (FULL MANUSCRIPT),” The Huffington Post, May 23. 2013)
Nor does he neglect diplomacy: “America cannot take strikes whenever we choose—our actions are bound by consultations with partners, and respect for state sovereignty.” His bottom line on drone strikes: “And before any strike is taken, there must be near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured—the highest standard we can set.”(Ibid)
A classic example of evil taking the high road. The Stanford/NYU report’s Executive Summary tells quite a different story. Its first point is that “civilian causalities are rarely acknowledged by the US government,” in the face of “significant evidence that US drone strikes have injured and killed civilians.” The Summary goes on: “in public statements, the US states that there have been ‘no’ or ‘single digit’ civilian casualties. .” And “it is difficult to obtain data on strike casualties because of US efforts to shield the drone program from democratic accountability, compounded by the obstacles to independent investigation of strikes in North Wazinistan.” The Summary then states, “The best currently available public aggregate data on drone strikes are provided by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), an independent journalist organization, which reported “that from June 2004 through mid-September 2012, available data indicate that drone strikes killed 2,562-3,325 people in Pakistan, of whom 474-881 were civilians, including 176 children . . . [and ] also injured an additional 1,228-1,362 individuals.” (“Living Under Drones,” Ibid).
“There must be near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.” President Obama’s high-sounding words are contradicted by the Stanford/NYU study’s Recommendations concluding words: ”Journalists and media outlets should cease the common practice of referring simply to ‘militant’ deaths, without further explanation,” and “all reporting of government accounts of ‘militant’ deaths should include acknowledgment that the US government counts all adult males killed by strikes as ‘militants,’ [italics added] absent exonerating evidence– the “exonerating evidence” provided posthumously, of course. The Recommendations double down here: “Media accounts relying on anonymous government sources should also highlight the fact of their single-source information and of the past record of false government reports.” (Ibid)
“Our actions are bound by consultations with partners, and respect for national sovereignty.” President Obama’s words fly in the face of the Stanford/NYU report’s finding that “drone strikes have also soured many Pakistanis on cooperation with the US and undermined US-Pakistani relations.” It then cites “one major study [which] shows that 74% of Pakistanis now consider the US an enemy. ” (“Living Under Drones,” Ibid)
President Obama ended his speech on US drone warfare with an uplifting statement about America’s future. “Our victory against terrorism won’t be measured in a surrender ceremony on a battleship,” he said, “or a statue being pulled to the ground. Victory will be measured by parents taking their kids to school; immigrants coming to our shores; fans taking in a ballgame; a veteran starting a business; a bustling city street.” His “high road” continues: “The quiet determination; that strength of character and bond of fellowship; that refutation of fear—that is both our sword and out shield.” (“Obama Drone Speech,” Ibid) It is almost like the godly peace mandate of beating “swords into plowshares.” (Isaiah 2: 4)
There will be no such victory—until America puts down the “sword and shield” of its criminal war of terrorism, which has turned the heavens of so many people into a nightmare. Compare President Obama’s lofty down-to-earth statement with the hell-on-earth reality his administration’s drone warfare has created. “US drone strike policies cause considerable and under-accounted-for harm to the daily lives of ordinary citizens, beyond death and physical injury,” the Stanford/NYU report’s Executive Summary states. “Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking houses, vehicles, and public spaces without warning.” (“Living Under Drones,” Ibid) That reality is not about “a ball game” or “a bustling street” or a “refutation of fear.” That reality is about the presence of US drones that “terrorizes men, women and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. . . . the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves.” (“Living Under Drones,” Ibid)
“Victory will be measured by . . . that strength of character and bond of fellowship.” Not as long as the United States continues to perpetuate the horrible reality disclosed by the Stanford/NYU report: “The US practice of striking one area multiple times, and evidence that it has killed rescuers, makes both community members and humanitarian workers afraid or unwilling to assist injured victims.” Even “some community members shy away from gathering in groups, including important tribal dispute-resolution bodies, out of fear that they may attract the attention of drone operators.” Villagers have also told the researchers “that the strikes have undermined cultural and religious practices related to burial, and made family members afraid to attend funerals.” And “families who lost loved ones or their homes in drone strikes now struggle to support themselves.” (Ibid) Where is “the strength of character” in US drone warfare that undermines the “bond of fellowship” for countless other human beings?
“Victory will be measured in parents taking their kids to school.” Not until another reality ends: “Some parents chose to keep their children home,” The Stanford/NYU report states, “and children injured or traumatized by strikes have dropped out of school.” (Ibid)
Evil really took the high road with President Obama’s qualified sympathetic gesture toward the civilian deaths from drone strikes. “There is a wide gap between U.S. assessments of such casualties, and non-governmental reports,” he says. “Nevertheless, it is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in all wars.” He reminds us why words can be so self-serving: “For the families of those civilians, no words or legal construct can truly justify their loss.” He then reveals the depth of his own sociopathically expedient personality in saying, “For me, and those in my chain of command, these deaths will haunt us as long as we live, just as we are haunted by the civilian casualties that have occurred through conventional fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq (italics added). “But,” he morally labors on, “as Commander-in-Chief, I must weigh these heartbreaking tragedies against the alternatives. To do nothing in the face of terrorists networks would invite far more civilian casualties.” (“Obama Drone Speech,” Ibid)
Our political and military leaders want us Americans to believe that “we are the good guys”—and obviously those who resist and are killed “the bad guys.” How many times have we heard these simplistic, moralistic words used by leaders for our public consumption? They love to mimic these macho lines of heroes in Hollywood movies, which reveals their need to stereotype the behavior of their victims—and justify their own.
Just when you think evil cannot take a higher road, President Obama finds another route. “The high threshold that we have set for taking lethal action applies to all potential terrorist targets,” he says, and adds, “This threshold respects the inherent dignity of every human life.” (Ibid)
The policy of President Obama and his “chain of command” is to deny and, if that Is not possible, minimize civilian casualties in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere. And when faced with dead bodies and eyewitnesses, the “chain of command’s” (Pentagon) going rate is up to $5,000 for a death or injury
“We are haunted by the civilian casualties in Iraq.” Over one million civilians has been killed in an illegal, criminal war, launched by President George W. Bush’s administration, based on its repeated lie that Saddam Hussein possessed mushroom-cloud-threatening weapons of mass destruction. The number of Iraqis displaced by the war, those who remained in Iraq and those fleeing the country, is estimated to be from three to five million persons. The US war of choice created close to one million widows in Iraq. The invasion and occupation also created civil war-like sectarian violence, which has resumed with the same severity in the wake of America’s departure. Also in America’s wake is a devastated Iraqi infrastructure. And nearly 4500 American lives sacrificed, and tens of thousands more wounded in body and mind in a needless criminal war—and the depletion of our national treasury, with a now tightening sequester belt that undermines, even more, the economic security of millions of Americans.
“This threshold respects the inherent dignity and worth of every human life.” Journalist John Pilger reveals just how “haunted” and “heartbroken” President Obama and his “chain of command” are about “the inherent dignity of every human life” lost and diminished in Iraq. In an article called “The Iniquities of the Iraq War: A Tragic Reminder to Prosecute the War Criminals,” he states that Hans von Sponeck, senior UN humanitarian official in Iraq wrote to him, stating, “The US government sought to prevent WHO [World Health Organization] from surveying areas in southern Iraq where depleted uranium had been used and caused serious health and environmental dangers.” Von Sponeck told Pilger that the “mess” George Bush and Tony Blair left in Iraq “is a crime of epic proportions . . . referring to the Iraqi Ministry of Social Affairs estimate of 4.5 million children who have lost both parents. ‘This means a horrific 14 per cent of Iraq’s population are orphans,’ he wrote. ‘An estimated one million families are headed by women, most of them widows’.” Pilger ends his piece with, “These crimes . . . await prosecution. But who will demand it?” (Counterpunch, May 31-June 2. 22013)
Not President Obama. He is not that “haunted” by the civilian casualties in Iraq. His stated opposition to the war against Iraq helped to get him elected president, but once in office he dismissed any thought of prosecuting the war crimes of George Bush and Dick Cheney, “wanting to look forward and not back.” (See “Statues of Limitations Are Expiring on Some Bush Crimes,” Elizabeth Holtzman, The Nation, Mar. 20, 2013) Nor is Obama that “haunted” by his drone warfare. With his “high threshold . . . for taking lethal action,” he is taking the high road: “We must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror’—but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.” (“Obama Drones Speech, Ibid) Never mind that there will always be the Other, as so-called “extremists” will continue to resist America’s global domination camouflaged as spreading “freedom and democracy.”
President Obama’s behavior reveals that he is not really “haunted” by the civilian deaths as a result of his administration’s drone warfare policies. But we Americans will continue to be haunted by the threat of blowback violence. The Stanford/NYU report’s Executive Summary refers to that threat. “Publicly available evidence that the strikes have made the US safer overall is ambiguous at best,” the Summary states. “The number of ‘high-level’ targets killed as a percentage of total casualties is extremely low—estimated at just 2%. Furthermore,” it continues, “evidence suggests that US strikes have facilitated recruitment to violent non-state armed groups, and motivated further violent attacks. As the New York Times has reported, ‘drones have replaced Guantanamo as the recruiting tool of choice for militants.’” (“Living Under Drones,” Ibid)
The Guantanamo Bay detention center remains an influential anti-American recruiting tool. President Obama pledged to close the detention center if elected president. The best he can now do is moralize about it having “become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law.” (“Obama Drone Speech,” Ibid) While his “chain of command” continues to force-feed 36 of the 166 remaining detainees who are on a hunger strike, reportedly, to draw attention to their “abusive conditions . . . after years of imprisonment without charge and little sign of Guantanamo’s imminent closure.” (“Guantanamo Bay hunger strikers demand new doctors in letter of protest,” Spencer Ackerman in New York, the Guardian, May 31, 2013)
But the Obama administration’s use of the heavens to confine and kill people has created countless more enemies. A recent example of the anti-American anger fueled by drone strikes is the testimony of Yemeni citizen, Farea al-Muslimi, before a public hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Al-Muslimi said that, just six days before the hearing, a drone strike in his village killed a reported member of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and at least four other persons who could not be identified. He stated that the AQAP member was well known and could have been easily apprehended by the Yemeni government. “Now,” he continued, “when they [the villagers] think of America, they think of the terror they feel from the drones that hover over their heads, ready to fire missiles at any time.” He then made the point: “What the violent militants had previously failed to achieve, one drone strike accomplished in an instant. There is now an intense anger against America in Wessab. This,” he emphasized, “is not an isolated incident. The drone strikes are the face of America to many Yemenis.” His concluding statement is about empathy, and The Golden Rule: “I deeply believe that when Americans truly know about how much pain and suffering the U.S. air strikes have caused and how much they are harming efforts to win . . . hearts and minds of the Yemeni people, they will reject this devastating targeted-killing program.” (“Hearing reveals human and moral costs of drone warfare, Church of the Brethren Newsline, by Bryan Hanger, www.brethren.org, May 16, 2013; “Drone Strike Testimony: Not News?,” By Peter Hart, www.fair.org, Apr. 24, 2013)
President Obama is taking the same “high road” as his predecessor—a road paved with anti-introspective stereotypes. President Bush repeatedly stereotyped those who resisted America’s imperialistic presence in their lands as “evildoers,” “the evil ones,” “killers,” and “terrorists,” who “hate our success [and] our liberty,” and whom you can’t talk sense to.” (“George W. Bush’s Insights on Evil, www.irregulartimes.com, Oct. 5, 2004; “President’s Remarks in Canton, Ohio,” www.whitehouse.gov, July 21, 2004)
President Obama’s “high road” is paved with similar anti-introspective stereotypes. In his drone speech, he says, “We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings.” He states, “Unrest in the Arab World has also allowed extremists to gain a foothold in countries like Libya and Syria.” He continues, “Finally, we face a real threat from radicalized individuals here in the United States.” And his closing words especially betray his refusal to be guided by the reality and wisdom of cause and effect: “And long after the current messengers of hate have faded from the world’s memory, alongside the brutal despots, deranged madmen, and ruthless demagogues who litter history—the flag of the United States will still wave from small-town cemeteries, to national monuments, to distant outposts abroad. And that flag will stand for freedom.” And, of course, he ends with, “God bless you. And may God bless the United States of America.” (“Obama Drone Speech,” Ibid)
“Distant outposts abroad.” The United States has around 1000 military bases in “distant outposts” around the world. So-called “extremists” are not resisting the American flag waving “from small-town cemeteries to national monuments” in the United States, but from their hallowed spaces as a symbol of domination.
Norman Pollack fills in the cause and effect connection that is missing from President Obama’s speech. In an article on Obama’s speech called “Obama’s Militarism-Imperialism Lite, ”Pollack writes,
At times one feels the identity of the ‘enemies’ is immaterial, just that they are there to keep the people in line, and the dominant structure of power intact. In this regard, Obama is helpful, his speech tossing in all manner of terrorists, from the Right, from the Left, from the individual run amuck—it doesn’t matter, just let America always be on guard. For America to operate as it has, as it wants, as it strives to continue, with hegemonic ‘responsibilities’ always in view, and a domestic class system which preserves the prerogatives and power of wealth, terrorism must hang like a thick pall over the mental landscape. Otherwise, we may see what our Leaders, Generals, Bankers, Industrialists and others fortunate to join the ranks of the ruling elite, are doing, and often doing in our name— transparency be dammed. (Counterpunch, May 27, 2013)
President Obama wrapped our government’s policy of global domination in the American flag, and hid it in “small-town cemeteries” and “national monuments” and “freedom” and “God.” History will reveal to our children and grandchildren what countless millions of people inhabiting the “distant outposts” around the world already know: that America harbors some of the most “brutal despots” and “ruthless demagogues,” and chief among them are George Bush and Dick Cheney and, now, Barack Obama.
In America, there is the worship of the State, under the pretext of “freedom” and “democracy” and “God”—and security from “deranged madmen.” People of faith have to decide whether it is in drones they trust, or their god. Is it about pledging allegiance to the government? Or about praying to a loving deity whose heavens—and earth—are for everyone?
Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is a diplomate in the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy. Both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister, he has written research reports, essays and articles on racism, war, politics, religion and pastoral care. His book, A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, is available on Amazon.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.