How Can You Resist the Age of Drones?

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This post originally appeared at WagingNonviolence.org.

Last
week President Obama nominated his counterterrorism chief, John O. Brennan, to
head the Central Intelligence Agency. Though some civil liberties groups and
other critics have raised questions about Brennan’s involvement in the CIA’s
practice of torture during the Bush administration, relatively less has been
said about his primarily responsibility during President Obama’s first term:
accelerating and institutionalizing the U.S. drones program and its “disposition
matrix”
— as the government’s sanitizing parlance puts it — which has
included setting weekly drone kill lists.

Politicians
and the mainstream press have generally reacted warmly to Brennan’s nomination,
especially in contrast to President Obama’s choice for Secretary of Defense,
former Senator Chuck Hagel, who is considered suspect by some in the foreign
policy establishment because he opposed the Iraq War and is said to harbor
anti-war sentiments rooted in his service during the Vietnam War.

While we will have to wait to see if
Hagel’s reluctance to take the U.S.
into war pans out, there is no doubt about Brennan’s trajectory. As a Washington
Post
series
last October highlighted (which I commented on here),
Brennan has created a powerful new system that fuses drone technology,
satellite surveillance and massive databases to target and kill persons of
interest globally, with the capacity to cross borders at will. An international
law expert at the University of Notre Dame, Mary Ellen O’Connell, has urged the Senate to
vote against Brennan
on the grounds that the drone program is among “the
most highly unlawful and immoral practices the United States has ever undertaken.”
By tapping Brennan to direct the CIA, President Obama has signaled his
commitment to an expanded role for remote warfare, targeted assassinations,
comprehensive surveillance and an even greater projection and reach of U.S. military
power.

That’s
why what took place in a courtroom in California
the day after Brennan’s nomination is significant.

Five
activists were arraigned
last week in federal court
on charges stemming from a peaceful
demonstration at Beale Air Force Base north of Sacramento, Calif.,
protesting drone warfare last October. Rev. Sharon Delgado, Jan Hartsough,
David Hartsough, Jane Kesselman and Shirley Osgood were charged with unlawfully
entering the Beale facility to protest the base’s drone fleet and will be
headed to trial in April. (Four others were arrested but their charges were
dropped.)

This
small but significant action was part of a growing movement intent on alerting,
educating and mobilizing the public to take stock of — and reject — the new
world of remote control surveillance and control that is rapidly coming into
being. This movement recognizes that the United States has crossed a line by
institutionalizing drone-centric warfare and, even more ominously, is well on
its way to creating a global culture in which remote aircraft will be as
natural as the air we breathe. Brennan’s likely ascension to the job of the
nation’s top spymaster and covert operations czar — especially in a period when
the CIA has been fielding its own drones operation — makes this more likely
than ever.

A
drone culture is a chilling prospect. It promises to dramatically escalate a
trend that the United States
has been pursuing since the inception of the national security state in the
late 1940s: military superiority through surveillance — beginning with U-2
flights, the SR-71 Blackbird and the NAV-STAR satellite system — and land-,
sea- and air-based weapons systems. Its logic is to establish a regime of
incontestable control and to create a comprehensive, remote and automated
war-fighting capability.

This
has profound geopolitical implications. But it also threatens something even
more monumental: the increasing depersonalization and dehumanization not only
of warfare but, more generally, of social organization and interaction. The
terror of the Atomic Age was the potential for the annihilation of life in a
matter of hours or days after a nuclear exchange. The terror of the Drone Age
is living under systems of control over the course of one’s whole life. Such a
regime could operationalize — and give factual bite to — George W. Bush’s pithy
declaration, “You are either with us or against us.” The disposition matrix of
the near future will have the capacity to more and more finely divide us into
“us” and “them.” What is being worked out today over the skies of Pakistan, Afghanistan
and Yemen
— with all of its attendant horror and bloodshed on the ground — will likely be
applied far and wide.

All
of this will be deemed “legal.” And, if allowed to proceed unhindered, will
eventually pass largely out of the hands of human minders. But that’s inherent
in its logic. Drones carry on the radical detachment between cause and effect
that high-altitude bombers introduced during the Spanish Civil War and World
War II. With the horror unseen, one could increasingly accelerate the age-old
tactic of dehumanizing the opponent. In the Drone Age, the ultimate dream is to
hand this task entirely off to software so that no human fingerprints are even
found on the human wreckage it leaves in its path.

But
there are still fingerprints — and that may be part of our salvation. My
colleague Friar Louie Vitale (one of those arrested but not charged at Beale)
has been part of the anti-drones movement for several years. He recently told
me about a time he was vigiling at a major drone base as the employees were
headed home for the day. While he stood there with a sign, a man on a
motorcycle pulled over to chat. He said he was a captain who had flown a lot of
missions, and now was “flying” drones sitting at a monitor with a joystick. He
spoke matter-of-factly about conducting these operations. Nothing unnerved him
about what he was doing, he said — except when what he called CIV CAVS
(“civilian casualties”) were involved. When that happens, he told Louie, he
couldn’t sleep.

Or,
as another younger pilot Louie met on another occasion simply said, “I can’t
stand what I’m doing!”

Do
those who order these attacks sleep at night? For that matter, do we? The drone
system is designed to keep our sleep untroubled. But there are some among us
who have decided to wake up, like the five going to court in April, and to in
turn invite us to do the same.

What
if more of us wiped the sleep from our eyes and decided that we will do
everything in our power to pull back from the horrific terrain we have let our
policy-makers enter? It is time to deepen and broaden this movement for human
rights. We could become part of Drones Watch
or Code Pink. We could read Medea
Benjamin’s book, Drone
Warfare: Killing by Remote Control
. We could put ending the
“disposition matrix” on the agenda of our organizations. We could ask our
religious communities to spend some of their moral capital in standing for a
more ethical future, including signing onto “A
Call from the Faith-Based Community to Stop Drone Killings.”
We could take
action like the Beale Five — who will face a maximum sentence of six months in
jail and a $5,000 fine when they head to trial in April — or like Brian Terrell, who is currently
serving a prison sentence for nonviolently resisting drones.

We
could also investigate — and begin to resist — our local connections to the
drone system. In 1988, as part of the U.S. Central America Peace Movement, the
Pledge of Resistance organized the “Military Connections Campaign,” which
identified how local military facilities and corporations were supporting this
policy. We organized hundreds of coordinated actions with the slogan “Stopping
the war starts here.” It may be time to ask, “What’s our local connection to
the emerging drone culture?”

There
are likely many local connections, which could be the basis of a nationwide
campaign to help the nation make a decision for a world free of drones and the
dehumanizing culture they portend.

Image by World Can’t Wait, licensed under Creative Commons

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