Nearly a third of the aircraft used by the United States military don't carry pilots, according to a new Congressional report. The aircraft are drones, and their pilots are often thousands of miles away, controlling them remotely from bases in the United States.
One such base is the Hancock Air National Guard Base, located near Syracuse, N.Y. Ed Kinane, who lives nearby, says that since strike drones are operated from the base, his home area of New York state is, from a moral perspective, “in the zone of war”—a reality he and other peace activists don't feel they can ignore.
On April 22, at the entrance to the base, Kinane and 37 other activists wrapped themselves in white cloth splattered with red, and staged a die-in. They were protesting the base’s role in operating drones over Afghanistan—the unmanned aerial vehicles are designed to target terrorists and insurgents, but they also take a heavy toll on the peace and safety of unarmed civilians. The protesters attempted to deliver a citizen indictment for war crimes to the base, and were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct and disobeying a legal order.
The protest was a tactical step-up in a series of actions local activists have taken since the drone operations began at Hancock in 2009—demonstrations, leafleting, talks, op-eds and letters to the editor—all aiming to raise awareness about the consequences of drone operations.
“The Hancock 38” were tried in the town court of DeWitt, N.Y., in November. During their trial, they argued that the extrajudicial killings and civilian casualties of drone attacks operated from Hancock violate both international and U.S. law.
Kinane says his participation in awareness-raising activities have given him a sampling of public perceptions about the U.S. drone program. “Some people tell us that these weapons save lives,” says Kinane. That’s the argument put forth by the CIA, which runs the MQ-9 Reaper drone operations at Hancock. Certainly the “pilots” of the 174th Fighter Wing, who use computer remote-control at the base to operate drones 6,000 miles away in Afghanistan, are not in immediate danger of becoming casualties of war. But for Kinane and fellow peace activists, the Hancock-Afghanistan connection presents a moral responsibility to challenge the actions of their government.
Most Americans have only a vague understanding of what happens on the ground as the result of drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, partly because official statements minimize civilian casualties. According to The New York Times, President Obama’s chief terrorism adviser, John O’Brennan, in June stated of the drones that for about a year, “there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop.” Investigative journalists and NGOs that are working to collect and verify data on civilian casualties tell another story. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, for example, reports at least 45 civilian deaths from U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan alone for roughly the same year-long period, and between 391 and 780 in Pakistan since 2004.
Kinane believes that most U.S. news media promote the fear of terrorism and overlook the cost to civilian life from drone attacks. Within this media bubble, he says, people in Afghanistan are just an abstraction. “It seems to me that what the U.S. is doing—killing people in Afghanistan and Pakistan—is the real terrorism,” says Kinane. Recently, he and his fellow activists seem to be having some success at getting that point across. On Dec 1, when most of the Hancock 38 defendants returned to the court in DeWitt for sentencing, the judge who presided over the case stated publicly that their trial had an impact on his own views about the use of drones.
“Many issues were raised that were not heretofore contemplated by this court on a personal level,” said Judge David Gideon in his ruling, “for which this court personally acknowledges a new and different understanding, making the decision … that much more difficult.” Kinane sees the judge’s statement, and increasing coverage of drone protest by Syracuse’s daily newspaper, as a sign that awareness in his community is growing.
Despite the judge’s obvious sympathy for the Hancock 38, he found them guilty and gave them sentences that range from fines and community service to 15 days in jail. There will be a final sentencing on February 29 for a few defendants who weren’t present at the earlier hearing, and for those who have refused to pay fines or do community service on the grounds that their actions at the base were justified. Given that refusal, they may be spending time in jail.
Other groups around the country have also recently protested the government’s drone program—at a civil disobedience action resulting in arrests at Creech Air Force base in Nevada in November, at monthly “death walks” in Philadelphia, and at a demonstration outside the headquarters of General Atomics, the company that manufactures the Reaper drone, as part of Occupy D.C., in October.
“We want people to educate themselves about the drones and what they represent,” says Kinane. “The Pentagon believes they are the wave of the future. I believe they are right. Over 40 countries have drones now—the technology is very menacing. It is changing the nature of war and making the world a much scarier place.”