Medea Benjamin Discusses US Drones during Atlanta Visit
By Courtney Hanson, Special to The Atlanta Progressive News
(APN) DECATUR — The Georgia Peace and Justice Coalition hosted Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Code Pink and Global Exchange and author of the recent book Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control, in Atlanta on Monday, September 17, 2012.
Benjamin, who was in Atlanta for no more than five hours, spoke to a large crowd, addressing the growth of US drone use during the past several years and what it means both domestically and abroad.
At a time when the US Presidential election is dominating headlines, Benjamin reminisced about how the country’s “anti-war fervor” under President George W. Bush has grinded to a halt.
People wanted “give Obama space” and felt uncomfortable challenging him both because he is a Democrat and also because he is the first President who is Black, Benjamin said.
She also cited recession as another reason many people became less engaged in the anti-war movement. They needed to look for jobs or figure out how to pay for higher education and student loans, she said.
While Benjamin noted the issue of drones is bigger than one President, she said it was important to look at the numbers.
When the September 11, 2001, attacks happened there were roughly fifty drones in the Pentagon’s arsenal. Today there are more than ten thousand.
During President Bush’s Administration, a drone strike happened once every forty days on average. Today it happens every four days almost systematically.
President Obama gets together with his advisors weekly on “terror Tuesdays” to view profiles and pictures–resembling baseball cards–and decides who to put on the “kill list.”
“This constitutional lawyer is playing prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner all at once,” Benjamin said.
US drones, which are unmanned flying devices with the capacity to launch missiles, are killing both sought after “enemies” on the “kill list” and innocent civilians. Often, the line between the two is very blurry.
The US military focuses on two types of targets: Personality strikes are based on individuals, while signature strikes are based on behavior and other criteria.
“They call all military-aged males in the places we are using drones, combatants or militants,” Benjamin said.
“So when you hear ‘ten militants killed here, twelve militants killed there’ you know nothing about who they are other than maybe they are not women and children,” she said.
These drones are piloted by US military personnel in places like Langley Air Force Base in Virginia or Creech Air Force Base just north of Las Vegas.
Soldiers sit in specially designed ergonomic chairs, in air-conditioned rooms for up to twelve hours a day. They watch and they attack, killing by remote control, their victims in faraway places like Afghanistan and Pakistan.
And even with the best training, there is still human error and circumstances that don’t allow for planning ahead. One soldier in Benjamin’s book talks about pressing the button to kill his target and then immediately seeing two young boys on bikes ride into view of his screen. It was too late.
“Mostly, after the drone strikes, there are just pieces of flesh lying around. You can’t find bodies, so the locals pick up the flesh and curse America. They say that America is killing us inside our own country, inside our own homes, and only because we are Muslims,” Noor Behram, a Pakistani photographer, told the The Guardian newspaper of the United Kingdom, in July of 2011.
This growing backlash is evidence the drone program is counter-productive. It is killing innocent civilians; then their loved ones, in order to retaliate, become militants.
In Yemen, US claims to have expanded its drone program because of growing number of militants there, but Benjamin suggests the relationship of cause is reverse: that it’s the drone strikes that are causing more Yemenis to become militants.
“In 2009, there were two hundred people who the US said were associated with the group al Qaeda based in Yemen. They had no territory under their control. Today, there are about two thousand people who are part of these groups and they control significant territory,” Benjamin said.
While backlash continues to grow abroad, the seeds for similar sentiments are spouting in the US.
Now that the US Occupation of Iraq has ended and the US Occupation of Afghanistan may be winding down, war manufacturers are looking for new markets.
Police departments across the country are being approached to purchase drones–to be used mainly for surveillance–and the Central Intelligence agency is giving out millions of dollars to help them pay for it, Benjamin said.
In addition, the industry lobby helped pass legislation mandating the Federal Aviation Administration open up domestic airways for drones by September 2015.
But this doesn’t mean that drones aren’t already operating, Benjamin suggested, and one audience member backed her up.
“They’re here in Atlanta already,” the audience member said. “They’re in the sky. I live on I-20 and Moreland they fly low in the sky with a lot of lights underneath. They’re totally quiet. They fly much lower than any planes from Hartsfield.”
These domestic drones are capable of 24/7 video surveillance and can tap into personal wi-fi networks and cell phones.
Benjamin suggests people talk to their local elected officials and police departments to urge them not to buy drones.
“If we don’t do something about it, there will be tens of thousands of drones in our own skies. We could be living in a very different society where public life is very different here in the United States,” she said.