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Drone Warfare: Killing Our Civil Liberties With a Joystick

Drone warfare is cowardly. A technician jiggles a joystick. Seconds later, thousands of miles away, a Reaper drone robot airplane fires a Hellfire missile, maiming or dismembering unsuspecting, unarmed, often unidentified human beings.

Drone warfare is cowardly. A technician jiggles a joystick. Seconds later, thousands of miles away, a Reaper drone robot airplane fires a Hellfire missile, maiming or dismembering unsuspecting, unarmed, often unidentified human beings. That technician, along with his or her chain of command, plays god – a god who takes no risk in taking those human lives.

The Reaper incinerates Afghan or Pakistani shepherd boys, funeralgoers and other noncombatants. US civilians are also victims of drone warfare. I’m not referring here to US citizens already assassinated by drones, but to the fact that – thanks to the Reaper piloted from various US military bases – our civil liberties are increasingly being curtailed, eroded, violated.

Three cases from Central New York’s Reaper hub in Syracuse:

  • On April 22, 2011 38 US civilians, myself included, sought to deliver a citizens’ indictment at the main gate of Hancock Air Base for the drone war crimes being committed within. The “Hancock 38” were responding to the Nuremberg protocols, signed by the United States, which require citizens to expose and impede their government’s war crimes.

The Hancock 38 were exercising our First Amendment rights of freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and the freedom to petition our government for redress of grievances. Nonetheless, we were arrested and charged with blocking traffic and failure to heed a supposedly “lawful” order to disperse.

During our week-long trial, former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark testified that weaponized Reapers violate international law. Nonetheless, a suburban town court found each of us guilty. (Note: many of the 38 saw no connection whatsoever between our “crime” and the $375 fines levied on each of us. Thus, rather than render unto Caesar, we redirected our fines – over $5000 total – through the antiwar organization Voices for Creative Nonviolence to a peace group in Afghanistan.)

  • Exactly one year later, on April 22, 2012, more than 50 US civilians walked silently, somberly and single-file for two miles toward Hancock Air Base. Most held signs protesting the Reaper; many carried a war crimes citizens’ indictment, which they intended to deliver to the base. Several hundred yards from their destination, they were forced to halt on the shoulder of a public road by Onondaga County sheriffs. Many were arrested without warning. In a further escalation of illegal tactics, the sheriffs confiscated walkers’ cameras and video equipment. This equipment has yet to be restored to its owners.

Closer to the base entrance but still on the shoulder of the public road, sheriffs arrested Ron Van Norstrand, a Syracuse attorney who, last fall, had defended some of the Hancock 38. Ron was snatched from our midst without provocation and without warning as he consulted with several of us about the day’s arrests. There was no apparent reason that he was singled out from our group as we clustered on the shoulder across from the base entrance.

Shortly thereafter, the sheriffs blocked six civilians, also carrying citizen indictments, as we approached that entrance. While detained, activist Rae Kramer read aloud our indictment to the nest of armed soldiers guarding the gate. In all, that day, 33 orderly, law-abiding individuals exercising our First Amendment rights were pre-emptively arrested, charged with “marching without a permit.”

  • Twice a month for the past couple of years, a handful of us have been standing on the shoulder of the road across from Hancock’s main gate. We’re there for 45 minutes during Hancock’s afternoon shift change, displaying anti-drone signs to the rush hour traffic. Although we have had occasional conversations with civilian law enforcement there, we’ve never before been threatened or interfered with.

But on May 2, 2012, several prowl cars pulled up, and sheriffs, citing an obscure and perhaps never-before-enforced DeWitt town ordinance, told us we could no longer demonstrate there without a permit. We engaged the sheriffs in a discussion about the First Amendment and their oath to defend and uphold the Constitution.

A sergeant told us that the base complained about our presence. He also told us – with a straight face – that in the town of DeWitt, any “assembly” of more than two persons requires a permit. Dick Keough and I were then arrested, handcuffed and charged with “assembling w/o permit.”

Compared to the terror of robotic killing, such stifling of dissent may seem like small potatoes, but it’s a harbinger, and a slippery slope. Law enforcement and the courts, more and more, knuckle under to the military and violate the First Amendment rights of US citizens. Presumably, our law enforcement and military personnel swear to uphold the Constitution. Such individuals may (or may not) serve and sacrifice with honor and courage; the sad irony is that some seem to think they do so to protect our freedoms.

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