The “Hancock 38” Put the Robotic Hunter/Killer Reaper Drone on Trial

“We still have a choice today: nonviolent co-existence or violent co-annihilation.” -Martin Luther King Jr. (“Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence,” speech at Riverside Church, New York City, 4 April 1967).

For five days in early November the “Hancock 38” stood trial in DeWitt, New York, town court for our “die-in” outside the main gate of Hancock air field last April 22.

We were charged with “disorderly conduct” while attempting to bring a citizens’ indictment to Hancock for piloting robotic MQ9 Reaper drones over Afghanistan. These drones, while sometimes used in combat, often hurl Hellfire missiles and 500 pound bombs at defenseless non-combatant targets.

The indictment, specifying the laws broken and the war crimes committed at Hancock by its Reaper drones, never got delivered. It was confiscated as our delegation silently and somberly, wrapped in “bloody” shrouds, approached the gate.

In response, many of us dropped to the pavement as if dead. Our “corpses” symbolized the uncountable number of Afghan civilians displaced, maimed or killed by the Reaper drone.

In court, we argued that our arrest violated our First Amendment right to free expression, to freedom of assembly and to petition our government for redress of grievances.

So significant are the issues raised by our trial, that former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark, now in his late eighties, traveled from New York City to DeWitt to testify on our behalf. Mr. Clark explained that the unmanned Reaper drone, electronically piloted by computer technicians at Hancock, violates the Nuremberg Principles and other international law.

Several of the Hancock 38 also testified. Our strategy: stick with the Constitution and put the Reaper itself on trial. On December 1, Judge David Gideon found us all guilty. Somewhat arbitrarily, he singled out four of us to be immediately jailed for several days. All of us received a $250 fine, $125 in mandatory court fees, 20 or 25 hours of community service and a year’s conditional discharge.

Seeing no connection between such sentences and justice, many of us in our sentencing statements declared that we would refuse to pay fines or do community service (our April 22 action was community service).

Those of us who have not complied with the sentence by February 29 are mandated to return to court on that date. Stay tuned.

The Hancock 38 – most of whom went pro se, i.e. defended ourselves – testified to numerous reasons we oppose the Reaper drone:

  • Many of us identify with the Judeo-Christian tradition and its ethical and moral imperatives. The Reaper is a robotic killer – it kills the innocent; it kills the unarmed. It violates the Commandment, “Thou Shalt Not Kill.”
  • The Reaper, as Ramsey Clark testified, violates international law, which according to Article 6 of the Constitution is the highest law of our land – trumping both local and federal law. We felt the necessity to expose the war crimes being committed in our midst.
  • The Reaper violates US laws forbidding extrajudicial execution, that is, assassination without due process – without proper investigation, without legal representation, without the right to trial and appeal.

    The commander in chief and the generals surely know their killings are unconstitutional. Their imperial defiance undermines the rule of law – making this already bloody planet less safe for us all.

  • Although pundits and propagandists avoid defining it, “terrorism” is violence, or the threat of violence, directed at civilians for political purposes. Given all the civilians the Reaper displaces, maims or kills, its attacks are the very essence of terrorism. Such calculated, premeditated killing exposes the vast hypocrisy of the so-called “war on terrorism.”
  • When it strikes, the Reaper generates enormous resentment toward the US. The Reaper, while tactically smart, is strategically stupid. It undermines any “hearts and minds” approach to anti-insurgency. It keeps the pot boiling. Drone strikes may be Al Qaida’s most powerful recruiting pitch. Contrary to a common claim, the drone doesn’t “save lives,” it perpetuates the killing. Blowback from drone terrorism makes us all less safe.
  • Drones have become the Pentagon’s darling. It sees that the drone distances, not only military personnel, but also citizens, from wars fought with our tax money. One commentator asks, “If war becomes unreal to the citizens of modern democracies, will they care enough to restrain and control the violence exercised in their name?” (Michael Ignatieff)

    Already, with little domestic outcry, the Pentagon uses the drone to violate the air space and sovereignty of various nations upon which the US Congress has yet to declare war. Recently the Pentagon has begun using the drone to assassinate US citizens abroad … again, with little outcry.

  • Drone technology is evolving and proliferating at an even faster pace than nuclear weaponry. Over 40 nations are now importing or developing the drone. The day is surely coming when one of these nations will decide the world would be better off without US drone bases and their chains of command. As with 9/11, the “collateral damage” may be devastating.
  • Domestically, drones are used to surveil US border regions (which encompass large swaths of the US population). Police and intelligence agencies are now finagling to use drones to further surveil US citizens. Do we really want the armed forces and the government to have such powerful tools – tools that can be turned against any of us?

The Pentagon’s romance with deadly robotic aircraft calls to mind Martin Luther King’s 1967 statement that the US government is itself “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” (“Beyond Vietnam” speech). Not long after this speech, King – already under close government surveillance – was assassinated.

Kinane is one of the “Hancock 38.” This summer he spent 30 days in Kabul, Afghanistan with Voices for Creative Nonviolence.