Libby and Jerica are in the front seat of the Prius, and Mary and I are in back. We just left Oklahoma, we’re heading into Shamrock, Texas, and tomorrow we’ll be in Indian Springs, Nevada, home of Creech Air Force Base. We’ve been discussing our legal defense.
The state of Nevada has charged Libby and me, along with 12 others, with criminal trespass onto the base. On April 9, 2009, after a ten-day vigil outside the air force base, we entered it with a letter we wanted to circulate among the base personnel, describing our opposition to a massive, targeted, assassination program. Our trial date is set for September 14.
Creech is one of several homes of the US military’s aerial drone program. US Air Force personnel there pilot surveillance and combat drones, unmanned aerial vehicles with which they are instructed to carry out extrajudicial killings in Afghanistan and Iraq. The different kinds of drones include the “Predator” and the “Reaper.” The Obama administration favors a combination of drone attacks and Joint Special Operations’ raids to pursue its stated goal of eliminating whatever al-Qaeda presence exists in these countries. As the US accelerates this campaign, we hear from UN Special Rapporteur for extrajudicial executions, Philip Alston, who suggests that US citizens may be asleep at the wheel, oblivious to clear violations of international law, which we have real obligations to prevent (or at the very least discuss). Many citizens are now focused on the anniversary of September 11th and the controversy over whether an Islamic Center should be built near ground zero. Corporate media does little to help ordinary US people understand that the drones which hover over potential targets in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen create small “ground zeroes” in multiple locales on an everyday basis.
Libby, at the wheel, is telling Jerica about her visit to Kabul, in 1970. “I worked for Pan Am,” said Libby, “and that meant being able to stay for free at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul. After landing in Pakistan, we hired a driver to take us across the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan. All along the highway we saw herds of camel traveling along a parallel old road. I wonder if the camel market in Kabul is still there?”
Jerica says she’ll look for it. She and I have been hard at work to obtain visas and arrange flights for an October trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan. (Libby is exceptional in that she hasn’t tried to talk Jerica out of the dangerous travel.)
Conversation switches to whatever CD has just come on, and I tune out, wondering if I’ve done my share of issuing warnings to Jerica about traveling in a war zone.
Tinny music and rural Texan countryside blend together.
My thoughts drift to the Emergency Surgical Center for Victims of War, in Kabul. A little over two months ago, Josh and I met Nur Said, age 11, in the hospital’s ward for young boys injured by various explosions. Most of the boys welcomed a diversion from the ward’s tedium, and they were especially eager to sit outside in the hospital garden where they’d form a circle and talk for hours. Nur Said stayed indoors. Too miserable to talk, he’d merely nod at us, his hazel eyes welling up with tears. Weeks earlier, he had been part of a hardy band of youngsters that helped bolster their family incomes by searching for scrap metal and unearthing land mines on a mountainside in Afghanistan. Finding an unexploded land mine was a eureka for the children because, once opened, the valuable brass parts could be extracted and sold. Nur had a land mine in hand when it suddenly exploded, ripping four fingers off his right hand and blinding him in his left eye.
On a sad continuum of misfortune, Nur and his companions fared better than another group of youngsters scavenging for scrap metal in the Kunar Province on August 26. Following an alleged Taliban attack on a nearby police station, NATO forces flew overhead to “engage” the militants. If the engagement includes bombing the area under scrutiny, it would be more apt to say that NATO aimed to puree the militants. But in this case, the bombers mistook the children for militants and killed six of them, aged six to 12. Local police said there were no Taliban at the site during the attack, only children.
General Petraeus assures his superiors that the US is effectively using drone surveillance, sensors, and other robotic means of gaining intelligence to assure that they are hunting down the right targets for assassination. But survivors of these attacks insist that civilians are at risk. In Afghanistan, 30 high schools have shut down because the parents say that their children are distracted by the drones flying overhead and that it’s unsafe for them to gather in the schools.
I think of Nur, trapped in his misery, at the Emergency Surgical Center. He’ll be one among many thousands of amputees whose lives are forever altered by the war and poverty that afflict his country. Many of these survivors are likely to feel intense hatred toward their persecutors. Three hundred villagers in the Sayed Abad district of Wardak province took to the streets in protest on August 12, following an alleged US night raid. “They murdered three students and detained five others,” one of the protesters said. “All of them were civilians.” Villagers, shocked by the killing, shouted that they didn’t want Americans in Afghanistan. According to village eyewitnesses, American troops stormed into a family home and shot three brothers, all young men, and then took their father into custody. One of the young men was a student who had returned to the family home to celebrate the traditional “iftar” fast at the beginning of Ramadan. Local policemen are investigating the allegations, and NATO recently conceded that they may have killed some civilians. (See Afghanistan atrocities update.)
The drones feed hourly intelligence information to US war commanders, but the machinery can’t inform people about the spiraling anger as the US conducts assassination operations in countries throughout the 1.3 billion-strong Muslim world. “Sold as defending Americans,” writes Fred Branfman, “[it] is actually endangering us all. Those responsible for it, primarily General Petraeus, are recklessly seeking short-term tactical advantage while making an enormous long-term strategic error that could lead to countless American deaths in the years and decades to come.”
The Prius is comfortable, but my side of the backseat has become a makeshift office. The most important file contains Bill Quigley’s comprehensive argumentation as to why the court should allow us to present a necessity defense based on international law. Bill is the legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights. On September 14, we want to call on him as an expert witness. We and our codefendants have chosen to mount a pro se defense to try to persuade our judge that, far from committing a crime, we have exercised our rights and our duties, under international and US law, to try to prevent one and to raise public opposition to usage of drones in “targeted” assassinations.
Jerica hands me the questions we can use to elicit Bill’s testimony. We try to word our questions so that the evidence will be admissible in court. “Could Bill please inform the court about citizen’s responsibilities under international law, could he explain to the court what articles and statutes we will be invoking?” To a layperson, it seems like an elaborate game of “Mother, may I,” and we haven’t even started developing questions to ask Col. Ann Wright, the former US diplomat, who had helped reopen the US Embassy in Kabul shortly before resigning her job in a refusal to cooperate with buildup toward the May 2003 US “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq.
Rounding out our trio of expert witnesses is former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark. We hope his personal experience within the US government might arouse the court’s more careful attention to the seldom-discussed legal issues that are fundamentally at stake here. However, the judge has already indicated that his calendar only allots one day for our trial.
Libby, Jerica, Mary and I have blocked out at least ten days, inclusive of travel, for our small contribution to an ongoing effort of people around the world working to put drones on trial. We’re in New Mexico now. I feel cramped and restless, and I wonder if Tucumcari, where we plan to stop for lunch, has Internet access. We can’t possibly bring the testimony of Afghans and Pakistanis to court this Tuesday. Their testimony, borne on bodies scarred and mutilated and harbored in memories of nightmare, will never be given away and cannot be given in court. Extrajudicial killings are killings without rule of law, without trial. Few if any Afghan or Pakistani civilian survivors of US wars will ever travel to a US court of law for consideration of their grievances.
And, at this moment, I realize that if we were four Afghans or Pakistanis or Iraqis traveling in a war zone, we’d have spent this entire trip watching not the Southwestern landscape, but the skies.