On unmanned weapons and this weekend’s Code Pink Drone Summit in DC

“How does integrity face repression? What does honesty do in the face of deception? How does virtue meet brute force?” These questions were posed by activist and professor Dr Cornel West in his opening of the 2013 Code Pink Drone Summit – Drones around the Globe: Proliferation and Resistance – this weekend at the Georgetown Law Center in Washington, DC. Whether or not these questions are answered by the emergence of a significant anti-drone movement will have mammoth implications on our world through the coming decades. I and the four-hundred or so others who gathered at this summit, which was simulcast on C-Span, hope to move us in that direction.

Opening speaker Dr. Corner West

Opening speaker Dr. Corner West (photo by David Rutherford)

Activist and law profession Mary Ellen O’Connell of Notre Dame University effectively dispelled the myth that drones, and killings away from the battlefield, are in fact legal, as claimed by the White House. Acknowledging that legally there is only one battlefield, certain parts of Afghanistan, she maintained that elsewhere he law is “mangled” to make a total of twelve nations and countless cities fall into this category – and for that matter thousands of civilians going about their daily lives. O’Connell recounted President Obama’s first drone strike, where 20 people were killed, including not only a whole family, but a five year old and an 68 year old anti-Taliban activist. She reminded us that the White House didn’t hesitate following this opening blunder – it went on to accelerate the bombardment.

I was strongly against drones during the Bush Administration, and during Obama’s five years he has used drones four times as often as his predecessor. Drones’ main purpose, right now, are to maintain US military force without involving the domestic political concerns over the wellbeing of soldiers. One of the weapons of any anti-war movement is the stress and peril that US military offensives bring upon their personnel. Unmanned weaponry nearly eliminates this political obstacle.

Drone warfare is also meant to intimidate whole populations day and night as never before possible, a goal of Afghan President and US ally Hamid Karzai, who lives in perpetual fear of any sort of revolution. As drones proliferate upon the Middle East and Africa, they serve as a repressor of the voice of the people, and potential new colonial occupying force. Fittingly, Madiha Tahir, Pakistani director of Wounds of Waziristan “the colonial British called us savages. The Americans call us militants.”

US Drone and Surveillance Bases in African as shown in this year's summit by filmmaker and journalist Elsa Rassbach

US Drone and Surveillance Bases in Africa as shown in this year’s summit by filmmaker and journalist Elsa Rassbach

All empires use euphemisms. “Precisions strikes,” as the White House calls them, aren’t very precise at all. In fact, any man who is killed between the ages of 18 and 65 is considered to be a militant unless posthumously deemed to be have been truly innocent. As you may imagine, they far too rarely rarely sort through the scattered body parts to make this embarrassing distinction, and when they do, it’s obviously too late.

As disturbing as the drone reality is right now, the future of unmanned weaponry may be plenty worse, as pointed out by Israeli researcher and co-founder of “Who Profits from the Occupation,” Dalit Baum. Baum considers drones and unmanned weaponry to be representative of “OCD” methods of law enforcement where killing 40 innocent people in justified if the alternative is letting one “terrorist” live, regardless of their ability to effectively pose a threat to anyone. In the mean time, such indiscriminate attacks only create more animosity toward the United States and its allies.

A map of the Gaza Strip similar to the one shown by Israeli activist Dalit Baum, the aforementioned buffer zones shown in burgundy

A map of the Gaza Strip similar to the one shown by Israeli activist Dalit Baum, the “buffer zones” shown in burgundy.

In Israel, where Baum says obsessive compulsive repression reaches biblical proportions, the drone industry now represents $4.3 billion in annual profits. On the Gaza Strip, relayed Baum, the prohibited buffer zones near the border are kept empty by automated firearms pointed at wandering Palestinians. Meanwhile, Palestinians who venture more than three nautical miles into the Mediterranean Sea are hunted, literally, by “Death Sharks” as they are colloquially called. In the areas between the guns at border and the “sharks” by the sea, the constant buzz of drones emanates from above. In fact, when clearing out shoddily-build Palestinian communities, unmanned bulldozers are now used even though no Israeli bulldozer operator had ever been killed in the line of duty. Activists like Baum speculate it is to evade PR nightmares like the quotes from shirtless, admittedly drunk demolition artist Moshe Nissim. Nonetheless, the Gaza Strip should serve as a nightmare scenario for the whole world concerning repression and unmanned weapons, and a cautionary tale about the consequences of continuously erasing distinctions between individual citizens.

A "death shark"

A “death shark”

If unmanned weapons aren’t enough, consider the future of our rapidly growing field of automated weaponry. Renowned Irish robotics and computer scientist Noel Sharkey of the University of Sheffield brought our attention these growing ventures, which includes military projects like “The Crusher,” devised in 2006, which weighs 7 tons and can drive itself. Since then, in 2012, the government gave the green light to autonomous weapon system development through this Department of Defense directive. There is even talk of totally automated submarines with war-making capacity. Evoking automatic weaponry someday being “perched upon telephone poles,” Sharkey fears a world his grandchildren must inhabit where computers decides who lives and who dies.

While we can not stop technology, the people do have a say in how it is employed, and for what purpose. We are late to the boat on the drone argument, as they are already being used and terrorize, injure, and kill thousands of innocent people each year, a number that we can’t pinpoint due to the cloak of secrecy under which the program operates. That’s not to say that drone use cannot be stopped, and that its progression cannot be minimized, but we simply can’t afford to be latecomers in resisting the further march of advanced weaponry, drones or otherwise.

If robots can be used to kill away from the battlefield abroad, make no mistake that they can be used for various purposes in the United States by a government that didn’t admit that they regularly spied of US citizens until forced to, and who continue to deny, deny, deny until the next revelation forces their hand. The NSA, too, was billed to us as a program that only attacked foreigners, and terrorists. It’s safe to assume that the secrecy that pervades NSA surveillance and African and Asian drone use will also exist when it comes to the domestic use of robots. Police departments are already planning on taking surveillance drones for a spin, 81 public entities already having requested special certification from the FAA.

We must recognize that policy and erosion of civil liberties effected by one President, like the codification of indefinite detention in early 2012, can be passed to the next President, whoever they may be. We must stand for moral values regardless of the party, or we have no chance in confronting repression at home and neocolonialism abroad.

At the end of the day, while the technology is upsetting, it is US imperial policy that is the real evil to be resisted. Robots and automated weapons only make the imperialist’s domination more complete while blurring the lines between individual citizens, which makes the struggle against imperialism all the more urgent.

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