Martin Luther King never in a million years would have made a joke such as the one Obama did at the recent WH Correspondents' Dinner. It was about drones. Martin Luther King had respect for humanity. As I see it, President Obama not only hasn't redirected America from the slippery slope of amorality, he apparently has brought his sled.
I want to talk about Obama in reference to personality vs. character, but I know many of my fellow progressives will bristle. My protest of the offensive joke may seem to them a petty over-reaction. I am one of those people who often discerns character or its lack thereof within the smaller life gestures, you know, those proverbial ones like how a person treats a waiter, shares (or not) an umbrella in the rain, untangles Christmas tree lights, etc.
Obama's drone joke I saw as his doing a little verbal two-step "on other people's graves" so to speak -- graves that his own decisions brought about. Heartless and shameless are the words that come to my mind.
I didn't watch Obama at the dinner. I read about the drones remark in an article entitled: "Did you Hear the Joke about the Predator Drone That Bombed" by Medea Benjamin and Nancy Moncias. An angry nausea invaded my stomach as I read. I speculated that the President’s joke probably did NOT bomb. Not enough, though it is good to see it has gotten a bit of indignant internet buzz. Part of the account:
"Jonas Brothers are here, they're out there somewhere," President Obama quipped as he looked out at the packed room. Then he furrowed his brow, pretending to send a stern message to the pop band. "Sasha and Malia are huge fans, but boys, don't get any ideas. Two words for you: predator drones. You'll never see it coming."
I suspect the urbane Obama deftly shot it out and the black humor was rewarded with a respectable amount of laughter. The audience-paralyzing-moment like the Springtime-for-Hitler number of the Producers movie that deserved to happen, didn’t. I suspect the “good” people that Edmund Burke once powerfully alluded to did nothing. Enabled and indulged the President’s horrifying minimization of the ongoing horror of war, the horrifying violence of this latest robotic weaponry, the drone.
I once read a description while internet surfing about what a drone does to the human body. It was a while ago but if I recall correctly it involved a fierce heat sucking the air out of the lungs.
I tried googling to retrieve this or another physical description last night but was not readily successful. There were many sites involving discussions of drones, but mostly about their usage legally, politically, strategically. This struck me as sad and ironic. Drones are controversial due to the high level of "collateral damage" they inflict (you know, that vile euphemism that means "the killing of innocent victims"). The moral and biological dimensions of drones seems under explored and communicated about.
During my googling I did come across a heart-wrenching article by Robert Fiske involving nightmarish conditions in Pakistan, including drone terror. Fiske's empathy is a profound counterpoint to the glib "normalization" and "minimization" of the drone by Obama.
But the drones dominate the tribal lands. They killed 14 men in just one night last month, at Datta Khel in north Waziristan. The drones come in flocks, and five of them settled over the village, firing a missile each at a pick-up truck, splitting it in two and dismembering six men aboard. When local residents as well as Taliban arrived to help the wounded, the drones attacked again, killing all eight of them. The drones usually return to shoot at the rescuers. It's a policy started by the Israeli air force over Beirut during the 1982 siege: bomb now, come back 12 minutes later for a second shot. Now Waziristan villagers wait up to half an hour – listening to the shrieks and howls of the dying – before they try to help the wounded.
Fiske alludes to dark, irrational superstitions gripping the hapless Pakistani citizens terrorized by the surreal and deadly U.S. drones.
The drones – Predators and Reapers, or "Shadows", as the Americans call them when they follow US troops into battle – have acquired mythical proportions in the minds of Pakistanis, a form of spaceship colonialism, imperialism from the sky, caught with literary brilliance by A H Khayal in the daily newspaper The Nation, when he asked where the drones come from: "The masses are piteously ignorant. They just don't know that the drones are not material creatures. Actually, they are spiritual beings. They don't need earthly runways for taking off... They live in outer space, beyond the international boundaries of Afghanistan and Pakistan...
"When they feel hungry, they swoop down and kill innocent Afghani women and children. They eat the corpses and fly back to their spacial residences for a siesta. When they again feel hungry, they again swoop down and kill another lot of innocent women and children. Having devoured the dead bodies, they fly back to their bedrooms in space. It has been going on and on like this for years."
From a 2009 report of The New America Foundation entitled "Revenge of the Drones" Benjamin and Moncias reveal some very unfunny statistics brought to light over the dramatically ever-increasing US drone strikes.
The report says that roughly 252 to 315 Pakistani civilians were killed by Predator and Reaper drone strikes between 2006 and 2009. Other reports place the figure much higher. Pakistani authorities released statistics indicating that over 700 civilians were killed by drones in 2009 alone, the year Obama took office. The running tally on the website PakistanBodyCount.Org is even more shocking: 1,226 civilians killed and 427 injured as of March 2010!
Equally shocking is the ratio of civilians to militants killed, which Middle East scholar Daniel Byman estimates at ten to one. It is a cruel joke indeed for the people of Pakistan that the U.S. military finds it acceptable to murder 10 innocent people for every Al Qaeda or Taliban operative killed.
The use of the drones has also expanded in Afghanistan. Every day, the Air Force now flies at least 20 Predator drones — twice as many as a year ago. They are mostly used for surveillance, but have also carried out more than 200 strikes over the last year. "Since the start of 2009, the Predators and their larger cousins, the Reapers, have fired at least 184 missiles and 66 laser-guided bombs at militant suspects in Afghanistan," reported Christopher Drew of the New York Times.
Perhaps the President's callous joke particularly rubbed me the wrong way, given that I had attended a powerful anti-war event Wednesday night, April 21, organized by Debra Sweet of The World Can’t Wait. Obama's inappropriate gallows-type humor resonated for me the recently publicized callous banter during the slaughtering of innocent civilians by some of our military. The Wednesday event was a discussion of the significance of that recent Wikileaks' video of a US air crew in Baghdad in 2007 falsely claiming it has encountered a firefight, but actually launching an air strike against innocent people on the ground, killing a dozen. The victims included two Iraqis working for Reuters news agency.
In an article called “Collateral Murder” Chris McGreal does a good job describing the events depicted on the video, that belie the soldiers’ simultaneous verbal radio account.
The newly-released video of the Baghdad attacks was recorded on one of two Apache helicopters hunting for insurgents on 12 July 2007. Among the dead were a 22-year-old Reuters photographer, Namir Noor-Eldeen, and his driver, Saeed Chmagh, 40. ....
In the recording, the helicopter crews can be heard discussing the scene on the street below. One American claims to have spotted six people with AK-47s and one with a rocket-propelled grenade. It is unclear if some of the men are armed but Noor-Eldeen can be seen with a camera. Chmagh is talking on his mobile phone.
One of the helicopter crew is then heard saying that one of the group is shooting. But the video shows there is no shooting or even pointing of weapons. The men are standing around, apparently unperturbed.
The lead helicopter, using the moniker Crazyhorse, opens fire. "Hahaha. I hit 'em," shouts one of the American crew. Another responds a little later: "Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards."
One of the men on the ground, believed to be Chmagh, is seen wounded and trying to crawl to safety. One of the helicopter crew is heard wishing for the man to reach for a gun, even though there is none visible nearby, so he has the pretext for opening fire: "All you gotta do is pick up a weapon." A van draws up next to the wounded man and Iraqis climb out. They are unarmed and start to carry the victim to the vehicle in what would appear to be an attempt to get him to hospital. One of the helicopters opens fire with armour-piercing shells. "Look at that. Right through the windshield," says one of the crew. Another responds with a laugh.
Sitting behind the windscreen were two children who were wounded.
After ground forces arrive and the children are discovered, the American air crew blame the Iraqis. "Well it's their fault for bringing kids in to a battle," says one. "That's right," says another.
It’s hard to read. It was harder to watch. In the video the body language of the pedestrians on the street is relaxed and casual. Then the shooting begins. One feels listening to the macho chatter and watching the devastating shots on the human beings on the screen that one is looking over the shoulder of a couple of hopped up video gamers. It was hard to sustain a sense of reality, that those were real flesh and blood, vulnerable and non-threatening human beings being murdered so ruthlessly. And what the men were reporting on the radio, soliciting permission to "engage", did not match up with the reality of the scene. Their "excitement high" – thrill of the kill -- was stunning.
David Froomkin of The Huffington Post contends that U.S. and NATO forces are rarely held to account for atrocities they commit. He declares:
Let's dig behind the video. Let's fully understand the rules the military were operating under. Let's have a complete picture of what was going through the fliers' minds. Let's hear the Pentagon explain its interpretation of the rules of engagement and the Geneva Convention and how the actions either did or did not accord with them in its view. And importantly, let's keep in mind that while we focus on this particular tragedy, it is the rare circumstance that when a journalist is injured or killed in a conflict area, there is a video of the death, and even more rare as this case demonstrates, for the public to see such a video.
And here's something else I want.
I want someone on Capitol Hill to give a shit.
Thank you, Mr. Froomkin. I want that, too. I want my fellow Americans to give a shit. I want Congress to give a shit. I want Obama to give a shit. Abu Ghraib inspired outrage. This situation, apparently and horrifyingly -- not so much.
The best we get from Obama right now in reference to these tragic wars and the violence which Chris Hedges describes as America's primary way of communicating is a lame and disgusting drones joke? Or his assurance that nuclear weapons will not be off the table re Iran? Or his assuring young military cadets that America will provide them with medical care upon any of them returning with, say, traumatic brain injuries. Good God! Why not stop the wars and prevent those gratuitous and horrifying brain injuries, Mr. President? That is primarily why 80 million of us voted for you!
The discussion panel at the NYC webcast event included Dahr Jamail, one of a few independent US journalists who has covered both Iraq and Afghanistan, Matthis Chiroux, an honorably discharged vet who won his moral and legal battle not to be deployed to Iraq in 2008, and Elaine Brower, anti-war activist and mother of an Iraq/Afghanistan veteran.
Dahr Jamail declared that Article 48 of the Geneva Convention guarantees protection of the civilian population as well as their property during the execution of a war. This international law has been and continues to be ruthlessly violated in both Iraq and Afghanistan and now Pakistan. According to Jamail, 1.5 million Iraqis are reported dead. 4.8 million Iraqis have been displaced. 2 out of 3 Iraqis do not have safe drinking water. Since the March 7th vote, there has been a dramatic spike in violence in Iraq.
Jamail stressed that the Wikileaks depiction was not an anomaly. It was not a matter of the "few bad apples. " He said a soldier once told him, “We change the rules of engagement as often as we change our underwear.”
Jamail was calling in to the panel discussion from a cell phone, dangerously un-embedded, somewhere presumably in the Middle East. He testified passionately that the United States, building colossal embassy infrastructures over there, had no intention of ever leaving. The promise of drawing down troops and exiting these countries was an outright lie on the part of our administration and military. The Baghdad embassy, for example, is the size of Vatican City, reportedly 80 football fields long. Avaricious corporate imperialism was the driving force of these wars.
He discussed the stress levels of the troops, many on their fourth and fifth deployments. How could they not be suffering from severe psychological damage? Some become trigger happy. Some become suicidal. Some desert. None will escape this war without severe physical and/or psychic damage. Many will even join the ranks of the homeless.
Jamail also addressed the present war-mongering going on about Iran. Incredibly the leadership and media are ripening up the U.S. population for the possibility of yet another war. Iran does not have nuclear capacity. The drumbeat of "defensiveness" about Iran from Congresspeople and the media is covertly our and Israel's offensive agenda for power and control in Iran. He stressed the importance of Americans staying morally awake and not being led down the same garden path of jingoism, fear and lack of critical judgment that brought us the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Jamail has written a book entitled The Will To Resist.
Elaine Brower is the mother of a soldier who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. She spoke of her heartbreaking recognition that her son had been so indoctrinated with demonization of the enemy that he returned to the United States having lost the sense of moral grounding he had been raised with. I recently read The 1870 Mother's Day Proclamation of Julia Ward Howe and immediately thought of Ms. Brower's passionate demonstration of maternal tough love and commitment to morality. She spoke out against the glorification of war, the dangerous sentimentalizing of war memorials and ceremonies.
Howe's words from 1870:
Arise then...women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears! Say firmly: "We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies, Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, the women of one country, Will be too tender of those of another country To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."
In "Why Soldiers Get a Kick Out of Killing" John Horgan also explores the Wikileaks revelations:
The reluctance of ordinary men to kill can be overcome by intensified training, direct commands from officers, long-range weapons and propaganda that glorifies the soldier's cause and dehumanizes the enemy. "With the proper conditioning and the proper circumstances, it appears that almost anyone can and will kill," Grossman writes. Many soldiers who kill enemies in battle are initially exhilarated, Grossman says, but later they often feel profound revulsion and remorse, which may transmute into post-traumatic stress disorder and other ailments. Indeed, Grossman believes that the troubles experienced by many combat veterans are evidence of a "powerful, innate human resistance toward killing one's own species."
When Matthis Chiroux finally spoke, the young soldier who had refused to be deployed to Iraq as a conscientious objector, I was awed by his courage and his clear commitment to ending the violence of war in the world. He gave a personal account of his boot camp desensitization training. How young men and women used bayonets and knives even before learning about guns to cultivate their aggression. They would attack dummy victims shouting "Blood" and "Kill!" They were also trained to shoot using ambushing pop-up specters of the "enemy" and would automatically shoot out at EVERY appearance of a faux-menacing, surrogate target. Matthis also revealed that one recruiting station he had visited had a military computer game accessible outside so young people would be softened up for recruitment.
In the small basement room of Manhattan's famous Judson Memorial Church, I had been at first dismayed and disappointed that there were not more of us. But by the time the discussion had ended, it didn't matter to me. I was so full of gratitude over how my own sense of moral purpose had been expanded to commit to peace. The tragic reality that our present President does not have the same moral sensibility offers a formidable challenge. But I have no choice but to assert my values. This is a fight for both America's and my own soul.
As young-in-age-but-mature-in-wisdom-and-life-experience Matthis spoke, his courage, dignity, and sense of honor filled the room. My heart expanded as I watched him pantomime ceremonially putting a rifle down upon the ground, then using that umpire gesture of crossing his hands, palms down, over each other and declaring simply, "I'm done!" This is what the tipping point had been like for him into morality and justice. Matthis had challenged and survived America's military matrix. His victory inspired me. I was especially moved by his final statement to continue to work for peace. "I came out of the shadows. I don't want to go back there."
It seems our President and Congress have chosen to govern from the amoral shadows with so many citizens choosing to join them there.
If more and more of us exit the shadows, stop enabling the perpetrators of war, the ripples of truth to power will gather and strengthen. The ripples of those brave and eloquent activists strengthened me that Wednesday night.
I began this commentary about Obama's troubling drone joke by referring to the contrasting capacity for empathy of Martin Luther King. I would like to end this piece by quoting from a part of his Viet Nam speech of 1967. How it relates still to our dysfunctional collective mentality and moral plight as a country.
In 1957 a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution. During the past ten years we have seen emerge a pattern of suppression which now has justified the presence of U.S. military "advisors" in Venezuela. This need to maintain social stability for our investments accounts for the counter-revolutionary action of American forces in Guatemala. It tells why American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in Colombia and why American napalm and green beret forces have already been active against rebels in Peru. It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable."
Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken -- the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.
I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: "This is not just." It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: "This is not just." The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: "This way of settling differences is not just." This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.