Hearing Reveals Human and Moral Costs of Drone Warfare

Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford
Bryan Hanger is an advocacy assistant and Brethren Volunteer Service worker in the Church of the Brethren’s Office of Public Witness

On April 23, the US Senate held its first official hearing on drone warfare entitled “Drone Wars: The Constitutional and Counterterrorism Implications of Targeted Killing.” The United States has been using drones to conduct missile strikes in various places since 2002, but recently, more scrutiny has been given to the targeted killing program as President Obama has expanded its scope and has even used drones to target and kill three American citizens.

While the indiscriminate murder of three American citizens is a horrible violation of the civil liberties protected by our constitution, I believe it serves us much better to look at the effects and implications of this violence from a global and humanitarian perspective.

It became clear to me that this is the correct perspective to take when I sat in the back of a Senate hearing room listening to Senators question a six-person panel about the legal and constitutional justifications of targeted killing. Five of the six panelists were retired military generals, national security reporters, or law professors, but one panelist brought a starkly different perspective. This was a young man from Yemen named Farea Al-Muslimi, who had the courage to speak about what he, his village, and his country have experienced from this devastating violence.

Al-Muslimi was the last panelist to speak. It was surreal to listen to the other panelists and Senators speak abstractly of the advantages of using drones compared to other methods of delivering a missile strike while Al-Muslimi, who personally experienced the horrors of such strikes, was sitting right next to them. The hypothetical situations and legal arguments that were brought up by these experts, while they are important aspects of fully understanding this issue, rang hollow once Al-Muslimi was given the chance to speak.

He began by speaking of his life growing up in a rural Yemeni farming village known as Wessab, and how the United States changed his life when he received a foreign exchange scholarship from the State Department to leave Yemen and spend his senior year of high school in California. He described it as one of the best years of his life, and detailed how he experienced the best of American culture by being the manager of his high school’s basketball team, going trick-or-treating on Halloween, and living with an American family whose father was a member of the Air Force. Al-Muslimi described this man as a father figure who was hugely influential in his life, and remarked how “he came to the mosque with me and I went to church with him. He became my best friend in America.”

Al-Muslimi’s time in America changed his life so drastically that he went as far as to say, “I went to the US as an ambassador for Yemen. I came back to Yemen as an ambassador of the US.”

This story took a marked turn after he returned to Yemen and the drone strikes started to escalate. There were around 81 strikes across Yemen in 2012, and these have continued into 2013 ( www.yementimes.com/en/1672/news/2278/Families-of-victims-condemn-use-of-drones-human-rights-organizations-report-81-strikes-in-2012.htm ). The week before he testified at the hearing, a drone intended for a reported member of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) named Hameed Al-Radmi, struck Al-Muslimi’s village. According to reports, Al-Radmi was killed in the strike, but so were at least four other people who could not be identified or determined to be a part of AQAP.

Al-Muslimi expressed his confusion as to why the United States chose to use a drone to deal with Al-Radmi saying, “Many people in Wessab know Al-Radmi and the Yemeni government could easily have found and arrested him. Al-Radmi was well known to government officials and even the local government could have captured him if the US had told them to do so.”

Al-Muslimi continued to describe, sometimes in gruesome detail, what it is like before, during, and after a drone strike. He spoke of his fear when he first heard the buzz of a drone overhead and had no idea what it was. He spoke of a mother who had to identify the bodies of her 4-year-old and 6-year-old children from a photo a rescuer had taken of the aftermath of a strike. Most disturbingly, he spoke of a strike in 2009 where 40 innocent civilians living in the village of Al-Majalah were killed. Among the 40 dead were 4 pregnant mothers. Al-Muslimi said that in the aftermath of this strike, “others tried to rescue the victims, but the bodies were so decimated that it was impossible to differentiate between those of children, women, and their animals. Some of these innocent people were buried in the same grave as animals.”

He explained how these destructive events have shifted public opinion in Yemen to the point that AQAP is gaining back influence it had lost because the US drone strikes have devastated so many Yemeni lives. He closed his testimony with a chilling illustration of just how much the drones have changed the way people think and act in everyday life: “The drone strikes are the face of America to many Yemenis…. In Yemen, mothers used to say, ‘Go to sleep or I’ll get your father.’ Now they say, ‘Go to sleep or I’ll call the planes.’”

As he finished, Al-Muslimi received a well-deserved round of applause from the audience. Chairman Richard Durbin (D-IL) rapped his gavel to calm the applause and bring us back to order, but nothing else said during the rest of the hearing matched the heart-wrenching testimony of the only person in the room who had actually experienced the horror of what we were talking about. All of the constitutional and legal arguments that followed about “who we could kill” and “when it was legal to kill them” were grotesque in light of what Al-Muslimi had just witnessed to us.

The White House has been widely panned for this program and was criticized by the Senate Subcommittee for not sending a witness to the hearing, but the next day it was reported that Al-Muslimi was invited to visit the White House to talk with officials who work on policy in Yemen. A step in the right direction, but much work is still to be done.

We cannot allow the debate about drones to focus strictly on legal and constitutional implications. The human and moral costs of this violence must be lifted up. Al-Muslimi expressed his hope in this way: “I believe in America, and I deeply believe that when Americans truly know about how much pain and suffering US air strikes have caused, and how they are harming US efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Yemeni people, they will reject this devastating targeted killing program.”

NOTE: The Church of the Brethren Mission and Ministry Board “Resolution Against Drone Warfare” was submitted to the Senate subcommittee to be included in the formal testimony of the hearing. Read the resolution at www.brethren.org/about/policies/2013-resolution-against-drones.pdf . Watch a video of the Senate hearing at www.senate.gov/isvp/?comm=judiciary&type=live&filename=judiciary042313p . Read Farea Al-Muslimi’s written testimony at www.judiciary.senate.gov/pdf/04-23-13Al-MuslimiTestimony.pdf . Watch a video of the Senate hearing at www.senate.gov/isvp/?comm=judiciary&type=live&filename=judiciary042313p . Read Farea Al-Muslimi’s written testimony at www.judiciary.senate.gov/pdf/04-23-13Al-MuslimiTestimony.pdf .

— Bryan Hanger is an advocacy assistant in the Church of the Brethren’s Office of Public Witness, and a Brethren Volunteer Service worker.

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