Cold and Distant Killing

September 15, 2010

Larkspur, Ca. – A Nevada state judge yesterday declined to rule from the bench in the case of the “Creech 14.”  Judge William Jansen said “This case has a lot more consequences than a trespass case,” and told “a packed courtroom” that he would  a written decision in two to three months after reviewing transcripts and testimony, according to a report by the Las Vegas Sun.

The “Creech 14” is a group of fourteen peace activists, including two Jesuit priests, two Franciscan priests and a Catholic nun, who were arrested on April 9, 2009, for refusing to leave the Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada, and who were later prosecuted in Nevada state court on misdemeanor trespass charges.  The four-hour bench trial in a Clark County, Nevada courtroom yesterday included testimony by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, a member of President Lyndon Johnson’s Administration, Bill Quigley, a Loyola University law professor and legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, and retired Army Col. Ann Wright, a former U.S. diplomat.  The issue that the Creech 14 defendants and their witnesses wanted to bring before the court (and the public) is whether the United States is justified in using remote-piloted aircraft vehicles, or “combat drones,” to target and kill people whom the U.S. terms “high profile individuals” in area where no actual armed conflict is occurring or where the U.S. is not itself involved in the armed conflict.

The key distinction here is between rules that govern “police action” and rules that govern war or combat.  As law professor Mary Ellen O’Connell of the University of Notre Dame said in testimony to Congress on April 28, 2010, on the “Lawful Use of Combat Drones,” police are the proper law enforcement agents outside of combat zones, “and police are generally required to warn before using lethal force.”  The use of remote-controlled drones offers no opportunity for warning and is thus illegal for use outside of combat zones, according to Professor O’Connell.

Concerns were also raised by the Creech 14 and others that even in combat zones, the U.S. was causing too many civilian casualties–what the U.S. military terms “collateral damage”–along with the targeted individuals, either by targeting the wrong individuals based on faulty intelligence, or by causing death or injury to innocent bystanders who were unlucky enough to be located near the target individual.

The Obama Adminstration has never explicitly acknowledged the use of combat drones, but has said through officials that the number of civilian casualties is relatively low.  According to an April 15, 2010, article in the Wall Street Journal

The Central Intelligence Agency has used drones to kill between 400 and 500 suspected militants since January 2009, senior intelligence officials say. The entire program has been expanded notably since Mr. Obama took office. While critics of the program cite collateral civilian deaths, intelligence officials say only about 20 civilians have been killed in that period—a lower estimate than that made by some independent researchers.

A study by the independent research organization New America Foundation published on October 19, 2009, for example, concluded that between 31-33% of people killed by “drones” in Pakistan since 2006 were civilians, and the number of strikes have significantly increased under President Obama.

Obama, far from curtailing the drone program he inherited from President George W. Bush, has instead dramatically increased the number of U.S. Predator and Reaper drone strikes. There have been 43 strikes in Pakistan this year (two while Bush was still in office), compared to 34 in all of 2008. None of the strikes under either Bush or Obama has targeted Osama bin Laden, who seems to have vanished like a wraith. U.S. intelligence officials say they have not had a solid lead on the whereabouts of the al Qaeda leader since the battle of Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan in December 2001.

Peace activist Kathy Kelly, co-coordinator of the group Voices for Creative Nonviolence based in Chicago, Illinois, and one of the Creech 14 defendants, posted an article on September 13, 2010, on the group’s blog–republished at the Huffington Post, entitled “Banning Slaughter.”  In the piece, Kelly recounted her experience in the 1970’s as an employee of a pig slaughtering facility in Chicago, and drew an analogy to the distant killing of civilians by remote-controlled aircraft:

But, up until some months ago, if anyone had ever said to me, “Kathy Kelly, you slaughtered animals,” I’m sure I would have denied it and maybe even felt a bit indignant. Recently, I realized that in fact I did participate in animal slaughter. It’s similar, isn’t it, to widely held perceptions here in the United States about our responsibility for killing people in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Iraq and other areas where the U.S. routinely kills civilians.

The actual killing seems distant, almost unnoticeable, and we grow so accustomed to our remote roles that we hardly notice the rising antagonism caused by U.S. aerial attacks, using remotely piloted drones. The drones fire missiles and drop bombs that incinerate people in the targeted area, many of them civilians whose only “crime” is to be living with their family.

I am pretty sure that Kelly’s comparing the remote killing of human beings by U.S. missiles to the killing of swine by a Chicago slaughter house worker will piss off a lot of people, including those who might otherwise be sympathetic to her activism on behalf of humans.  But I think she may be on to something.  I think it is even possible that Kelly’s early experience in that meat-packing plant was the seed of the compassion that led to her activism that included being sentenced to one year in federal prison for planting corn on nuclear missile silo sites (1988-89) and another three months in prison, in 2004, for crossing the line at Fort Benning’s military training school.

Violence against animals, including violence employed in the legally sanctioned slaughter of so-called “production animals” or “food animals,” has implications for humans that go far beyond the “simple pleasures” of a “juicy steak” or “crispy fried chicken.”  We know that a history of cruelty to animals–zoosadism–is a common trait among serial killers and rapists.  Perhaps awareness of the suffering of “production animals”, such as that experienced unconsciously by Kathy Kelly, could lead to greater compassion for fellow humans, and a commitment to non-violence on behalf of all living creatures.

Author and British ethicist Jonathan Glover, at Chapter Ten (The Shift to Killing at a Distance) of his September 2001 book Humanity:  A Moral History of the Twentieth Century, differentiates modern warfare that kills at a distance from traditional warfare that called for closer contact and required soldiers to overcome “inhibitions against killing.”  Glover is concerned that “technology has created forms of cold violence” and points out that “civilians are often the victims of this cold and distant killing.”  As Glover writes:

Those running the policy are far away from those killed.  Humiliations are not seen.  And sympathy is minimal.

Sounds like the BLM’s Wild Horse & Burro Program to me.

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