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Drone Warfare on Trial

Drone warfare — assassination by unmanned aircraft — is arguably one of the most hellish spawns of the modern military-industrial era, and its use is becoming routine in the Af-Pak war, yet (what else is new?) there’s no debate about it at the level of national policy, just a shrug and a void.

The nation’s future is itself on a sort of autopilot. It belongs to the market forces, in tandem with the reckless, short-term strategic interests of the Pentagon and the politics of empire. There’s no moral voice at the core of this system — not even, any longer, a voice of common sense. We live in a spectator democracy: Our role is to gape at the spectacle. The news cycle runs 24/7 and tells us nothing, if the act of “telling” includes in its meaning an invitation to participate.

Like the students who sat in at segregated lunch counters and otherwise disrupted the nation’s Jim Crow status quo nearly half a century ago, we have to find a way to interrupt the false consensus of military-industrial America at the level at which it wages war and engages with the rest of the planet. Doing so takes persistence and courage — and sometimes a breakthrough occurs.

I bring you the Creech Air Force Base 14: Father John Dear, Dennis DuVall, Renee Espeland, Judy Homanich, Kathy Kelly, Father Steve Kelly, Mariah Klusmire, Brad Lyttle, Libby Pappalardo, Sister Megan Rice, Brian Terrell, Eve Tetaz, Father Louis Vitale and Father Jerry Zawada.

A year and a half ago, they were part of a 10-day vigil outside the base in Indian Springs, Nev. (about 35 miles from Las Vegas), protesting the Predator and Reaper drone flights over Afghanistan and Pakistan that are remotely piloted from the base. At the end of the vigil, these 14 activists entered the base illegally, carrying a letter, according to Kathy Kelly of the Chicago-based Voices for Creative Nonviolence, “we wanted to circulate among the base personnel, describing our opposition to a massive targeted assassination program.” They were arrested and charged with trespassing.

What happened at their trial in Las Vegas two weeks ago may turn the incident into more than simply a symbolic protest. What was supposed to be a cut-and-dried trespassing trial — a crime’s a crime, the law’s the law — ended up being something far larger than that.

One of the signs that protestors outside the courthouse were carrying as the trial began bore the words: “Put Drone Warfare on Trial.” And that may be what happened.

In any case, Judge William Jansen, despite his stern lecture at the outset that the issue before the court was trespassing and nothing else, listened to the testimony of the three witnesses that the defendants, who had mounted a pro se defense, called to the stand — and something shifted, a door opened, the scope of the trial widened. The question of who we are as a nation had its day in court. One of many, I can only hope.

In a trial about the misdemeanor offense of trespassing, the defendants called as witnesses: Ramsey Clark, former U.S. attorney general under Lyndon Johnson; retired Army Col. Ann Wright, who resigned from the State Department in protest of the 2003 invasion of Iraq; and Bill Quigley, legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights.

They were allowed to be questioned. They were allowed to speak. According to Kathy Kelly, whom I talked to recently, as well as various accounts of the trial, including an essay by Father Dear, the witnesses talked about the historical and legal precedents for trespassing in service to a higher law, including what is known as the “necessity defense”: If someone is trapped in a burning house, for example, you have the right to break the law against trespassing in order to effect a rescue.

Quigley, wrote Dear, “cited the history of protesters who broke petty laws, from our nation’s founders to the suffragists to the civil rights activists who illegally sat in at lunch counters. In the long run, we honor them for obeying a higher law, for helping to bring us toward justice, he said. Unfortunately, there is a gap between ‘the law’ and ‘justice,’ and so, he explained, the struggle today is to narrow that gap.”

The witnesses made a number of points that put the defendants’ trespassing in a larger context, including the fact that U.S. drone strikes kill civilians indiscriminately and in large numbers (there’s a 10-to-1 civilian-to-insurgent kill ratio, according to a recent Brookings Institute study); that intentional, targeted killing is a war crime; and that, according to Nuremberg principles, every citizen has a duty to disobey laws or orders that perpetuate crimes against humanity.

After the defense rested, the judge made the astounding observation that there was more at stake here than the usual meaning of trespassing. He announced that he needed some time to study the testimony and set a new court date — Jan. 27, 2011 — at which he would render his verdict. And that’s where it stands.

Time will tell whether a door has really opened here, and whether the Nuremberg principles have truly become relevant in American life and jurisprudence again. But what if they have? What if the moral force of peace has found its voice in a nation long thought to have given up on such matters and gone shopping permanently?

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