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Drone Convention Has No Room for Critics

Common Dreams staff

Northrop Grumman booth at the 2012 drone convention in Las Vegas.

Thousands are on the Las Vegas Strip this week for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International's annual convention.

"With more than 8,000 attendees and 500+ exhibitors from more than 40 countries, AUVSI’s Unmanned Systems North America is recognized as the leading event for the unmanned systems marketplace."

The FAA estimates that by 2020 there will be as many as 30,000 drones flying in U.S. airspace. The 'unmanned aerial vehicles' may be exploding in popularity among warmakers, defense contractors and police agencies but don't call them "drones" -- it makes industry leaders cringe.

All this week activists from CODEPINK, the Nevada Desert Experience and Occupy Las Vegas are greeting the drone conventioneers outside the Mandalay Bay Hotel/Casino Convention Center.

After being kicked out of the convention, organizers staged a "Die-In" outside the Mandalay Bay on Tuesday.

John Smith writing today in the Las Vegas Review-Journal:

[...] With all that lethal technology, you would think organizers would be secure enough to allow a pair of devout peaceniks to look around the place. But on Sunday, Franciscan father the Rev. Louis Vitale and CODEPINK co-founder Medea Benjamin were politely informed their attendance was not desired. As Vitale tells it, security escorted them from the convention registration area.

That didn't stop them from planning a Tuesday "die-in" near the drone convention in protest of the use of the technology to wage war that, they claim, takes a devastating toll on innocent civilians. For the uninitiated, dies-ins are like sit-ins, only with a touch more drama.

For her part, Benjamin is the author of "Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control" and a co-founder of the women's peace activist group.

Vitale, now 80, is well-known to longtime locals as an indefatigable peace protestor. The priest has been arrested more than 200 times and has served many months in jail for his dedication to the cause of peace.

Merely getting turned down for a convention credential constituted a slow Sunday for Vitale, who expressed surprise being identified as persona non grata at the drone convention.

"I didn't know they'd know who I was," he says.

In recent years, the increased use of drone aircraft in battle has drawn the attention of Vitale and many other peace activists, from the gates of the Nevada National Security Site near Mercury to the entrance to Creech Air Force Base at Indian Springs. Creech is home to Predator and Reaper drones, the remotely operated crafts known for their surveillance and combat capability.

For Vitale, who served in the Air Force before joining the Franciscans, the advanced technology hasn't translated into cleaner combat. The much-touted precision of the drone aircraft has kept American military out of harm's way, but it hasn't eliminated the high price of civilian casualties in the war zones.

To many, this is part of the price paid to defeat a treacherous enemy and maintain our national security. To Vitale, Benjamin and their colleagues, it's too great a price. And then he asks, "What is the impact on the people, what is the impact on our own people?"

The priest believes the incidents of predator operators suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder will be epidemic. His own experiences are anecdotal, he admits, but his conversations with British and U.S. military drone operators have been deeply troubling. Those onboard cameras not only spot suspected enemy targets, he notes, but they also reveal the damage wrought in unprecedented detail.

One Air Force veteran he spoke with talked of going from the "soccer part of his day (with his schoolchildren) to the killing part of his day," Vitale recalls. "He said the civilian casualties really bother him. 'When that happens, I don't sleep,' he said. You're bombing people, and it turns out to be civilians. [...]

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