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Terror Tuesday: Seeing human beings through the fog of the ‘war on terror’

Fear, demonization and secrecy: these are essential ingredients for the ‘either with us or against us’ recipe that has fed the prevailing American belief that Guantanamo and assassinations are keeping us safe from the ‘bad guys’ and fueled what has become a forever war.

All but vanished is the notion of a common humanity with that part of the world where the US has given a green light for people to be snatched from the streets by rendition squads, sold for cash bounties, tortured and reduced to ‘kill list’ targets.

But thanks to two journalists, a filmmaker and the people who shared their stories with them, the ordeals endured by men, women and children whose lives have been devastated by the lawless practices of the ‘war on terror’ are now being told.

In Shadow Lives: The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror, the British writer Victoria Brittain, a former editor with The Guardian newspaper, opens the door to the human dimension behind what a recent New York Times editorial termed “the Guantanamo stain.” You can hear and see what she has to say on Bill Newman’s radio show radio show and Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now!

Brittain’s recent book tour of the East Coast took place against the backdrop of the latest Guantanamo hunger strike which now reportedly has 100 participants as it approaches its 4th month. At least 19 of the hunger strikers are being brutally force fed by doctors, a gross violation of the medical code of ethics.

During her tour Brittain discovered the extent to which Guantanamo was off the radar screen of even Americans who pride themselves on being well-informed. Many were stunned to learn that one of the leaders of the hunger strike, the British resident Shaker Aamer, was an aid worker who ended up in Guantanamo after being seized and sold to Americans ready to pay up to $5,000 for anyone who could conceivably be a source of ‘intelligence.’ Here his lawyer Clive Stafford Smith speculates why Shaker is still at Guantanamo, despite calls for his release by the British government and a vigorous campaign on his behalf mounted by the British public.

Relatively few in Brittain’s audiences were aware that 86 of the remaining 166 Guantanamo prisoners had long ago been cleared for transfer, among them 58 Yemenis whose release was put on indefinite hold by President Obama after the 2009 ‘underwear bomb’ plot.

Photo by Jessica MurrayThe terrible plight of one of those Yemenis, Fadhel Hussein Saleh Hentif, is described today by Joe Nocera in his New York Times column.

On April 17, Yemenis in orange jumpsuits staged a protest outside the US Embassy in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, demanding the return of their countrymen. Their families are now putting a human face on prisoners who have been faceless for too long, by speaking out about what has happened to their loved ones.

While Guantanamo has caged their bodies and kept these faces from public view, known and unknown human beings are being simply vaporized by drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia as so-called ‘targeted killing’ becomes the Obama Administration’s weapon of choice on the global battlefield.

The courageous investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill tells the stories of Anwar al Awlaki, his 16-year-old son Abdulrahman, and others on the receiving end of JSOC ‘kill lists’ and ‘signature strikes’ in his riveting book Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield. Filmmaker Richard Rowley has produced a powerful film of the same name.

On April 27, the ACLU of Massachusetts co-sponsored a packed talk by Jeremy Scahill, followed by a discussion between Scahill and Noam Chomsky, moderated by Amy Goodman. You can see it live streamed here.

That evening the film ‘Dirty Wars’ received a standing ovation when it premiered on the East Coast before a sold out audience at the Boston Independent Film Festival. It will open in New York and Los Angeles on June 7 and in Kendall Square in Cambridge on June 14 – don’t miss it!

Shortly before the screening of ‘Dirty Wars,’ Farea Al-Muslimi, a 22-year-old Yemeni journalist who had spent what he called “one of the best years of my life” studying in the United States, put a human face on drone strikes for members of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommitte on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights.

He told the April 23rd hearing on ‘Drone Wars: the Constitutional and Counterterrorism Implications of Targeted Killing’ that just six days before, a drone-fired missile struck Wessab, his small mountain village:

I could never have imagined that the same hand that changed my life and took it from miserable to promising would drone my village. My understanding is that a man named Hameed Al-Radmi, was the target of the drone strike. 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 U.S. had told them to do so.

In the past, what Wessab's villagers knew of the U.S. was based on my stories about my wonderful experiences here. The friendships and values I experienced and described to the villagers helped them understand the America that I know and love.

Now, however, when they think of America they think of the terror they feel from the drones that hover over their heads ready to fire missiles at any time. What violent militants had previously failed to achieve, one drone strike accomplished in an instant: there is now an intense anger against America in Wessab.

This is not an isolated instance. The drone strikes are the face of America to many Yemenis.

I have spoken to many victims of U.S. drone strikes, like the mother in Ja'ar who had to identify her innocent 18-year-old son's body through a video on a stranger's cell phone. Or the father in Shaqra who held his 4 and 6-year-old children as they died in his arms.

Recently, in Aden, I spoke with one of the tribal leaders present in 2009 at the place where a U.S. cruise missile targeted the village of Al-Majalah in Lawdar, Abyan. More than 40 civilians were killed, including four pregnant women. Bin Fareed and 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….

I believe in America, and I deeply believe that when Americans truly know about how much pain and suffering U.S. airstrikes have caused, and how they are harming U.S. efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Yemeni people, they will reject this devastating targeted killing program.

When he finished there was a short burst of applause from the audience in the hearing chamber.

How did the subcommittee chaired by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) react to this testimony from what may well have been the first living Yemeni they had ever met?

Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) asked Al-Muslimi if there is a different kind of blowback from drone and manned airstrikes?

Yes, Al-Muslimi replied, because drones have killed so many more civilians in Yemen. He added that killing suspects when you could capture them plays into the hands of Al Qaeda which claims that the US is at war with Muslims.

Strikingly, with the exception of Franken and Sen. Durbin who asked the young journalist if his countrymen know that what the US is doing has the approval of the government of Yemen (“that’s not the issue,” Al-Muslimi replied), the other Senators steered clear of Al-Muslimi and directed their specific questions to the other witnesses: Ret. US Marine Corp Gen. James Cartwright; New American Foundation Director Peter Bergen, Georgetown University Law Prof. Rosa Brooks, Ret. US Air Force Col. Martha McSally and Prof. Ilya Somin, from the George Mason School of Law.

The discussion contained few surprises – you can listen to it here. Both Durbin and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) were disappointed that the Obama Administration had not sent someone to testify, despite the fact that the hearing had been postposed for a week to accommodate its schedule.

The bulk of the questions were directed to the law professors who gave carefully crafted answers about the applicability of the Congressional Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), the use of ‘targeted killing’ outside the battlefield, the due process rights of American citizens, the definition of the ‘enemy’ and need to clarify what groups are considered legitimate targets, whether some kind of judicial process can be implemented to review ‘targeted killing’ decisions either before or after the fact. Both professors invoked the example of the court review of ‘targeted killings’ used by the State of Israel.

‘Signature strikes’ launched against men whose identities are not known and who are not on any ‘kill lists’ were not mentioned at all, although perhaps such generalized slaughter was what Ret. Gen. Cartwright had in mind when he said (not once but twice): “I am concerned we may have ceded some of our moral high ground in the endeavor.” In response to a question from Durbin about whether we are trading short-term success for a long-term loss, he stated that “we are engendering more problems than we are solving.”

For her part, Col. McSally stressed how much care involving as many as 200 people went into each ‘remotely piloted aircraft’ strike decision. She insisted that “the process has a great deal of scrutiny” and is more accurate and has more oversight than strikes with piloted planes. She agreed, however, that more transparency would be a good idea.

Peter Bergen did not make much of civilian casualties in his presentation, but later suggested that a post-strike review and payments for the deaths of civilians would be a good idea: al-Muslimi advised an apology as well as compensation. Al-Muslimi pointed out that it’s all very well saying drone strikes are carefully targeted, but people are being killed because they don’t know who qualifies as a target and they just happen to be in the vicinity of that person.

Bergen was later asked by Sen. Cruz how the focus on ‘targeted killings’ affects our ability to collect intelligence in the Middle East. He hedged for awhile and then said that if the CIA is no longer effective at collecting intelligence because it is playing a paramilitary role “that is a problem.”

The Boston Marathon bombing made an appearance in Sen. Franken’s remarks when he said about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev: “He was in a boat and by all accounts had explosives on him. Isn’t it possible that we couldn’t have taken that person out in a different way?” – that is, by a weaponized drone?

We now know that when Tsarnaev was hiding in the boat he had neither explosives nor a weapon. But actual facts might make little difference if fear propels weaponized drones into American skies to deal with law enforcement emergencies.

However, for the moment, that does not appear to be on the agenda. Gen. Cartwright responded to Franken that we have so many other means to approach the situation. Earlier in the hearing all panelists had agreed that the Constitution does not allow the US to use drones to kill US citizens on US soil as long as there is no “imminent threat.”

The Obama Administration is still refusing to allow most Members of Congress – not to mention the public – to see the legal memos defining ‘imminent’ and understand how exactly ‘targets’ (including Americans) are added to its ‘kill lists.’

But the more we learn about the shadow lives and dirty wars of the ‘war on terror,’ the easier it is for us to look beyond the barriers of fear, demonization and secrecy, and see the common humanity being sacrificed in our name.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.