Death by Drone: Rast, Smith, and al-Awlaki

Posted by CODEPINK Staff

By Laura Mills

1. Benjamin Rast (23) was serving in Afghanistan as a Navy Medic when a US Predator drone killed him on April 6, 2011.
2. Jeremy Smith (26), a Marine Staff Sergeant, was killed in the same misguided strike.
3. Anwar al-Awlaki (40), a radical Muslim cleric living in Yemen when a US Hellfire Missile finished him on September 30, 2011.

One of these deaths is not like the others.  At least not upon first glance.

The deaths of the two U.S. troops were accidental, chalked up to friendly fire, the inevitable, price of war.  General David H Petraeus, then-commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, expressed his “deepest sorrow” over the unintended losses of Rast and Smith.  They became the first American troops to die at the far-off hands of military drones, operating half a world away in U.S. Air bases.

Meanwhile, Al-Awlaki’s death marked another first - the first targeted killing of a U.S. citizen by American forces.  The government trumpeted it as a victory in both the war on terror and the (not-so secret) CIA drone campaign in the Middle East.  His unprecedented assassination provoked a speech six months later by Attorney General Eric Holder in which he declared target killings of citizens as lawful if “the individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack.”

But none of these deaths are what the government would have you believe.  All three of them bear witness to the horrible potential of drones for undeserved deaths and mangled constitutional rights.

After the fact, it is the families of the dead who are left to defend those they have already lost.  Anwar al-Awlaki will finally receive his trial posthumously.  His father, Nasser al-Awlaki, has teamed up with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights to bring a case against top CIA and U.S. military officials.  Along with compensation, they hope to push the Obama administration to reveal its legal explanations for the premeditated murder.  The Attorney General’s remarks hide all logic behind the convenient label of “classified information”.  Thus, the government continues to evade transparency, while al-Awlaki has never been charged of a crime.  They have never presented any evidence implicating al-Awlaki in acts of terrorism.  His being a member of al-Qaeda does not make his crimes self-evident.

Now Nasser al-Awlaki appears for second appearance in court.  Prior to his son’s death, he had tried - unsuccessfully - to make the courts bring charges against his son.  Sadly, his return to court has a three part foucs.  Samir Kahn, al-Qaeda propagandist and U.S. citizen, died as collateral damage in the strike against al-Awlaki.  A month later, al-Awlaki’s son, Abdulrahman, also a U.S. citizen died in a drone strike.  He had no ties to al-Qaeda.  He was sixteen years old.

Rather than delve into the U.S.’s horrific flippancy about civilian casualties, let me return to the two characters from the opening of this article, Rast and Smith.  In the face of these troops’ deaths, the continuous applause for the surgical precision of drones rings hollow.  Drones are marketed to the public on the claim that they operate with unprecedented accuracy through intense, infrared cameras.  Their pilots are safe in offices removing room for human error under the chaos of war.

Rast, Smith, and Al-Awlaki are three very different men, yet all looked like militants under the robotic eyes of the drone.

Robert Rast, father of Benjamin, has been shown the video footage of the combat scene in which his son was killed.  He has seen how little clarity the camera provided, how it really could have been anyone on the ground.  But it was his son, his innocent son.  For that reason he sits on his front lawn every day surrounded by pictures and flags, waiting to tell his story to anyone who will listen.  This week he bought a model of a drone to hover ominously over this makeshift memorial.  He calls for greater accountability from the Pentagon and steps to prevent a repeat of this tragedy.

Smith’s father, Jerry, has professed his forgiveness to whoever ultimately killed his son.  Although those pilots names were redacted, he knows they meant to save his son.  The death was a mistake.

Both fathers express important truths about drone warfare.  Something must be changed.  But where does blame fall along the chain of command that erroneously mistook allies for enemies?  The crew at Creech Air Force Base who pressed the button, the Air National Guard intelligence specialists viewing the drone’s live feed, or the fellow Marines who called for a strike?

Rather than ensure precision, drone warfare has only complicated the process of picking targets for the military.  Rast and Smith join (how many?) Afghani civilians as innocent people in the wrong place, at the wrong time.  (And to think they hope to build drones with the power to identify targets and fire on their own without human oversight!)

Drones do not make killing cleaner.  They make it easier.  Too easy to use, too easy to violate national sovereignty, too easy to evade accountability when mistakes are made.  Too easy to shrug off the fifth amendment that says all citizens have right to due process.  Too easy to kill.

The military must not use drones so casually, and must be made accountable when things go wrong.  The CIA, which has never shown accountability to really anyone, should be banned from using them entirely.

We need to stop pretending drones are a trustworthy technology, free of error.  We need to stop pretending civilian deaths are irrelevant, inevitable, or unimportant - American or not.  We need to stop pretending terrorists are some superhuman force who are so evil basic right do not apply to them.

Rast, Smith, and al-Awlaki.  One of these deaths is not like the other, but none of these deaths bode well for the right to life in the United States.

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