Devout peaceniks drummed out of drone convention

Posted by CODEPINK Staff

By John L. Smith

The Las Vegas convention scene enjoys a worldwide reputation for its hospitality. From pornography to pizza, industry shows attract millions of conventioneers to the Strip each year.

But this week at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International forgot to leave out the welcome mat for a couple of harmless critics who attempted to be credentialed for the industry group's Unmanned Systems North America 2012 gathering. The drone convention, touted to feature 8,000 attendees, 500 exhibitors and representatives from 40 countries, continues through Thursday.

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.

"What is the impact on our people?"

Vitale's cause may be spiritual, but to his critics, every step he takes is political. To be a devout practitioner of nonviolence is to ask questions about America's role on the world stage.

And that puts Vitale, Benjamin and their friends in the American peace movement on the outside looking in just about everywhere they go.

John L. Smith's column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at or call 702-383-0295. He also blogs Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.

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