How Activists Are Striking Back Against Drone Warfare
The following is an excerpt from Medea Benjamin's new book, Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control, published by OR Books.
You may not have heard of the "Creech 14," but they have a special place in the heart of the anti-drone movement. If you saw a photo of the group, you might think they had just walked out of Sunday mass; indeed, some of its members are priests and nuns. But whether clergy or not, all are spiritually rooted in a theology that calls on people of faith to stand up against injustice-in deeds, not just words.
And so on April 9, 2009, the group of fourteen activists entered Creech Air Force base-where teams of young soldiers remotely operate many of America's killer drones-protesting what they considered war crimes taking place inside. As they crossed onto the base, the group invited staff nearby to share a Good Friday meal with them. They were then told to leave, and when they refused, they were arrested, charged with trespassing and held in jail until Easter Sunday.
While the action was noteworthy, the most remarkable part was not anything that took place that day, but the trial itself, which did not begin until over a year later, on September 14, 2010, at the Clark County Regional Court in Las Vegas, Nevada. There, the defendants turned what would have been a mundane case over a minor misdemeanor into a broad debate about the use of drones. They decided not to be represented by lawyers but to represent themselves. They also invited three expert witnesses to speak on their behalf: Ramsey Clark, who was US Attorney General under President Lyndon Johnson; Center for Constitutional Rights legal director Bill Quigley; and Ret. Army Colonel Ann Wright.
The defendants took turns questioning the witnesses, establishing the fact that drone strikes kill a large number of civilians; that people have the right, even the duty, to stop war crimes; and that according to the post-World War II Nuremberg principles, individuals are morally and legally bound to disobey orders that entail crimes against humanity. They cited the history of protesters who broke petty laws, from the 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," said Quigley.
In a surprising turn of events, at the end of the trial Judge Jansen declared that the issues at stake were too important to make an immediate ruling and gave himself four months to analyze the case. On January 27, 2011, the judge handed down his twenty-page decision. He found the group guilty of the crime of trespassing, concluding that they had been unable to prove their conduct was compelled by true "necessity." But he gave the defendants credit for the time they had already spent in jail and declared them free to go. "Go in peace," were Jansen's final words.
While the defendants were hoping for a non-guilty verdict, they knew they had won a victory no matter the ultimate ruling. As defendant Brian Terrell said in his closing statement, "Some have noted that the trend toward using drones in warfare is a paradigm shift that can be compared to what happened when an atomic bomb was first used to destroy the city of Hiroshima in Japan. When Hiroshima was bombed, though, the whole world knew that everything had changed. Today everything is changing, but it goes almost without notice. I hesitate to claim credit for it, but there is certainly more discussion of this issue after we were arrested for trespassing at Creech Air Force Base on April 9, 2009, than there was before."