Drone Wars: How White Privilege Obscures Real Dialogue

We are not here to proffer an analysis. We aren’t academics. We are here as a Pakistani and a Yemeni, as activists, as citizens of this country and as citizens of our homelands. We are dismayed. We are confused. But we are not hopeless.

We had been waiting for this hearing for a long time. With a handful of location and time changes, rumors floating around of Rand Paul as a witness and a push by human rights organizations around the globe to make calls to their senators and ask them to pose the important questions about civilian casualties of the secret war, the momentum had crescendoed by the time the moment finally approached on Tuesday. We were the first in line at noon for the 4 pm hearing, amused by the cameras trained on members of the Intelligence Committee as they were hurried by their staff into their closed meeting on the Boston bombings. One of our colleagues stood in the receiving line and asked senators the same question as they speed-walked past him, undoubtedly avoiding the activist in pink, “What about Abdulrahman Al-awlaki? He was just a boy? Will you ask about why they killed him with a drone strike?” James Risch eloquently responded with a simple “No.”

Hart 216, ironically the same room where Brennan’s first public confirmation hearing was held and that we disrupted, was filled with journalists and activists, many in Amnesty’s black shirts with white targets. Testimonies started with Retired Marine Corp General James Cartwright and moved down the line, each one with a more or less “pro-drone reform” spin. Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown spoke of the antiquity of the AUMF with regards to targets with more and more tenuous links to al-Qaeda such as Somalia’s al-Shabaab. We nodded. Ilya Somin, a law professor at George Mason, smiled broadly as he explained that enemy combatants on U.S. soil could be lawful drone targets. Retired Col. Martha McSally was introduced as a special guest of Lindsey Graham’s, which became more and more evident as the hearing proceeded and she spoke about how we were better off calling drones “remotely piloted aircrafts or RPAs” (not dissimilar from CEO of pro-drone lobby AUVSI Michael Toscano’s remark at the Judiciary hearing last month that drones have a negative connotation and we are better off calling them unmanned aerial vehicles). We winced. Peter Bergen spoke about calculating the dead and noted that civilian casualties were significantly reduced in 2013. Then Farea al-Muslimi, a friend from Yemen, took the microphone.

We sobbed.

For the first time ever, there was a public hearing on the human, yes, “human” cost of drone warfare. For the very first time, the drone debate included on its panel of white male faces a young, brown Yemeni man who spoke clearly but emotionally about how hard it was to reconcile his love for America and Americans with the devastation upon his dear Yemen, and his struggle with informing his community about the goodness of America– that these drone strikes which are killing innocent people were not representative of the American people. For the first time, Senators were hearing from someone whose job was not to sift through news sources to calibrate numbers of dead people, or somebody who wrote lengthy legal opinions “reasoning” with murder, or an obvious ex-military apologist for war, cowering behind podiums and office desks. For the first time, Senators saw that the human cost was far beyond dollars and triple digits. It was a man’s identity and morals in question, his home and his family’s life in jeopardy, his difficulty in both loving a country that has given him so much, but taken away equal amounts.

We can relate to his dilemma.

Farea wasn’t there to try to win the hearts and minds of Senate by giving them policy or reform suggestions. He was there to tell his story. But white privilege and its associated subjectivities were clearly in action.

“I have been to Yemen,” Lindsey Graham said to Farea al-Muslimi. Our blood pressures rose. “Isn’t your country in turmoil?” Graham continued. “We have some problems.” replied Al-Muslimi. Graham ended his questioning, self-indulgent smirk on his face, as if to say, “I rest my case.” Although we doubt he is even aware of the terminology, Graham’s neo-colonial presumptions about Farea’s understanding of his own country were disgusting.

No, Senator, you do not rest your case. We, as citizens of the United States and witnesses to the turmoil in this nation, do not accept your reasoning. Schools are shutting down across the country and students are staging walkouts on this very day to protest this blow to their rights to a fair and equal education. Affirmative action is still a subject of debate, as though structural inequalities are a myth. We are still waging an endless, futile and racist war on drugs and extending a school to prison pipeline that is tearing apart families and disenfranchising youth. Racial profiling is rife, with a Palestinian woman in a hijab being assaulted in a Boston suburb last week following the bombings and a Bangladeshi man being savagely beaten in the Bronx on account of the color of his skin. This country is ripped down the middle when it comes to gun control despite the serious shootings that have devastated Aurora (and remember Columbine?). Monsanto damages our food diversity and destroys our health but props up our elected officials with one hand and stifles small farms with the other. There are uprisings, there is dissent, there is police brutality. This country is in no lesser turmoil than Yemen, or Pakistan, just because the standards to which you hold our homelands in comparison to yours is whitewashed by your condescension and insensitivity to difference. Your bigotry precedes you, Senators — your causation is fundamentally flawed.

Lindsey Graham was not the only one whose self-righteous “understanding” of the political and cultural landscapes of places like Pakistan and Yemen barred him from actually exploring the human cost of war. The majority of the hearing focused on analyzing the flaws of the current administration’s reliance on an overbearing executive authority and reforming the AUMF. We waited with bated breath for it to go beyond what we had hoped was only a self-obsessed, stagnant battle of the egos, but it did not. Questions prized legal, constitutional and operational aspects over ones actually pertaining to stories that Farea could have told, their commentaries punctuated with “We thank you for coming such a long way,” or “We thank you for that chilling perspective.” Nobody apologized for bombing his village, Wessab. They ascribed so profoundly and unwaveringly to forceful measures of “counterterrorism” as a given strategy with no room for questioning that they, in turn, tried to reject the validity of his personal experiences.

There are both benefits, and costs to having witnessed a panel of white male privilege embodied, questioning a similarly colored panel, except with one brown face. The outlier, the subject of fascination, the other, upon whom were projected a series of embarrassingly condescending generalizations about the “untrustworthiness” of the Yemeni government and questions about whether “Yemenis supported AQAP before the drone strikes,” to which he answered no (because surprisingly, people of color do not welcome terrorism of any variety). Farea spoke beautifully and passionately when he was afforded the chance about the dangers of drones in creating more enemies than friends, but was not allowed to analyze or explain his statement any further, curtailed by a reliance on legal jargon and reining in executive authority. We are thankful for him being there, but we are distressed that the Subcommittee’s treatment of his presence was just that– a cold, removed, and uninvolved treatment markedly different from their involved and lengthy conversations with the remaining witnesses. Why invite a Yemeni to speak about the human costs of drone wars and then cast a shadow of doubt and ignorance over his experiences by adopting a presumptuous tone?

The benefits are that Farea’s testimony was the only segment of the hearing that was any different from what we have heard before and what the public wants to hear more of. We appreciate that he prompted moral discussion and colored the panel of academics and military experts with his very human experiences of drone-related tragedies. We are grateful that he occupies a very special place as a person who looks at the United States as a second home and as a place of generosity and kindness; this sentiment occupied the center of his testimony and thus positively problematized the complexities of his relationship with drone wars in Yemen.

We must focus on these personal stories, destroyed and mangled bodies, identified by mothers as their son’s via a video on a cell phone. We must focus on his love and respect for this country and his simultaneous dismay at its terror. We must cherish his challenge of the usual power dynamics. We must invite a Farea to every hearing on drone strikes and allow for the voice of a person of color to be empowered and to resound with its own volition, devoid of the presumptions and blanket abstractions of our elected officials. We must disempower them of their given privilege and attend to the power of his words as they are importantly different from the rest. We must not presume that his country is lesser than ours, or more conflicted than ours, or in need of the sort of dialogue that is prefaced on “What I feel is good for you, must be good for you.”

As we left the hearing room, a young male journalist came up to us and said, “Are you with CODEPINK? Do you know that what you do is counterproductive? Your chortling and whispering during the hearing impairs my ability to listen.” This is for him: We are Yemeni, we are Pakistani, we are Americans. We are activists and we are dissenting– be it with an article, or a louder than usual whisper, a die-in in front of a drone manufacturer’s, a sit-in, a voluntary arrest, or charging towards an elected representative.

We stand with justice. We are here to stay.

Noor is the Pakistani-American anti-drone campaign coordinator at CODEPINK. Rooj is a Yemeni-American activist and organizer with SupportYemen. Read other articles by Noor Mir and Rooj Alwazir.