To Assess U.S. Drone Policies We Must Listen to More Farea al-Muslimis

Written by me and Noor Mir . Originally posted on Muftah

Farea Al-Muslimi (Photo credit: Farea Al-Muslimi)

We are not here to proffer an analysis. We are not 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.

On April 23, 2013, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights held a hearing on the moral, legal and constitutional issues surrounding targeted killings and the use of drones.

We had been waiting for this hearing for a long time. There were a handful of location and time changes. Rumors were floating around of Rand Paul appearing as a witness. Human rights organizations around the globe were urging U.S. citizens to tell their senators to pose important questions about the civilian casualties of drone attacks. With these goings on, momentum among activists had spiked by the time the hearing finally arrived.

We were the first in line for the 4 pm hearing, amused by the cameras trained on members of the Intelligence Committee as they were hurried by their staff into a closed meeting on the Boston bombings.

One of our colleagues from CODEPINK stood in the receiving line, asking senators the same question as they quickly 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?” Sen. James Risch (R-ID) eloquently responded with a simple “No.”

Hart Building, Room 216 (ironically the same room where we disrupted CIA Director John Brennan’s first public confirmation hearing) was filled with journalists and activists, many sporting Amnesty International’s black shirt with white targets.

The testimony began with Retired Marine Corp General James Cartwright and moved down the line, with each speaker providing a more or less “pro-drone reform” spin. Rosa Brooks, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, spoke of the anachronistic nature of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) with regard to targets with tenuous links to al-Qaeda, like Somalia’s al-Shabaab. We nodded.

Ilya Somin, a law professor at George Mason University, smiled broadly as he explained that enemy combatants on U.S. soil could be lawfully targeted by drones. Retired Col. Martha McSally was introduced as a special guest of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). She claimed we were better off calling drones “remotely piloted aircrafts or RPAs.” We winced.

Her testimony was not dissimilar to that of the pro-drone lobbyist par excellence Michael Toscano, President and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. Last month at a Senate Judiciary hearing, Toscano stated that drones had a negative connotation and should be referred to instead as unmanned aerial vehicles.

New American Foundation’s Peter Bergen spoke about calculating the dead and noted that civilian casualties were significantly reduced in 2013.

At long last, 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, among a panel of predominantly white male faces, a young, brown Yemeni man.

Farea spoke clearly but emotionally about how hard it was to reconcile his love for America and Americans with the devastation unleashed against his dear Yemen. He recounted 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, U.S. Senators were hearing from someone whose job was not to sift through news sources to calibrate numbers of dead people, or to write lengthy legal opinions “reasoning” about murder. Nor was this person an obvious ex-military apologist for war, cowering behind podiums and office desks.

For the first time, senators saw that the human cost of drone warfare went far beyond dollars and triple digit death counts. It was, instead, causing a man to question his identity and morals, placing his home and his family’s life in jeopardy, and making it difficult for him to love a country that had both given him so much and taken away equal amounts.

We can relate to his dilemma.

Farea was not there to try to win the hearts and minds of the senators by giving them policy or reform suggestions. He was there to tell his story. Still, white privilege and its associated subjectivities were clearly in action.

“I have been to Yemen,” Lindsey Graham said to Farea. Our blood pressure rose. “Isn’t your country in turmoil?,” Graham continued.  “We have some problems,” replied Al-Muslimi. Graham ended his questioning with a self-indulgent smirk, as if to say, “I rest my case.” Graham’s neo-colonial presumptions about Farea’s understanding of his own country were disgusting.

No, Senator, you cannot rest your case. We, as citizens of the United States and witnesses to the turmoil in thisnation, do not accept your reasoning. Schools are shutting down across the country and students are staging walkouts to protest this blow to their rights to a fair and equal education. Affirmative action is somehow still a subject of nation-wide debate, as though structural inequalities are a myth.

We in the United States 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 and racism are rife. Just last week a Palestinian woman in hijab was attacked in a Boston suburb, while a Bangladeshi man was savagely beaten in the Bronx, both in “retaliation” for the Boston marathon bombings.

Despite the serious shootings that devastated Aurora, Colorado (and remember Columbine?), the United States is torn down the middle when it comes to gun control. Monsanto damages our food diversity and destroys our health while propping up our elected officials with one hand and stifling small farms with the other.

There are uprisings; there is dissent; there is police brutality. This country, in other words, is in no less turmoil than Yemen, or Pakistan, notwithstanding the condescension and insensitivity to difference that some Americans display when comparing the United States to these countries. Their bigotry precedes them – their causation is fundamentally flawed.

Lindsey Graham was not the only one whose self-righteous “understanding” of the political and cultural landscape of places like Pakistan and Yemen barred him from actually exploring the human cost of war.

Most of the Senate hearing focused on analyzing flaws in the Obama administration’s reliance on overbearing executive authority, as well as reforming the AUMF. With bated breath, we waited for the hearing to go beyond what we had hoped was only a self-obsessed, stagnant battle of egos. Sadly, it did not.

Questions from the senators emphasized the legal, constitutional and operational aspects of the drone program over the stories that Farea could have told. Responses to Farea’s testimony were of the “We thank you for coming such a long way,” or “We thank you for that chilling perspective” variant. Nobody apologized for bombing his village, Wessab. These Senators, who ascribed so profoundly, unwaveringly and without question to the importance of “counterterrorism” strategies, in turn, tried to reject the validity of Farea’s personal experience.

There are both benefits and costs to witnessing a panel of white male privilege questioning a similar panel with one brown face. That one brown face was the outlier, the subject of fascination, the other. Upon him, the Senators projected a series of embarrassingly condescending generalizations about the “untrustworthiness” of the Yemeni government. They even asked him whether “Yemenis supported AQAP [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] before the drone strikes,” to which Farea answered no (because surprisingly, people of color do not actually welcome terrorism).

When he was afforded the chance, Farea spoke beautifully and passionately about the danger that drones would create more enemies than friends. He was not allowed to analyze or explain his statements any further, curtailed by the committee’s focus on legal jargon and reining in executive authority.

We are thankful for Farea’s presence, but are distressed by how the Subcommittee treated him – a cold, removed and uninvolved treatment markedly different from the involved and lengthy conversations the senators had 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 experience by adopting a presumptuous tone?

On the positive side, Farea’s testimony was the only part of the hearing that was different from what had come before and what the public wanted to hear. We appreciate that his statements prompted moral discussion and colored the panel of academics and military experts with the human impact of drone-related tragedies. We are grateful that Farea 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 lay at the center of his testimony and highlighted his complex relationship with the U.S. drone war in Yemen.

We must focus on these personal stories, the destroyed and mangled bodies, identified by mothers via cell phone video. We must focus on Farea’s love and respect for this country and his simultaneous dismay at its terror. We must cherish his work in challenging 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 these officials of their given privilege and attend to the power of Farea’s words so critically 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 our response to 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, a sit-in, a voluntary arrest, or charging towards an elected representative.

We stand with justice. We are here to stay.

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



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