The Drone Summit and the Invisibility of Charred Children

May 29th, 2012 - by admin

Code Pink & Hugh Gusterson / Truthout – 2012-05-29 23:45:41

Drone Summit Press Conference 2012
Code Pink / YouTube
For a complete list of the speakers, see the agenda at the end of this posting.

The Drone Summit, the Lunchbox and the Invisibility of Charred Children
Hugh Gusterson / Truthout | Op-Ed

(May 9, 2012) — I kept finding myself thinking about the lunchbox.

I was at the all-day Drone Summit in Washington DC organized by Codepink, the antiwar group whose mostly female members are famous for putting on theatrical protests while wearing bold pink. I spent the day listening to human rights activists talking about civilians killed by US drone strikes, lawyers who complained that the strikes violated international law, and scientists worried that the United States is on the brink of automating the use of lethal force by drones and killer robots.

And I kept thinking about the lunchbox.

The lunchbox belonged to a schoolgirl in Hiroshima. Her body was never found, but the rice and peas in her lunchbox were carbonized by the atomic bomb. The lunchbox, turned into an exhibition piece, became, in the words of historian Peter Stearns, “an intensely human atomic bomb icon.” The Smithsonian museum’s plans to exhibit the lunchbox as part of its 1995 exhibit for the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II enraged military veterans and conservative pundits, who eventually forced the exhibit’s cancellation.

Everyone knows, in the abstract at least, that the atom bomb killed thousands of children in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But any visual representation of this fact — even if done obliquely, through a lunchbox, rather than through actual pictures of charred children — was deemed out-of-bounds by defenders of the bombing.

I found myself thinking about the lunchbox while listening to a Drone Summit presentation by the Pakistani lawyer Shahzad Akbar of the Foundation for Fundamental Rights. Akbar is a Pakistani lawyer who represents civilian victims of US drone strikes in Waziristan (a tribal area on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan).

He has given Waziris cameras and trained them to take photographs of the aftermath of US drone strikes, such as this very disturbing image. Some activists have now begun pairing pictures of the wreckage of Hellfire missiles, made by Lockheed, with pictures of the children killed by that particular strike.

In Japan after World War II, the US occupying authorities made it illegal for Japanese citizens to own any pictures of the aftermath of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. In Japan, Akbar would have been locked up by General MacArthur.

Although Akbar has not been locked up, his Transparency Project has not been welcomed by the Obama administration. Akbar was invited to speak at Columbia University in May 2011; although he had visited the United States many times before and had even consulted for US agencies, he was not given a visa.

It looked as though he would not be allowed to speak at the Drone Summit either, but after months of pressure from human rights organizations, the State Department relented and, four days before he was due to take the podium, allowed Akbar a visa.

According to another speaker at the Drone Summit, Chris Woods of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, while the CIA claims its drones only kill what US authorities refer to as “militants,” US drone strikes have killed at least 174 children in Pakistan and somewhere between 479 and 811 civilians in all. Akbar pointed out that, lacking air conditioning, Pakistanis often sleep outside, and children’s bodies are particularly vulnerable to shrapnel.

Akbar, who would like the CIA officials responsible for the strikes to stand trial for murder, showed the audience many heart-rending photographs of children in hospital or laid out for their funerals after drone strikes.

In an affecting statement after the shooting of Trayvon Martin by a Florida vigilante, President Obama said, that, if he had a son, he might have looked like Martin. One wonders if the president saw Akbar’s photographs of dead brown-skinned girls whether he would find himself thinking that these could have been his daughters.

In a 1996 interview with “60 Minutes,” Lesley Stahl asked Secretary of State Madeleine Albright if US sanctions against Iraq were justified given that they were said to have killed half a million Iraqi children. “This is a very hard choice,” she responded, “but we think the price is worth it.”

We can disagree with her answer, but at least she had the honesty to confront the question and give an honest answer. One wonders if Obama and the CIA officials responsible for the drone program ever think about the dead children that follow from their decisions. Do they have the honesty to look at the lunchbox?

This article is a Truthout original.

An anthropologist, Gusterson is a professor of anthropology and sociology at George Mason University. His expertise is in nuclear culture, international security, and the anthropology of science. He has conducted considerable fieldwork in the United States and Russia, where he studied the culture of nuclear weapon scientists and antinuclear activists.

Two of his books encapsulate this work — Nuclear Rites: A Weapons Laboratory at the End of the Cold War (University of California Press, 1996) and People of the Bomb: Portraits of America’s Nuclear Complex (University of Minnesota Press, 2004). He also coedited Why America’s Top Pundits Are Wrong (University of California Press, 2005); a sequel, The Insecure American, is in preparation. Previously, he taught in MIT’s Program on Science, Technology, and Society.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.

Drone Summit: Killing and Spying by Remote Control
Code Pink

WASHINGTON, DC (April 28-29, 2012) —

Saturday Schedule
The peace group CODEPINK and the legal advocacy organizations Reprieve and the Center for Constitutional Rights are hosting the first international drone summit.

On Saturday, April 28, we are bringing together human rights advocates, robotics technology experts, lawyers, journalists and activists for a summit to inform the American public about the widespread and rapidly expanding deployment of both lethal and surveillance drones, including drone use in the United States. Participants will also have the opportunity to listen to the personal stories of Pakistani drone-strike victims.

Time: 9:00am-9:00pm
Location: Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20001

On Sunday, April 29 we will have a strategy session to network, discuss and plan advocacy efforts focused on various aspects of drones, including surveillance and targeted killings.

Time: 10:00am-4:00pm
Location: United Methodist Building, 100 Maryland Avenue NE, Washington, DC 20001

Sunday’s session is for representatives of organizations and individuals who want to be actively involved in this work. If you are interested in attending Sunday’s session, please email Ramah Kudaimi at

Topics will include:

* the impact of drones on human lives and prospects for peace

* the lack of transparency and accountability for drone operations, including targeted killings

* disputed legality of drone warfare

* compensation for victims

* the future of domestic drone surveillance

* drone use along U.S. borders.

Speakers will include:

* Jeremy Scahill, award-winning investigative journalist

* Clive Stafford Smith, director of UK legal group Reprieve that represents drone victims

* Medea Benjamin, author of Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control

* Maria LaHood, attorney with Center for Constitutional Rights

* Shahzad Akbar, attorney with Pakistani Foundation for Fundamental Fights

* Amna Buttar, member of the Provincial Assembly of Punjab in Pakistan

* Rafia Zakaria, Pakistani-American journalist

* Sarah Holewinski, director of Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC)

* Hina Shamsi, ACLU national security expert

* Jay Stanley, ACLU privacy expert

* Tom Barry, drone border expert with Center for International Policy

* David Glazier, law professor who served 21 years as a US Navy surface warfare officer

* Amie Stepanovich, legal counsel at Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

* Peter Asaro and Noel Sharkey from the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC).

Join us Friday, April 27 at 6:00pm to hear Medea Benjamin discuss her new groundbreaking book “Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control.” She will discuss the menace posed by the proliferation of drones for killing abroad and spying here at home. The United States is the number one user of drones, but now over 50 countries have them, leading us into a world of chaos and lawlessness. The event will take place at Busboys and Poets, 1025 5th Street NW, Washington, DC.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. government has increasingly deployed drones in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. While the U.S. military and the CIA initially used drones primarily for surveillance, these remotely controlled aerial vehicles are currently routinely used to launch missiles against human targets in countries where the United States is not at war, including Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. As many as 3,000 people, including hundreds of noncombatants and even American citizens, have been killed in covert missions.

Our nation is leading the way toward a new form of warfare where pilots sitting on the ground thousands of miles away command drone strikes, where targets are- in military jargon- “neutralized,” and where unintended victims are dismissed as “collateral damage.” Close observers, both inside and outside the U.S. military, call this “video-game warfare.” These drone operations, directed largely by the CIA, lack necessary transparency and accountability.

Drones are also being deployed domestically by border security and law enforcement agencies. Predator drones deployed by Customs and Border Protection search for immigrants and drugs on the northern and southern borders, while metropolitan police and county sheriffs are acquiring smaller drones to assist their SWAT operations.

Congress recently mandated that the Federal Aviation Administration open up domestic airspace to private and commercial drones by 2015 and that it immediately speed up the licensing process to permit the deployment of government drones (military, homeland security, and law enforcement) in commercial U.S. airways.

As drones become an increasingly preferred form of warfare and as their presence expands at home, it is time to educate ourselves, the U.S. public, and our policymakers about drone proliferation. As remotely controlled warfare and spying race forward, it is also time to organize to end current abuses and to prevent the potentially widespread misuse both overseas and here at home.

If you have any questions, email Summit Organizer Ramah Kudaimi at rkudaimi[at]

Endorsed by Center for International Policy, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Global Exchange, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Muslim Peace Coalition-USA, Nonviolence International, Peace Action, United for Peace and Justice, Veterans for Peace, Voices for Creative Nonviolence, the Washington Peace Center and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.