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Standing Up, One Year Later


A year ago, on May 23, 2013, I was in the audience at the National Defense University when President Barack Obama gave his major foreign policy address. Having worked for years trying to close the Guantanamo prison and stop US drone attacks, I was crushed to realize that the president’s speech was ending and he had not announced any significant change of course on either policy. My heart was pounding with fear—it’s not an easy thing to interrupt a president, but I decided to speak up.

I tried to channel the anguish of Guantanamo prisoners like Moath al-Alwi, held without trial since 2002 and on his ninth month of a hunger strike. I cringe just thinking about Alwi’s daily force-feeding, where he is strapped to a chair with a tube shoved down his nose, leaving him violently vomiting and in excruciating pain. I thought of the tears of 13-year-old Awda Al-Shubati, a sweet young girl I met in Yemen who sobbed while clutching a worn picture of the father she has never seen because he has been held in Guantanamo—with no chance of a trial–since the time she was born.

I thought of innocent drone strike victims, like 68-year-old Pakistani grandmother Manama al-Bibi, blown to bits by a Hellfire missile while picking okra in her family’s field, or Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki, a 16-year-old American obliterated while eating dinner with his teenage friends in a small Yemini village. My mind raced through the dozens of photos I have seen of children whose lives have been snuffed out, forever, with the press of a button from a remotely controlled Predator drone.

I stood, heart pounding even harder, and shouted “You are the Commander in Chief, you have the power to release the 86 prisoners who have already been cleared for release!” I continued to speak out about closing Guantanamo and ending the drone strikes as the Secret Service and FBI surrounded me, and grabbed at my arms. I told them in a low voice “I’m having a dialogue with the President. You really don’t want to pull me out, because that will be very, very bad for everybody” and that bought me a little more time.

It was clear he was listening, and he responded graciously. “The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to,” he said. “I’m willing to cut [her] some slack because it’s worth being passionate about this. Is this who we are? Is that something our Founders foresaw?”

One year later, though, these profound questions still weigh heavily on our nation. While the President announced that he was appointing new senior envoys to deal with the Guantanamo fiasco, merely 12 prisoners have been released all year, leaving 154 men still locked up. Shamefully, 77 of them were cleared for release years ago—meaning the US government has deemed them innocent or not a threat to Americans—but remain behind bars. Most of the others are still held without trial. The President’s inability to secure fair trials or the release of cleared prisoners continues to exact an unbearable human toll.

Regarding drone attacks, the President pledged in his speech to only target terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people and only when there is “near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.” From 2012 to 2013, the number of attacks in Pakistan has indeed decreased by almost 50% (from 50 strikes to 27), which is a positive development. But in Yemen, there has been a spike of new strikes and according to the Yemeni legal group HOOD, most of the militant suspects killed could have been captured and tried instead. And the promise to carefully guard civilian lives proved empty when drone missiles tragically hit a wedding party on December 12, leaving twelve innocent party-goers dead.

President Obama said that the deaths of innocent people from the drone attacks will haunt him as long as he lives. But he is still unwilling to acknowledge those deaths, apologize to the families, or compensate them.

In that May 23 speech, the President talked about the controversial drone strike that killed American-born cleric Anwar Awlaki. He announced that he had authorized “the declassification of this action, and the deaths of three other Americans in drone strikes to facilitate transparency and debate on this issue.” On May 20 the administration announced that it would declassify one of the drone memos, complying with an April 21 court order–– but did not say when this would happen. Obama awarded the drone memo author, David Barron, with a federal judgeship.

In another move to crush transparency, the Obama administration has taken the over 6,000-page report on the use of torture during the Bush years, laboriously researched by the Senate Intelligence Committee, and placed it in the hands of the very entity that carried out the torture, the CIA, to redact before making it public. Many believe the torture report will never see the light of day or will be so edited as to make it worthless.

Meanwhile, both Guantanamo and drone attacks have become recruiting tools that have helped  embolden terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and increased anti-American sentiment worldwide. The military hammer the US government has been using against terrorist suspects for over 12 years has not succeeded in eliminating al-Qaeda; it has helped spawn a resurgence of terrorist groups across war-torn Middle East and now into Africa.

The President’s speech included a profound assertion that “from our use of drones to the detention of terrorist suspects, the decisions we are making will define the type of nation and world that we leave to our children.” So far, that legacy is full of tears, war debt, and broken promises.

Martin Luther King III, the eldest son of the great Reverend King, recently spoke to a congregation in Oakland, California about drones. “I am saddened that enough of us have not raised up our voices and constructively said something about what President Obama is doing with these drones,” he preached. “The generals are telling him we’ve got to do this. But the community has to rise up and say that’s not who we as Americans are. That doesn’t mean that you denigrate and criticize the President in a negative way, but we certainly have to challenge. That is what Martin Luther King Jr. would be doing. He would be challenging the nation to become a better nation.”

That, indeed, is the lesson we should learn on the anniversary of the President’s address. There are many ways to be heard–not all of us have the chance to interrupt the President, but we all have the power to stand up and speak out. Write a letter to the White House or the editor of your local paper; visit your congressperson or get out on a street corner with a sign. Get involved with peace groups like CODEPINK. Find your own way to rise up and challenge our nation to become a better nation.

Medea Benjamin is cofounder of the peace group CODEPINK and Global Exchange, and author of Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control.

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