Saturday, September 11, 2021

Drone War Crimes

Looks like our Forever War isn’t really over, even after the chaotic and terribly bungled withdrawal of the last US troops from Afghanistan. President Biden has said that we retain a strong “over the horizon” capability in the region to defend our interests and attack terrorists who are planning harm to America and Americans. 

That term—over the horizon—refers, in part, to our fleet of aerial drones armed with bombs, air-to-air missiles, and rockets. The pilots of these drones are often stationed at Creech Air Force Base near Las Vegas, Nevada. They drive to work, park their cars, and then step inside to operate drones more than 7,000 miles away over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and who-knows-where-else. These pilots can fire missiles at vehicles and buildings on the ground to kill people and then drive home for dinner with their families. (Think about that for a second—they can kill people from thousands of miles away with the push of a button and then get back in their cars and drive home to see their kids. “Hi Mommy! How was work today!?”) 

The United States has been using drones in this way since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, where Predator drones carrying anti-tank missiles were operated by the CIA. You can see why drone warfare is attractive to US Presidents. Drone surveillance and attacks can be carried out from a distance, without need for ground troops, special ops forces, or CIA operatives to be in-country and in danger. Americans don’t like when our soldiers are killed in faraway places during military engagements that don’t seem to have a clear purpose. 

The reaction to tens of thousands of US troops dying in Vietnam and the growing disillusionment with the Forever War in Afghanistan make it evident that these sorts of sacrifices of US lives for unclear goals are not supported by a large percentage of the US population. 

President Obama understood this and ramped up the US drone war exponentially compared to George Bush’s use of drones. Obama ordered ten times as many counterterrorism strikes as his predecessor. Many of these strikes were in countries the US was not at war with—Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. 

Can you imagine the uproar there would be in America if China were to start launching drone attacks in Afghanistan or Nepal or Thailand in the name of their national security? We would call them savage attacks and decry the inevitable killing of civilians. 

Policymakers like to describe these drone attacks as “surgical,” “precise,” and “targeted.” Generals and Presidents will sometimes take to a microphone to lament the sad loss of innocent lives that is inevitable when these sorts of attacks are launched. Military leaders use the term “collateral damage” to describe the terrible deaths and maimings of unintended victims of these attacks. But in the very next breath they will talk about the threat posed by the intended victim, as if that justifies the loss of innocent lives. 

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that between 2010 and 2020 there were more than 14,000 confirmed US drone strikes around the world. Those strikes have killed somewhere between 1000 and 2300 civilians in addition to the roughly 10,000 enemy combatants. (The numbers are hard to narrow down, since the US rarely confirms anything to do with these attacks.) 

Best estimates are that at least 300 children have been killed by US drones since 2010. 

This all came to mind today as we mourn on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on innocent US civilians simply going about their lives on that clear September morning. It was shocking—both the audacity of the plan and the fact that civilians were targeted. It lit a righteous (and justified) desire for revenge. 

Alongside the remembrances of 9/11, I saw in the paper today a report that the people killed in the US drone attack outside of Kabul Airport a few weeks ago were most likely NOT carrying explosives. It somehow seems fitting that the final missile launched in the 20-year US war in Afghanistan targeted a man—Zemari Ahmadi--who worked for a US aid group. He had placed canisters of water in his trunk to bring to his family. His car was hit by a missile launched from a Reaper drone, killing the driver and ten others in the vicinity. Seven of those ten were children. 

If you are an American and the loss of close to 3000 people on 9/11 makes you angry, think of how the people in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, and Afghanistan must feel when their neighbors and children are killed by US drone strikes. 

Four US Presidents have made the calculated decision to rely on drones to do the dirty work of war. And in so doing they have killed hundreds of civilians. George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden have launched thousands of attacks killing hundreds of civilians. To me, all four men are war criminals. 

We like to see ourselves as a beacon on a hill, a shining example, a nation with the moral authority to lead the world. And at our best we are all these things. 

The Drone War is us at our worst. It kills innocents, it fosters hatred for America in the non-combatant populations of these countries, and it does terrible moral injury to the pilots of these drones back in Nevada. We as a nation are asking them to do our dirty work and just keep it to themselves. We don’t want to see the blood on our hands and four US Presidents have gone along with the ruse. 

On this twentieth anniversary of 9/11, while I mourn the dead in the World Trade Center towers and in the Pentagon and on Flight 93, it is clear that we need to stop. We need to stop raining death down on civilians. We know what it feels like and it is simply time to stop.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Vote Like Somebody's Life Depends On It


It is not hyperbole to say that November’s Presidential Election in the United States is the most consequential election we have had in many years. Some people might argue that 2016 was more consequential, but I disagree. In 2016, we could still hope that maybe the Office of the President would work some magic on Donald Trump---that he would come to understand the importance of empathy and kindness and compromise and expertise and actual leadership.


Sadly, rather than the Office magically changing Donald Trump for the better, his presence has tainted the Office and done actual long-term damage to the country. He has shown himself to be singularly unqualified to be President. To him, everything is about raw power. To Donald Trump, you do something simply because you can, not because it is right thing to do. He is a crude, small person with mean instincts, little curiosity, and no heart.


Now that we have all seen who he is, with no room left for interpretation or spin, this November’s election has become a referendum on the soul of America. It will answer the question: What kind of a country are we?


To choose four more years of uninformed and destructive policies, belittling language, craven kissing up to dictators, personal enrichment, and the politics of chaos would tell me that America is dead. We would no longer be the country I was proud to represent as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Yemen.


If you have watched the past four years and you are satisfied with the job Donald Trump has done, then I cannot change your mind. All I can ask of you is that you stay home on Election Day.


If, however, you are eligible to vote and are thinking about voting for someone other than Joe Biden or Donald Trump—or not voting at all---please read the next few paragraphs.




Because the future of our country is at stake. If you are thinking about not voting, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE think again. There are many people whose lives will be worse if Donald Trump wins. And by “worse” I don’t mean that their taxes might be a little higher or that there might be some policy changes that make life a little bit harder for them. I mean worse as in they will feel unsafe. I know many Trump fans like to make fun of people’s feelings, but by “unsafe” I mean truly at risk for maltreatment and harm. They will feel like the country they live in actively dislikes them and wants to hurt them. And they would be right.


It is no exaggeration to say that we are on the brink of fascism in this country. Donald Trump is a wannabe strongman who thinks the way to be a good leader is to force your will on anyone who will not do what you want them to do. He is ignorant of American history, has no idea what the Constitution actually says, and seems to believe a President should be able to do whatever he wants to do.


This is why he sides with bad cops when they abuse their power. You can hear the wheels turning in his head—“If those people had just done what they were told to do, they’d be fine.” This is the argument of people who can expect to be treated fairly by the system. Many people in the United States today have no expectation of fairness from the system—and they are smart to feel this way. The deck is stacked in this country against the poor, against the gay, against the person with an accent, against people with dark skin, against anyone who makes the white power structure feel threatened.


If you are thinking of not voting, please reconsider and think about the people who need your support and your protection. With the small effort it would take to go and vote for Joe Biden, you can help protect people who, through no fault of their own, are at risk in a second Trump term. You don’t even have to go anywhere to vote. You can do it from home with a mail-in ballot. PLEASE think about this as you decide whether to vote.


If you are thinking about voting for someone other than Joe Biden or Donald Trump---especially if you live in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Arizona, or Iowa---PLEASE hear me out. I have to be blunt because this really matters: your philosophical purity is less important than your Black neighbor’s life. It really is. So please consider voting for Joe Biden instead of anyone else. I know it feels wrong and maybe even painful to vote for someone as corporatist and middle-of-the-road as Joe Biden, but, if you are white and leaning third party, please understand that this particular election IS NOT ABOUT YOU.


This is the election where you get to prove that other people’s lives matter by voting as if their lives depend on it. Because they just might.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

The Murder of Ahmaud Arbery

Right now, Ahmaud Arbery should be wondering if his parents got him anything for his 26th birthday tomorrow. What with the corona virus and the recent lifting of the lockdown policies in his home state of Georgia and the general nervousness about social distancing, maybe his mother and father would not have had the time or the willingness to venture out into the world to find their son a present.

Ahmaud should be having these thoughts as he himself ventures out and takes a run from his home in Brunswick, Georgia, through Satilla Hills, and back to Brunswick. These runs give him time to think. They also keep him in shape for that day when (maybe) he finally takes the last step and becomes a boxer.

Tragically---criminally—Ahmaud Arbery is not wondering anything today.

Ahmaud Arbery was murdered by a father and son who saw him jogging through Satilla Hills, assumed he was a burglar, chased him down in their truck, and shot him. This happened almost three months ago: A black man went for a jog and was killed by two white men who assumed he was a thief.

This happened back on February 23, 2020---roughly 75 days ago. Most of us are just hearing about this now for one reason: there is video of the shooting. And that video was leaked in the past few days. The video has since gone viral and the murder has received national and international coverage. Before the video came out the killing had not made much of an impression beyond Georgia.

This is 2020, not 1897. Black men and women were lynched in the past under all sorts of pretenses. According to the American Social History Project, “Across the South, someone was hanged or burned alive every four days from 1889 to 1929, according to the 1933 book The Tragedy of Lynching, for such alleged crimes as ‘stealing hogs, horse-stealing, poisoning mules, jumping labor contract, suspected of stealing cattle, boastful remarks’ or ‘trying to act like a white man.’ One was killed for stealing seventy-five cents.”

Ahmaud Arbery was lynched because two white men with deep ties to local law enforcement decided on the spot to grab their guns and be judge, jury, and executioner---all in the span of just a few minutes.

And those two white men? Surely they were charged with murder, right? Or at the very least arrested?

Nope. Not one thing has happened to them yet. The local prosecutor has finally recommended that a grand jury be given the evidence and asked to approve charges. Due to the corona virus, a grand jury cannot be convened until June 12.  By then, the murderers will have been walking around free for almost four months AFTER killing a man in cold blood.

If I were a black man, I imagine I would live my life full of fear and anger about a culture and a system where shocking injustices like this happen far too often. How many times do they happen but there is no video so nobody ever hears about them? It took almost three months for this video to come out, even though the local police had it since the day Ahmaud Arbery was murdered.

This is America.

When will it stop? When will White America stand up and say “Enough is enough”? Black Americans are not the problem here. The problem is a deeply-entrenched system with the wrong priorities. Protecting the status quo should not be Job One of law enforcement and the criminal justice system, yet far too often that is the case.

And since the status quo benefits White America far more than Black America, very little changes. Things will not change until White America refuses to go along with the system that leads to such skewed enforcement of the law. The White people of Brunswick and the rest of Georgia need to join the Black people already gathering to make it clear this is not about Black people venting anger---it’s about citizens finally getting mad enough to demand changes.

Far too often, people protesting racism in America are described as anti-American. (see: Colin Kaepernick) Do the people who use that term even get the meaning of what they are saying? They are saying “How dare you protest racism, since racism IS America.” In other words, to be against racism is to be against America.

White America, can we please just stand up and say “Enough. No more profiling and beating and killing in my name.”

I am going to run 2.23 miles tomorrow to celebrate the life and birthday of Ahmaud Arbery. It’s a mostly-meaningless gesture in the end, but it’s a thing I can do with my anger right now. And then I have committed to being more brave and outspoken about calling out racism when I see it in my own self, my own friends, and my own town. Asking Black Americans to end racism is like asking women to end sexism. It has to be White Americans that finally make a reckoning with this country’s deep-seated issues with race and demand changes from each other.

I will not mention the killers by name here. They do not deserve to be known. They deserve to be arrested and jailed.

Update: the father and son were arrested on Thursday, May 7, 2020.

Saturday, January 25, 2020


I have been watching and listening to the impeachment trial of Donald John Trump the past few days, but this morning was the first time I happened to catch the opening prayer delivered by the Senate chaplain, Barry C. Black.

I was floored. I mean, it took my breath away. I could not believe what I was hearing. Maybe I have been away from organized religion such a long time that I have forgotten just how involved in the affairs of humans God is thought to be. I literally did a small shocked spit-take with my coffee when I heard the chaplain’s words.

If I can find a full transcript I will post it below, but in the meantime I have found the video here: (Chaplain Black’s prayer starts at the 1:02:50 mark and runs less than two minutes.) He started by asking that God “unite our Senators in their striving to do Your will.” And then went on to say “We trust the power of Your prevailing providence to bring this impeachment trial to the conclusion you desire.” 

My first reaction was, “Wait, does this gentleman really think that the 100 Senators in the chamber are truly striving to do God’s will?”

My second reaction was, “Does Chaplain Black actually believe that God has a desired outcome to this impeachment trial?”

I am sure there may be a few United States Senators who are sincerely striving to do God’s will. On a day when I am feeling generous, I would put the number at no more than 10. A person does not rise through the party system in America and get to be a Senator without a whole bunch of compromising along the way---no matter which party they are in. The twin needs to raise funds and to appeal to the base leave far too many opportunities for ethical compromise for a sitting US Senator to have much claim to “striving to do God’s will.”

But I get it. Maybe Chaplain Black was appealing to their best selves and reminding them of what they want to believe about themselves.

The next part is a little trickier for me to understand. Do people really think that God has a “desired outcome” for this trial of Donald John Trump? Is God a cheerleader who really hopes (and prays?) for things to happen? Giod is all-powerful, right? And if you believe in God’s omnipotence, then whatever way the trial turns out IS God’s desired outcome, no?

There is a real danger in believing that whatever happens is God’s desired outcome. It feels to me like the believer’s version of that pabulum I hear so frequently “It is what it is.” Of course Donald Trump will be found Not Guilty. Is that because it is God’s desired outcome? Or might it have something to do with the political prospects of 100 Senators?

I do not believe in God, but if I did, she’d be pretty angry at what is going on in D.C. these days.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Pointing My Skis Downhill

I have never liked skiing very much. I did not grow up in a family that skied. The first time I went was in college and I was not very good. Then as a 30-year old I went skiing in Montana with Erica and her brother.  They took me way up to the top of a Bridger Bowl intermediate level ski run and told me it would be fine.

It wasn't fine.

It took me at least an hour to make it to the bottom and it was hell. Whenever I would point my skis downhill I would start to pick up speed and panic. I felt out of control. I DO NOT like to feel out of control, so I would snowplow or turn parallel to the hill and slide across the face until I stopped. In this way, I ever-so-slowly got to the bottom of the run.

Fast forward ten years: I am teaching at an elementary school in New Haven and we take our kids skiing at Mt. Southington.  (There are no mountains in Connecticut, so Mt. Southington is misnamed--it's really just a big hill.) The gym teacher arranged the trip each year and I got to go as a chaperone for my 6th graders.  There was no pressure on me to ski, so I had room to go and learn at my own pace and in my own way.

Even given that freedom to learn at my own pace, it still took three trips for me to discover something essential:  the only way to get better at skiing would be to let my skis point downhill. Yes, if I did I would pick up speed and Yes, it would feel scary. But nothing terrible would happen. I could always just turn and slow down if it felt too bad. Or I'd fall. Then I'd get back up and keep skiing.

I got much better at skiing after that.

The underlying lesson—that to get better at something you sometimes have to feel bad at it, (and maybe even out of control), is coming in handy years later.

I recently took up acting as a thing I do. It has been a revelation. I started acting lessons precisely because I wanted to do something that would be hard and scary. And it has been both of these things. But it has also been a way to understand myself and other people better. In order to be someone else on-stage or on-camera I have to have a good sense of what that person is thinking and feeling and then I have to find ways to convey that interior state to an audience using my face and my body as much as the words of the script.

I have been in two acting class showcases, two short plays, and six student films in the past year.  I have liked being in the films. But I have LOVED being in the showcases and the plays. There is something about being on stage in front of a live audience that is so thrilling.  The first time I performed in front of an audience there were 80 people in the crowd in an intimate theater at Cornell’s Risley Hall. Just before I took the stage I felt so nervous I was shaking and my mouth was entirely dry.
The applause for the scene before mine ended and I stepped out onto the stage. I took a deep breath and let the words of the script take over. Before I knew it, the scene was done, people were clapping, and I left the stage. I have no specific recollections of my five minutes performing the scene. The script and the scene had a gravity of their own—just like a ski run—and I had pointed my skis downhill and let them take me.

It was exhilarating.

In my three chances to be on stage since then, the same thing has happened each time. I work very hard to memorize my lines, so that when it is time to go, I don’t have to think about them at all. I also work hard to come to an understanding of who the character is that is speaking the lines. These characters are not me so when the gravity hits it can’t just be me up there saying lines. It has to be real in the context of the scene.

Once the lights have come up I have been able to turn downhill and let things play out without fear or even self-awareness. I have seen videos of these performances after the fact. They’re not bad. If I were in the audience, I would not be thinking, “that guy really sucks.”

A few weekends ago I was filming a scene for an Ithaca College student film. It is called “Assassin Camp” and I had a small role as a dorky dad who is sending his high school son off to Film Camp. There is a scene where I drive my boy to the college where camp is being held, pull up in front, and get out to give him an incredibly awkward hug. And then, as he walks away, I yell out “Knock ‘em dead!” while I thrust out a big thumbs up.

We filmed the first take and the director said, “Give me more on the thumbs up.” So we filmed it again and I thought I gave him more. He called “Cut!” and said “Even bigger. There is no such thing as too big with this line.” So we filmed it again. And again I was too restrained. Finally, I remembered the idea of pointing my skis downhill and the director said, “let’s just do this ten different times and play with it—go HUGE!”

So I did and if felt great. I had to turn off any inner voice I was hearing and simply be that dorkiest of all dads and then just let it rip.

Being me, I often get stuck in the mistaken belief that there is one right way to do something. Combine this belief with a real fear of being bad at things and you have a recipe for paralyzing self-doubt and inaction. From the outside this often looks like passivity or an unwillingness to actually do anything. My experience of these moments where I really want to be taking an action or trying a new thing is anything but passive.

My interior monologue runs something like this:

“I know I need to be doing something right now. Why aren’t I doing it? What is wrong with me? Shit? What is wrong with me? Okay—I’m going to count to three and then I’m just going to do it….one…two…thr—but wait, something just changed…maybe now is not the right time.  And maybe the thing is the wrong thing.....I’ll do it later. Yeah—this is definitely NOT the right time…..I will surely do it later.”

It can go on like this for a very long time. Days. Weeks. Years, in some cases.

But now, when I find myself spinning my internal wheels like this, I can break into the monologue and remind myself to turn the skis and be okay feeling a little out of control.