Friday, August 10, 2012

At Drone Convention, Zero Tolerance for Peace

When are we, as a nation, going to have a frank discussion about drones and remote-controlled killing? One might think that such a dialogue could take place when thousands of people come together, once a year, at the gathering of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). Wrong.

Activists staged a die-in (Image: CodePink))
But AUVSI, the lobby group for the drone industry, brooked no dissent at its August 6-9 Las Vegas Convention. When I, as author of a new book Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control, tried to rent a room at the Convention Center to give a presentation on my book, AUVSI vetoed my request. When I tried to register as a journalist, I was told that I did not meet their criteria, but they refused to say what that criteria was. And after registering online as a normal participant and paying the $200 fee, when I appeared to get my badge I was yanked off the line, surrounded by police, and told I would be arrested if I set foot in the Convention Center during the duration of the gathering.

The same thing happened to Father Louie Vitale, an 80-year-old Franciscan priest who had registered and pre-paid for the conference. Father Vitale is known for his dignified, faith-driven stance against war, including drone killing. “There’s something from my Air Force days that fascinates me about drones, which is one of the reasons I wanted to get in to see the exhibits,” said Father Vitale, “but I also wanted to have conversations with some of the drone manufacturers and operators.” That was not to be. Unprovoked, Father Vitale found himself surrounded by Convention Security and Las Vegas police, who threatened him with arrest.

CODEPINK supporter and writer Tighe Barry flew all the way from Washington DC to attend the conference. Pre-registration confirmation in hand, he was given his badge, only to find it snatched away from him 20 minutes later. “I was sitting quietly in a session on the integration of drones into US airspace when I was grabbed by security agents and pulled out of the room. How sick is that?” said Barry. “These people are crazy!”

A few peace activists did not get immediately stopped by AUVSI’s thuggish security, but two of them were banned when they dared to simply ask a few probing questions to the exhibitors at the booth of General Atomics, the company making the lethal Predator and Reaper drones. “I was merely asking if the company feels any responsibility when its products are used to kill innocent people in places like Pakistan and Yemen,” said Jim Haber of Nevada Desert Experience, a group that has been peacefully protesting nuclear weapons for decades.

Janis Sevre-Duszynska, a writer for National Catholic Reporter, was allowed inside but was overwhelmed by the experience. “Walking through the exhibit hall was surreal. It is all about performance, speed, targets and sales—nothing about consequences,” said Sevre-Duszynska. “It felt like a war zone, and I felt like an alien. There didn’t seem to be others who were questioning the deadly uses of this technology.” More