“Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace.”
Painting a portrait takes time; to hurry is to court mistakes. My rule is to be passionate but patient, leaving time to ruminate as I struggle to get the precise glint in the eye, curve the lips just so, and shape the highlight on the bridge of the nose to fit its contour.
Daniel Hale, whose portrait I’ve been painting, is the Air Force drone whistleblower who felt compelled by conscience to release classified documents showing that nearly 90% of drone assassination victims are civilians, innocent people, murdered with his help. He couldn’t live with that. Daniel knew that releasing this material would bring the wrath of the government down on him. He would be indicted under the Espionage Act, as though he were a spy, and face years in prison. Now, he has been sentenced to 45 months for truth telling. He said what he feared more than jail was the temptation not to question these drone murders. His military duty was to keep silent. But what kind of person doesn’t question the actions he is responsible for? Is his life of more value than the people being killed? He said, “The answer came to me, that to stop the cycle of violence, I ought to sacrifice my own life and not that of another person.”
The U.S. excuses itself from the jurisdiction of international law … to shield ourselves from assaults on our myth of perpetual goodness.
When I was a kid, I thought nothing of trodding on ants, long columns of tiny brown and black ants, reconnoitering for food, others returning, carrying crumbs or bits of other insects—a grasshopper’s leg, a fly’s wing. I had no respect for them as living beings, no sense of them as miraculous products of evolution with an intricate social organization, no sense that they had as much right to their existence as myself.
And they were heedless of my overwhelming power.
My general cultural sense was that insects were bad, injurious to humans, carrying disease or damaging our food or being simply creepy, sneaking into our houses to unsettle us with their creepiness, the way they swarmed to anything sweet and left behind, my mother claimed, insidious diseases. To smash a little insect was, if not a righteous act, at least one that might make the world better for human habitation. I had never been taught that they lived in the same web of life that included me and my welfare. I was not taught to marvel at the fact of their existence. Nor had I intuited that on my own. I was not taught to greet them as brother and sister ant. Vengeance on insects was ethical, gratitude for them ridiculous.
Why am I even thinking about this? The other day I watched Sonia Kennebeck’s documentary National Bird (2016) about three drone operator whistleblowers, including Daniel Hale. Their conscientious grief at what they had been doing was made emphatically real in interviews with civilian Afghans who had been the targets of U.S. drone strikes, some survivors, some relatives of the killed, some maimed victims themselves. The footage in the film of what the drones see before launching their missiles at cars and trucks and buses and houses and gatherings was startling. Not clear, but grainy, smudgy, black and white, people riding or walking, seen from far above and so foreshortened that they looked like awkward small insects, not human at all, more like ants.
We are all aware that wars are enabled by our unfortunate capacity to dehumanize our enemy. Fear and anger, contempt and propaganda reduce enemies to the status of swarming insects intent on biting, stinging, killing us. What we don’t so easily recognize is that in our righteous willingness to unleash terrible indiscriminate weapons on them, we have similarly dehumanized ourselves. Could fully human people ever justify drone attacks, dismiss the murder of numerous civilians in order to eradicate one person suspected of a desire to cause harm to Americans? And how human was my eight year old self smashing a column of ants intent solely on feeding themselves?
Americans have been indoctrinated that the technology of the cameras is so advanced that an operator could distinguish a smile from a frown, an AK-47 from a rahab (a traditional musical instrument), certainly a man from a woman, an eight year old from a teenager, the guilty from the not. Hardly. The operators don’t really know. Nor do their prejudices allow them to know. In the film we hear them guessing. Teenagers are de facto enemy combatants, children are, well, children, but who really cares? And what’s a, maybe, twelve year old? Better to err on the side of combatant. All of them are ants and, as we like to say, at the end of the day, disassembled ants pose no threat. Turns out the only thing the drone camera sees is ants.
The U.S. government charged Daniel Hale with stealing government property, classified information which detailed the extent of civilian death by drone attack. The government assumes that if people in hostile or potentially hostile countries knew that we willingly justify collateral murder, they might want vengeance, or even feel morally bound to exact it. Our government might further assume that fair-minded Americans might be similarly outraged and demand an end to drone assassinations. The Espionage Act, as it is used against Daniel Hale, is not a code of ethical law but bringing propaganda under legal control. Nor is this about U.S. security, except to the extent that having lots of people know you are performing horribly immoral acts tends to make one less secure. Daniel Hale was sworn to keep the true nature of U.S. drone atrocity secret.
Our government practices a variety of narcissism twisted with cynicism and cold-heartedness based on the idea that if people can’t see what you do, they will give what you say the benefit of the doubt.
The policy of secrecy is a form of narcissism. We want desperately to respect ourselves and have other people respect us not for who we are but for who we pretend to be—exceptional, freedom loving, democracy embracing, law abiding, kind folks inhabiting the mansion on the hill who necessarily carry a big stick for the good of all.
So, the reason we keep our crimes against humanity secret is not to protect ourselves from international law—the U.S. excuses itself from the jurisdiction of international law. It’s to shield ourselves from assaults on our myth of perpetual goodness. Our government practices a variety of narcissism twisted with cynicism and cold-heartedness based on the idea that if people can’t see what you do, they will give what you say the benefit of the doubt. If people can be conditioned to think we are good, we must be.
While painting, I was trying to understand the similarity between Daniel Hale and Darnella Frazier, the young woman who had the presence of mind to take video of Derek Chauvin murdering George Floyd. Chauvin was a protector and enforcer of state power. For years racist violence by that power has been enacted with impunity because the state itself is structured by racism. Murdering people of color was not a real crime. The missile on the drone, doing what state power does all around the world, kills civilians like George Floyd with no repercussions. Until technology made it possible for civilians to record the state committing racist crimes within the U.S., such crimes were effectively classified because courts favored the false testimony of police. So, Daniel Hale attempts to be like Darnella Frazier, a witness to murder, but the rules of secrecy forbid him to be a witness. What if, after the killing of George Floyd, the four cops had sworn all the witnesses to secrecy, claiming this was protected police business? What if the cops had snatched Darnella’s camera and smashed it or deleted the video or arrested her for spying on police business? After that, the cops are the default credible witness. In Hale’s case, president Obama goes on TV and vehemently proclaims that the U.S. is extremely careful to kill only targeted terrorists with drones. Without Darnella Daniel Frazier Hale, that lie becomes the truth.
What if, after the killing of George Floyd, the four cops had sworn all the witnesses to secrecy, claiming this was protected police business?
The question that rankles is why did people react so passionately to the injustice of George Floyd’s killing, but not to the visual evidence of U.S. drones killing innocent men, women, and children in a manner that can only be described as equally callous and even more vicious. Do Arab lives not matter? Or is there another kind of narcissism operating here—George Floyd was of our tribe, the Afghans are not. Similarly, although most people admit the Vietnam War was a U.S. state criminal enterprise, we remember the 58,000 Americans killed in Vietnam, but ignore the 3 to 4 million Vietnamese, Laos and Cambodians.
I came across this quote from Amelia Earhart while painting Daniel Hale: “Courage is the price life exacts for granting peace.” My first thought was that she was talking about making peace outside oneself—peace between people, communities, between nations. But perhaps an equally essential peace is the peace made with oneself by having the courage to align one’s actions with one’s conscience and ideals.
To do that may be one of the hardest and most important goals of a worthy life. A life that seeks to align itself that way must stand in steadfast opposition to the power that wants to control it, break it into accepting being a member of the silent herd, a herd inured to the daily violence power uses to maintain itself and its profit. Such a life assumes what we might call an exquisite burden. This burden accepts the heavy consequences of insisting on the dictates of conscience. This burden is our triumph, our ultimate dignity and cannot be taken away from us no matter how powerful our oppressor. That’s the exquisite part, the brilliant burnish courage gives to the ethical choice. What’s exquisite is the light one shines on truth. Daniel Hale feared the temptation not to question the drone policy. Complicity was the opposite burden he feared, the sacrifice of his moral autonomy and dignity. Power assumes that your greatest fear is putting yourself at its mercy. (Funny, that word ‘mercy;’ power remains power by its willingness to be merciless.) Daniel Hale feared not separating himself from the ruthless immorality of drone policy more than he feared being sent to prison. By making himself vulnerable to power, he defeats it. That burden is exquisite.
The military offered Hale stability, community and mission. It also demanded of him participation in atrocity. And secrecy.
I’m not in the business of painting saints. I love how fallible we all are, how we have to struggle—with ourselves, with our culture—for our ethical victories. But when a person acts as Daniel Hale has, insists on his conscience in defiance of the will of power, he is blessed with a measure of purity. Such a blessing can lift all the rest of us if we are willing to support him, help him carry his exquisite burden. In jointly shouldering that burden is also the hope of democracy. Marcus Raskin, the co-founder of the Institute of Policy Studies, put it this way: “Democracy and its operative principle, the rule of law, require a ground on which to stand. That ground is the truth. When the government lies, or is structured like our national security state to promote lies and self-deception, then our official structures have broken faith with the security state to promote lies and self-deception, then our official structures have broken faith with the essential precondition for constitutional government in democracy.”
Daniel Hale was homeless when he joined the Air Force. A gentle young man from a dysfunctional family. The military offered him stability, community and mission. It also demanded of him participation in atrocity. And secrecy. Demanded that he commit moral suicide. The quote from him that I have etched into his painting says:
“With drone warfare, sometimes nine out of ten people killed are innocent. You have to kill part of your conscience to do your job … But what possibly could I have done to cope with the undeniable cruelties that I perpetuated? The thing I feared most … was the temptation not to question it. So I contacted an investigative reporter … and told him I had something the American people needed to know.”
This essay also appeared in Common Dreams.