A week before President Barack Obama gave his first public speech on the nation’s top-secret program of drone strikes and targeted killings in the “War on Terror,” the American Catholic bishops sent a poignant letter to top government officials, saying the policy — which has reportedly killed thousands of people, including hundreds of men, women and children noncombatants in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia — raises “serious moral concerns.”In his May 17 letter on behalf of U.S. bishops, Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, wrote, “Targeted killing should, by definition, be highly discriminatory. The Administration’s policy appears to extend the use of deadly force to alleged ‘signature’ attacks [on suspected extremists] and reportedly classifies all males of a certain age as combatants. Are these policies morally defensible? They seem to violate the law of war, international human rights law and moral norms.” The chairman of the bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace readily acknowledged that the United States, like other nations, has a right to defend itself. However, he stated the success of a “counterterrorism campaign cannot be simply measured in terms of combatants killed.” And the prelate stressed that civilian casualties caused by drone attacks are “likely to exacerbate anti-American sentiment, encourage recruitment of extremists and undermine the international collaboration necessary to combat terrorism.” Bishop Pates urged the lawmakers to open up the whole drone use policy to public discussion to come up with a “more comprehensive, moral and effective policy to resist terrorism.”In a 50-minute major policy speech on May 23, President Obama said the remote-controlled drone program he inherited from President George W. Bush, and enormously expanded, would be reduced to a much more restrictive use of the missile-carrying UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). The new narrower criteria, the president said at Washington’s National Defense University, targets drones against terrorists who pose a “continuing and imminent threat to the American people.”Only a year ago, John Brennan, then-White House counter-terrorism advisor who designed the current drone program and is now CIA director, boldly declared that drone strikes may be used to thwart any “significant threat to U.S. interests” — a much broader paradigm.The President also stated there had to be a “near certainty” no civilians would be injured or killed before a UAV could be launched with its Hellfire missiles. So the strikes — which have already decreased sharply from 2010, when there were 121 attacks in Pakistan and Yemen — would likely continue to drop. (Thirteen strikes in Pakistan and 10 in Yemen have taken place this year, according to the Long War Journal, a website tracking drone attacks.)But Obama made clear that drone attacks — which he declared are discriminant and proportional and, thereby, “just” weapons — will still play a strategic role in the War on Terror, but that there will be less of them. In addition, he put some closure on the nearly 12-year mission, which has cost billions of U.S. dollars and thousands of American lives, to defeat Al Qaeda. “Our systemic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue; but this war, like all war, must end,” he said. “We must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror’ but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.”Moreover, he reported the Defense Department is taking back control of most of the drone operation from the CIA. As a result, there will be more transparency of the operation then under the spy agency.     A ‘struggling’ presidentFather Chris Ponnet, who heads the Los Angeles chapter of the Catholic peace movement Pax Christi, said it appeared that the President was almost having an internal philosophical dialogue with himself during his speech at the military college. And that’s something he can identify with, having studied philosophy in the seminary.“Obama seems to be publicly struggling with a variety of values,” the director of the department of spiritual care at the Los Angeles County/USC Medical Center and pastor of St. Camillus Center for Pastoral Care told The Tidings. “And I appreciate the fact that he’s struggling with this. Some leaders would not even talk about it. And I appreciate that civilian deaths ‘haunt’ him. I would hope that would haunt us as a country. “But as a Christian who believes in the nonviolent Jesus, I don’t agree with his conclusion that he can use the language of the Just War Theory to say that it’s proportionate and targeted, and, therefore, just. I mean, clearly we’re in a new period of time with war that’s very different from the times of Augustine and Aquinas, who first thought about what constitutes a just war. “I don’t buy it because I don’t think we’ve done everything and drone strikes are a last resort,” he pointed out. “Clearly, his administration has done a lot of things and I’m not disagreeing with that. There’s definitely been more diplomatic maneuvers. But with modern technology, why can’t they find and capture these suspected bad guys, and try them in courts of law? That would be a real nonviolent example for the world to see.”Father Ponnet says it’s good the number of drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia have steadily gone down in the last few years. But, he added, that doesn’t let the President or CIA director John Brennan, a practicing Catholic, off the hook.“You might say the same thing about abortions or death penalty executions decreasing, so we don’t need to do anything more about these two other life issues,” he observed. “God would invite us to move to that place where our primary strategy agenda is to eliminate what is bad entirely.” The priest hopes an international body — maybe the United Nations or NATO — would sponsor a serious conversation about the meaning of controlling borders and national security interests: “What does it mean in a time when not only do a few nations have weapons of mass destruction but also now even more countries have this capacity to target specific people?”  Then he would like to see the development of binding legal standards for the production, use and proliferation of armed drones. Many other Catholic figures and organizations have spoken out recently against the United States employing drone strikes. Jesuit activist Father John Dear blogged on National Catholic Reporter-online that he has long been pondering the “criminal commitment” to drone warfare by the Obama administration. “Since my arrest at the Creech Air Force Base [near Indian Springs, Nevada], the national drone headquarters, and my recent trip to Afghanistan, where I heard many stories of relatives who lost loved ones from our drones, I’m convinced these drones are destroying us, too — spiritually. As someone once said, ‘Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.’”Franciscans for Justice, which tracked drone “kills” in Pakistan since 2004, estimates the total count at 3,115. Out of that disturbing number, only 47 (1.5 percent) have been so-called “high profile” terrorists. Some 2,350 (75.7 percent) were simply unknown extremists, while 535 (17.2 percent) have been civilian men and women, and 175 (5 percent) children:“Drones are used to target high profile people, but the reality is that many more civilians are killed or wounded,” the group’s “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” report noted.Last December, Pax Christi International issued a statement concerning “killer robot” drones. It pointed out how the U.S. government was setting dangerous precedents for other governments, including the violation of other countries’ sovereignty: “To execute people without due process or an opportunity to surrender should violate the moral and legal sensibilities of people who claim to believe in the value of every human life and the right to a fair trial. The legality and morality of killing weak targets (or every last potential ‘enemy’) outside of a war zone is itself highly questionable.” In April, ten leading human and civil rights organizations also wrote to President Obama in a shared statement over their concerns about the United States’ drone strikes and targeted killing policy. They included Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Open Society Foundations and the American Civil Liberties Union. During the same month, Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, also warned about using drones in not official armed conflicts.“Based on a review of a wide range of civilian estimates, we are especially concerned that the administration may be consistently undercounting and overlooking civilian casualties,” Maurer stated. “Moreover, the administration may be employing an overbroad definition of ‘combatant’ or ‘militant’ that would lead it to undercount civilian casualties.”  Targeting MuslimsTo date, according to the U.S. government, drone strikes have been used exclusively against countries with large majority Muslim populations. Amir Hussain was born in Lahore, Pakistan, and raised in Toronto, Canada, where he earned a Ph.D. in the study of religion from the University of Toronto. Now a professor in the Department of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, his area of research focuses on the study of Islam, with a specific interest in contemporary Muslim societies in North America.“Who in fact is being killed by drones?” Hussain asked rhetorically, during a recent interview. “It’s one thing to say we’re using this because we are in fact at war in Afghanistan. But we’re not at war in Pakistan. So what does it mean if we’re having drone strikes in Pakistan? But even in Afghanistan, is this something legitimately we should use as a military option because it may be unsafe to put soldiers at risk? So are we using the best technology available to the military? “And I think all of us would say, ‘Yes, of course, that’s a good thing to do.’“But then it comes to that question of, ‘But in doing this, are we killing civilians?’ We may be targeting a terrorist group or a group of Taliban who have been attacking and killing American soldiers. But in killing three of them are we also killing 10 innocent civilians? Is it worth it? The problem is we tend not to have that kind of conversation.”The practicing Muslim says he believes the use of drones is justified in certain declared war situations like Afghanistan because it was the training ground for the 9/11 hijackers. He admits this is contrary to some American Muslims who strongly believe these weapons can’t be used precisely because to date they target other Muslims.“Of course you have a right to defend your country,” he said. “But are we crossing over the territory where we’re killing people for the sake of killing people? I’m not saying we are. And are we keeping track and counting those deaths accurately? You know, everyone killed in a drone attack currently is counted as a military casualty, even if they’re civilians.”The religion professor says as a Muslim he empathizes with Muslims in the Middle East who are, in fact, “Living Under Drones,” as the Stanford and NYU law clinics titled their research report last year on civilian casualties in Pakistan. “Absolutely, I struggle,” Hussain said. “To say, ‘What is going on here?’ So the issue is precisely, you know, ‘What is it that our government is doing?’”{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2013/0531/drones/{/gallery}