By Nick Mottern


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Photo: Princeton Theological Seminary

On January 16, 2015, I was among a group of anti-drone war advocates who went to visit New York Congressman Charlie Rangel in his office in Harlem. Almost the first thing out of his mouth was an expression of his disappointment that the religious community has not taken a strong position against the current United States wars. 

He was passing the buck, yes.  But he was also telling us, based on his considerable political experience, that it is hard, if not impossible, to stop a war when there is no outspoken opposition to the killing coming from preachers.

Indeed, religious leaders in the United States, on the national and local levels, have largely remained astoundingly and tragically silent about the nation’s current wars, including the expanding drone war now being waged in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Libya and possibly elsewhere in Africa.

 So, in the face of this, as well as the abysmal failure of mainstream and alternative journalists to cover the drone war or the new U.S. air war and the apathy about these wars even on the left, I was heartened at the announcement of the Interfaith Conference on Drone Warfare, to be held at Princeton (University) Theological Seminary (PTS) January 23 – 25, 2015.

 At the same time, I feared that the conference would end up making worthless recommendations that would do nothing more than effectively endorse the U.S. drone war.   And this nearly happened.

Patterned After Torture Conference

The idea for the conference came from the Rev. Richard Killmer, executive director from 2006 to 2013 of National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), and it was organized with the collaboration of the Rev. Robert Moore, director of Coalition for Peace Action, in Princeton, and others.  It was modeled after a 2006 conference at PTS that focused on torture and resulted in the formation of NRCAT.

The conference, attended by about 150 people from 22 states, the District of Columbia, and Finland, was a teach-in on basic legal and ethical information on drone war, offered by 22 presenters.  The goals were to create policy recommendations on drone warfare for the U.S. government and the U.S. religious community and to formulate ways of engaging clergy and congregations in the drone war issue.

(This link provides you with a press release on the conference, list of speakers and, importantly, videos of the presentations recorded by Wilton Vought, Peter Lumsdaine was a presenter not included in the linked list.)


Perhaps the most important presentation on the nature of drone war, at least in my opinion, came from former Congressman Rush Holt.  Holt, a Democrat who announced in February 2014 that he would not run for reelection, had served as chair of the Select Intelligence Oversight Panel of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.  In this position he had a remarkable vantage point, from almost from the beginning of the U.S. drone war program, to see first hand the terrible shortcomings of the drone program and to understand forces driving its expansion.

Holt said of drone operators: “They call themselves warfighters.  They are assassins.”

His presentation is a must see, beginning at 1: 14 : 43 in the first  conference session tape.

Holt gave, as you will see, what amounts to an insider’s indictment of U.S. drone operations that, for me, would, alone, lead to no other conclusion than that drone attacks should be permanently stopped.

Why are we Americans so indifferent?

The other critical presentation, from my standpoint, was offered by the Rev. George Hunsinger, Professor of Theology at PTS and founder of Interfaith Coalition Against Torture.  His talk, also a must see, starts at 2:09 in the third session tape. 

Reverend Hunsinger began by referring to a quote from George Orwell’s Notes on Nationalism: “A nationalist is someone who not only overlooks atrocities committed by his own side, he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.”  Reverend Hunsinger then said he would talk about “atrocities committed by our own side” and “our remarkable capacity as people, as citizens, and as members of congregations, as religious people, for not even hearing about them.  I think we need another whole conference on that second question.”

A concern “bearing down on me”, he said, is: “When does legitimate authority lose its legitimacy? It's a question that is already very much on my mind with regard to torture”, which, he said, “is built into our policies; its defended.”  Then he asked: “What about drones. What is it about drones that raises the question of rightful authority?”

He then noted that a statement he had written had been distributed throughout the hall just before his talk, which he said, might serve as “an organizing tool that might come out of this conference…you can do with this what you will.”

This statement, so humbly referred to by Reverend Hunsinger, provided strong, simple recommendations to the government and the religious community on how to respond to drone war:

“We cannot remain silent without becoming complicit.  As leaders and representatives of many religious traditions, we call upon the President and Congress:

- To abandon all use of weaponized drones.
- To abandon the ‘kill list’ program regardless of the technology employed.
- To ban the sale of weaponized drones.
- To compensate the families of those who have been wrongfully killed.
- To seek binding international treaties to implement these objectives.”

At the end of his presentation he read through these recommendations, his voice breaking with emotion as he proceeded.   After reading point number four, he interjected:

“Why are Americans so indifferent to the fate of the innocents in the countries where they have gone to war…This is a serious question for not only the American citizenry but for religious people.  We have failed somehow.  Why are people in our congregations not concerned?”

He then read point five, in conclusion, as his time ran out.

Before reporting on the outcome of the conference, I must say that all the presentations were well-prepared, thoughtful and informative.  If you have the time, I recommend you watch the tapes.

Just Say Halt

In order to reach recommendations for the federal government and religious institutions, the conference organizers selected a “listening committee” to take notes on all the presentations and comments from the audience and to draft proposed recommendations.  These were brought to the conference on Sunday, the final day, for comment and revision. I obviously hoped the committee would adopt Hunsinger’s points in total.

Instead the committee put this forward as its key recommendation:

“We call on the Administration to immediately halt targeted lethal drone strikes at least until the administration enhances transparency and accountability on the use of such strikes by public disclosures including but not limited to:

a.  Acknowledging strikes conducted.
b.  Accounting for victims.
c.  Explaining official criteria for selection of persons targeted.
d.  Citing legal justification for authorization of strikes.
e.  Detailing the methods of investigating deaths.
f.  Disclosing the standards for compensating victims.”

This wording brought an immediate reaction from several in the audience, objecting to its inherent approval for drone attacks.   I asked that the Hunsinger language be substituted, and a suggestion was made that the wording be changed as follows:

“We call on the Administration to immediately halt targeted drone strikes.”  Then the recommendation would pick up on the language talking about the need for “transparency”.  The “at least until” wording was dropped.

This compromise satisfied those of us who wanted to conference to come out for stopping drone attacks.

Without the Hunsinger recommendations and the weight of his prestige behind them, I doubt that that compromise could have been struck.

Elizabeth Beavers, a lobbyist in Washington, DC, for the Friends Committee on National Legislation, explained that the listening committee drafted the weaker language thinking that it would be more palatable to Congress.

The Rev. Mike Neuroth, moderator of the policy discussion, said that the inability of the committee to adopt the Hunsinger language on effectively banning drone use was because two denominations represented could not accept an absolute ban.  He declined to name the denominations, but based on a comment from the audience, it appeared that one of the objections came from one or more Catholics who wanted to reserve the right to use drones under the “just war” sanction.

Other suggestions were made for changes to other recommendations in the committee document, and Reverend Moore said a final version will be published soon, probably sometime in February. 

A show of hands also indicated that the conference supported the creation of a small staff to promote a halt in drone attacks and the other recommendations.  Reverend Killmer estimated this would cost about $150,000 for a year, a sum that seemed acceptable to the group.

As I walked to my car across the seminary campus, I felt hope rising that what was accomplished over the weekend might result in creating a long-needed structure for building resistance to drone warfare within the American religious community.