Peace activist Barbara Briggs-Letson returns from Pakistan
By JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Barbara Briggs-Letson’s voice was flat as she recalled standing with hundreds of people in a farm compound in Pakistan during a vigil this month for innocent victims of U.S. drone strikes.
“They chanted, ‘We love you America’ and ‘Stop the drones,’” the 78-year-old Sebastopol resident said. “We were singing our songs, probably peace songs, I don’t really remember.”
Days after she returned, Briggs-Letson was still emotionally dazed from her 12-day trip to Pakistan with 31 other North Americans to protest what she characterizes as the “immoral and illegal” U.S. practice of drone strikes.
“We are not at war with Pakistan and we are within their borders killing people,” she said.
Though she is a veteran of peace activist trips to Gaza and to Jordan during the Iraq War, the retired nurse was shaken by her experience in Pakistan, a journey she undertook, in large part, to investigate death and apologize for it.
“I think that I probably retreat to numbness when I get to a point where I can’t stand it,” she said.
She appeared unnerved, too, by her encounters with entrenched cultural values she cannot fathom, ones that could extend the cycle of violence she deplores.
“They believe profoundly in hospitality; they believe profoundly in revenge,” she said, referring to the Pakistanis she met who order their lives according to a set of principles called Pashtunwali.
“It’s something that even with all the places I’ve been in the world, I can’t get my head or my heart around,” she said. “I think it will shape what happens there for a long time to come. These are not a people who are going to say, ‘Oh, okay, some people in our area did bad stuff and so you killed a lot of us and that’s okay.’”
Mostly, she said, she is drained by the stories she heard from people who have had family members killed in drone strikes.
“When I have to sit in a room and listen to a man, a decent man, who lives by a code I don’t understand but, clearly, a decent man, tell me that drones my tax money paid for were sent into his compound and killed his 18-year-old son who had just graduated from high school, and his brother, who had a masters degree in English and was teaching in the next village, and a guest in his home who was a mason, that makes me numb inside. I don’t know what to do with it,” she said.
The Obama administration, to the degree it discusses them, maintains that drone strikes are a key weapon against terrorists and virtually all victims are “militants.”
The administration argues that the targets have “military value” and that the law authorizes the president “to use all necessary and appropriate force against nations, organizations and individuals responsible for (the) 9/11” terrorist attacks.
But a growing movement of critics, fueled by studies from the Stanford, New York and Columbia university law schools, charges that innocent civilians are often killed and that the strikes are turning people who would otherwise be allies into bitter enemies.
In Pakistan, the activists met with intelligence and government officials, and with Acting U.S. Ambassador Richard Hoagland. The group asked the diplomat if the Pakistan government acceded to the drone strikes.
“He quite definitely avoided answering that question but he certainly indicated that there are responsible people on both sides who agree to decisions,” she said.
That day at the farm, there were Pakistani sharpshooters on the roofs and walls, Briggs-Letson said, evidence of the strict security that accompanied the North Americans, who were organized by the San Francisco-based peace activist group Code Pink.
They were stuck at the farm because the military had stopped them from entering the country’s northwest region of Waziristan, which borders Afghanistan.
Since 2004, the U.S. has launched more than 300 drone attacks into Waziristan, mostly in the north. The number of people killed is unknown, but estimates reach 3,325, with as many as 881 being civilians, according to the nonprofit British Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Another estimate, from the nonpartisan New America Foundation, puts the civilian death toll at 191.
“I don’t know what the truth is and I don’t know if we will ever know,” Briggs-Letson said. “But I do know that what we’ve been told (by the administration) isn’t accurate.”
The activists had been invited to Waziristan by tribal leaders who oppose the Taliban but say the drone strikes have devastated their communities. But once at the border, Briggs-Letson and her group were told they could not enter.
The tribal leaders said they could not protect the group as they had planned: Suicide bombers intended to target the group.
So, joined by hundreds of Pakistanis, the North American activists instead held the vigil, in the compound of the farm where the group had been put up.
There were calls for peace. And other calls too.
“There were people in that compound shouting ‘Go America,’ and it wasn’t ‘Go, go America,’ it was ‘Go home, America,’” she said.
She had wanted to apologize, Briggs-Letson said, and so, when she spoke to Pakistanis about the people they had loved who had been killed, she did.
One man, she said, responded with a smile. Then, she recalled, he said: “Apology, double apology, triple sorry, very sorry. What will be your reaction? Will you stop everything? So, sorry for small people. For big people like Americans, there is not concept of sorry.”
“My apology,” said Briggs-Letson, “meant a lot more to me than it did to him. You understand why I’m numb.”