My next portrait for the Americans Who Tell the Truth project will be Daniel Hale, the former Air Force analyst and drone whistleblower who released classified documents showing that nearly 90% of the casualties of U.S. drone assassination missions are civilians—children, women, workers, farmers, and other people who show up as shadows on drone pilot computer screens and are subsequently rendered permanent shadows. Hale will be sentenced on July 27 in Alexandria, Virginia for the crime of truth telling. In all likelihood he will receive 10 years in prison—surely sufficient time to reflect on the error of his ways, which is, primarily, having an overactive conscience, believing that killing innocent civilians, no matter what the national security excuse, is murder.
Daniel Hale, who is now 33 years old, the same age, interestingly enough, as a well known religious figure was when he was crucified for defying the state, joins a special club of courageous whistleblowers—including Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and Daniel Ellsberg—all of whom naively believed the notion that the government of a democratic society derives its just power from the consent of the governed, and that for the people to grant that consent, they need to know what is being done in their name, and with their money. By keeping secret the most important issues of life and death, such a government teaches how it derives unjust power.
"Our government is not ours at all if we have no control over its immoral actions, its duplicitous wars, its pandering to weapons dealers, its perverse willingness to torture, its propensity to murder civilians to justify its militarism, its silencing of truth tellers."
We live in an age when the central ethical lesson of the United States is not democratic self-determination as in our own heralded origin story. No, our most crucial moral lesson is collateral damage—that whatever we do to advance our security, no matter how many innocents are necessarily blown to smithereens, is OK—and because we do it and we are exceptional people, it is ethical. Collaterals are those nameless, storyless individuals who become martyrs, not for their beliefs, but ours. And, strangely, when our diplomats conflate collateral damage with the export of democracy, not everyone understands. Sometimes even those firing the drones fail to understand. Like Daniel Hale.
Some people in defense of Hale have said that this is a free speech issue. That doesn't seem right to me. When Hale got his high security clearance, he knew he was supposed to keep mum about government secrets. He knew that no matter what ethically odious policy or activity he became privy to or part of, he was to tell no one. That is, he was supposed to be responsible for making his conscience his own collateral damage. And then he realized he had a higher obligation. He's been charged under the Espionage Act as though he were a spy. The enemy he has informed is the American public. So, let me ask you, John and Jane Q. Public: Do you feel betrayed by Daniel Hale or by your government? This is actually a serious question. Does the United States have any interest in the lives of black and brown civilians who happen to be proximate to a Hellfire drone missile? A disturbingly large number of people may say no.
The Department of Justice has accused Daniel Hale of the theft of government property, classified documents, not his to disseminate. It seems to me that the real theft is of the right of the people to know and be responsible for what their government is doing. What is being stolen is the moral agency of the people. What is being stolen is the opportunity of the people to decide if they want to allow their government to continue with this kind of "just" power when it is committing unjust and immoral acts. What is being stolen is the essence of democracy—unless you happen to believe the essence of democracy is secrecy and security, not justice.
The government's intense determination to prosecute Daniel Hale is precisely because his principled moral courage asks the profound questions our government, our NSA, our DOJ, our DOD and CIA do not want asked. As our ideals are stolen and we are splashed with the blood of civilians, how can we best show our support for such a government? Do any of you need reminding that every war that this country has been engaged in in the past 65 years has been promoted by lies. Why would we trust them with any secrets? We can show our support by demanding and telling the truth. Our government is not ours at all if we have no control over its immoral actions, its duplicitous wars, its pandering to weapons dealers, its perverse willingness to torture, its propensity to murder civilians to justify its militarism, its silencing of truth tellers.
It’s an astounding thing to see the full force of the state come down on the one person with moral clarity. What qualities in a democratic society can we count on to be hedges against moral chaos? Surely the correct answer to that question is neither secrecy nor official prevarication. But when we have a government that embraces secrecy and punishes truth tellers, the only hedge is more truth tellers.
In the past few years some sections of this country have haltingly engaged in an examination of its systemic racism—an indication that moral maturity is possible. However, about its systemic dishonesty around militarism and foreign policy, no such mainstream discussion exists. In the name of blind patriotism we are encouraged to deny the humanity of our victims, even—especially!—our innocent victims. By doing so we deny our own values and humanity. When President Barack Obama announced that he would not prosecute the war crimes of the George W. Bush administration because he wanted us to look forward, not back, what he was asking honest, moral people to do was to deny their moral accountability, deny the rule of law, deny their identity, and embrace a deadly lie. We were being asked to let go of any guilt we felt about starting the atrocious preemptive war on Iraq. We were being asked to move comfortably into a future free from responsibility, free from our values and our humanity. What then is left of us? What kind of people are we? Are we a people who shoot missiles into people's homes and cars and schools and wedding parties on the off chance there may be a bad guy on the premises when even the accusations against the bad guy are unsubstantiated?
Daniel Hale offers us an opportunity to answer those questions. Let's support this courageous man before the state disappears him.
- Robert Shetterly
NOTE: This blog entry was previously published in Common Dreams on July 15, 2021.