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Duke Divinity School sponsoring conference on military drone warfare

In academia as in physics, every action triggers a counter, and at Duke University a 2016 panel discussion about drone warfare inspired a Duke Divinity School professor to organize a two-day conference to correct what she sees as the original’s mistakes.

Starting with its point of view.

“I wanted to be clear this is a ‘Conference Against the Use of Drones in Warfare,’” professor Amy Laura Hall said of both the intent and title of the new conference, which will play out Friday at Trinity United Methodist Church and Saturday at the Divinity School. “It’s not a debate.”

Hall has put together a list of speakers that includes two people, journalist Murtaza Hussain and divinity school Ph.D. candidate Kara Slade, who also participated in last year’s “Drone Nation” panel at the university.

Newcomers include former Cato Institute research fellow Benjamin Friedman and Center for Constitutional Students attorney Pardiss Kebriaei, formerly the lawyer for the father of al-Qaida figure and drone target Anwar al-Awlaki.

No stranger to political topics, Hall put together a similar conference in 2011 opposing the U.S. government’s use of torture.

But that “was easier in many ways,” she said, because drones are at once a more complicated and less familiar topic.

Nonetheless, “one of the things I do in my writing and teaching is ask people to think about the conversations that aren’t happening, think about what’s hidden or what do we just not pay attention to,” Hall said.

“This is a form of warfare we are engaged with as the United States, and citizens are not talking about the possible downsides because we’re not talking about the use of drones in warfare generally,” she said.

Funding for the conference comes from variety of sources, including discretionary-fund allocations from Divinity School dean Elaine Heath and Duke Chapel dean Luke Powery. The conference’s timing is partly a function of Hall’s having waited until the Divinity School had a permanent dean rather than an interim appointee Hall had judged unlikely to “sign off on something so politically controversial.”

Heath said the Divinity School’s committed “to supporting the scholarship of our faculty across a range of issues and ideas,” to include Hall’s interest in the drone-warfare issue.

People enthusiastic about drone strikes [ask,] ‘Would you rather put troops in there?’ … That’s the wrong question, because the alternative to drone strikes should be peace.

Benjamin Friedman, former Cato Institute fellow

The 2016 “Drone Nation” panel took place in the Divinity School’s Goodson Chapel and was a joint production of a Divinity School veterans group, the Sanford School of Public Policy, the Pratt School of Engineering and other campus organizations.

It was noteworthy for the participation of two high-profile, ex-military Duke professors, former U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap of the Duke School of Law and former U.S. Navy F/A-18 pilot Missy Cummings of the Pratt School of Engineering.

Cummings led off, and rankled Hall by telling the audience that “whether or not you think that drones are debatable or think we ought to be using them in the military, that train is so far out of the station it’s never coming back.”

The ensuing discussion left Hall unimpressed. “It wasn’t complicated,” she said. “I don’t know if anybody had learned anything when they left.”

But it touched on themes this weekend’s conference will likely revisit, including Hussain’s worry that drones are encouraging warfare by lowering its perceived costs and Dunlap’s observation that “drones are not a strategy and we should start with the premise of not using force.”

Friedman echoed Hussain’s point repeatedly while he was still affiliated with the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank whose conservative/libertarian inclinations include a dose of non-interventionism on foreign policy.

“People enthusiastic about drone strikes like to say that it beats invasion,” Friedman said in a 2013 Cato publication. “‘Would you rather put troops in there?’ they ask. That’s the wrong question, because the alternative to drone strikes should be peace. We’re currently waging bombing campaigns that we otherwise wouldn’t have.”

He added that there’s “need to nurse the anti-war and anti-militarism ideology back to health in this country,” and “spread the idea that war is something that should be difficult to start.”

Friday’s proceedings will begin with registration at 3 p.m. Trinity United Methodist is in downtown Durham. at 215 N. Church St. next to City Hall. On Saturday, the conference will move on campus to the Divinity School, which is next to Duke Chapel, and resume at 9 a.m.


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