Voices of protest crying out against the direction of their age feature prominently in many, if not most of humanity’s major mythological traditions. There have always been people who feel themselves at odds with the direction of their tribe, community or nation, so the figure of lone protester has understandable appeal.
But those audiences are almost always a minority, as Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the activist group Code Pink and author of the book “Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control,” discovered for the umpteenth time when she interrupted President Obama on Thursday during his first major counterterrorism address of his second term.
Obama was explaining to the audience at National Defense University in Washington, D.C., that Congress was preventing him from closing the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay when Benjamin raised her voice to inform him that he, as commander in chief, has the power to close the facility with the stroke of a pen.
Obama is known for displaying almost supernatural cool in the face of criticism, but on this occasion he was obviously flustered. No doubt he was wondering how this woman, an activist, had gotten past the Secret Service. As Benjamin told “Democracy Now!” in a show broadcast the day after the speech, the president’s security team immediately rushed to her and threatened her with arrest if she refused to leave.
Benjamin didn’t budge. “Don’t touch me,” she told the agents with a resolve that obviously made them think twice. “I’ll scream. You don’t want to make a scene in front of the president. You will regret this if you do it.”
The tactic worked. Benjamin was able to interrupt Obama not just once, but a total of three times during his address. “They were really confused about what to do,” she told “Democracy Now!”
“They sat down next to me. They sat down behind me. They got up again. They told me I must leave,” she continued. “I said, ‘No, I’m not leaving.’ This was all going on in between those three interruptions.”
In that same show, Benjamin explained that she did not do what she did to embarrass the president. She did it because she feels “he needs to be pushed more, that it has been over four years now of policies that have been killing innocent people with drones. It has been now over 11 years that innocent people are still being held in Guantanamo and now being force-fed. These are crisis situations, and it requires more from us as citizens.”
After Benjamin was removed from the building, Obama told the audience members, who had clapped at various moments while he was dealing with her, that she wasn’t listening to him. Benjamin denies that was the case. She spoke up, she said, precisely because she was listening to him. She had hoped the president would announce some real shifts in his program of war on terror.
“I was hanging on every single word,” Benjamin said. “And I really expected to hear some major policy changes, and I didn’t know whether I was going to speak up or not. If he had said something like, ‘To show my commitment to Guantanamo, next week we will start releasing those prisoners who have been cleared,’ or if he had said, ‘We’re taking drones out of the hands of the CIA immediately,’ or, ‘We’re going to immediately say that signature strikes, where people are killed on the basis of suspicious behavior, will no longer be allowed,’ if he had said anything like that significant, I wouldn’t have spoken up.”
Indeed, the president appears to have expanded his mandate for targeted killing. On “Democracy Now!” co-host Juan Gonzalez references McClatchy newspapers’ assessment that drone strikes would no longer be limited in code to “ ‘senior operational leaders of al-Qaida and associated forces’ plotting imminent violent attacks against the United States.” Obama made no reference at all to senior operational leaders in his speech Thursday.
Benjamin also took issue with Obama’s claim that his policy is to capture, not kill. “That’s just not true,” she said. “I know personally of many incidents where it would have been very easy to capture people ... but instead they sent in a drone.”
Again, Benjamin did not hear the president announce major changes. Instead, he seems to be giving himself rhetorical cover for the continuation and expansion of drone technology and his war.
“The drone strikes are lessening in Pakistan,” she said. “We don’t really know yet what’s happening in Yemen. But there are drone bases being built up all over the world, including in places like Saudi Arabia, that are making us less safe here at home. So, I think the president is really justifying the use of drones, which will continue to happen under his administration and be passed on to the next.”
Benjamin was denounced as a heckler by much of the press. When a CNN host suggested in a follow-up interview that she was “rude” and “a little crazy” for speaking out, Benjamin had this to say: “I think killing innocent people with drones is rude. I think keeping innocent people in detention for 11 years is rude. I think not respecting the lives of Muslim people who are killed is rude. There are a lot of rude things about our policies. Speaking out is actually not rude.”
Based on the audience members’ reaction to Obama’s speech and Benjamin’s interruptions, they seemed to approve of what the president said. But among the number of lessons we have learned from Obama’s first four and a half years in office is this: On points of major value to people—the public option, gun control, etc.—what the president says he will do and what he does are two different things. Benjamin appears to have been one of the only people in the crowd Thursday who understood that. Even if there were others, she was the only one who had the courage and principle to stand up and show it. For calling out political hypocrisy and double dealing in our age, we honor Medea Benjamin as our Truthdigger of the Week.
See Benjamin and President Obama’s complete exchange and her interview with “Democracy Now!” below.