In February, The Guardian reported that a U.S. Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), a weaponized drone, killed Mohammed Tuaiman, a 13-year-old boy in Yemen.
When Mohammed’s brother Maqded arrived at the scene of attack, he was horrified: “I saw all the bodies completely burned, like charcoal,” he said. “We couldn’t move the bodies so we just buried them there.”
In an interview last year, Mohammed spoke about what it was like to live with the terror of drones: “A lot of the kids in this area wake up from sleeping because of nightmares from them, and some now have mental problems.”
He explained: “They turned our area into hell and continuous horror, day and night; we even dream of them in our sleep.”
I have read through story after story of people who have been suffering the terror of U.S. drones, interviews compiled by Amnesty International and Living Under Drones, a joint report of the Stanford Law School and New York University School of Law.
“The drones are all over my brain; I can’t sleep,” reports a man from a village in Pakistan. “When I hear the drones making that drone sound, I just turn on the light and sit there looking at the light.”
A politician from that same community talks about the suffering of his people who “often complain that they wake up in the middle of the night screaming because they are hallucinating about drones.” Night terrors are part of drone warfare.
“Children have lost their mental balance; they are afraid all the time,” says Nabeel from North Waziristan, a region of Pakistan that suffers from recurrent drone attacks. “My young nephew is always scared and crying, running toward his mother saying the drone could come.”
Another resident of Waziristan comments that his friends “are mentally disturbed as a result of the drone flights.” He continues, “We can’t sleep because of the planes’ loud sound. Even if they don’t attack, we still have the fear of attack in our mind.”
“Because of the noise, we’re psychologically disturbed, women, men and children,” another person reports. “Twenty-four hours, a person is in stress and there is pain in his head.”
When I read about the horrifying power of weaponized drones, I notice the resonances with how Christians through the ages have talked about demons. Flying things in the air, horrors in the heavens, the hum of death evoking panic, possessing minds, screaming in brains, spiritual forces of evil infiltrating bodies and terrorizing people from within.
In his early 17th-century manual, the Italian priest Francesco Maria Guazzo diagnosed a variety of diabolic manifestations he observed in his work as an exorcist. “If the demon is in his head, [a person] feels the keenest pain in his head,” he wrote. If the demon is in “the heart or lungs, he causes panting, palpitation and syncope.”
Lastly, if the demon “is more toward the stomach, he provokes hiccoughs and vomiting.” Dr. Sulayman Afraz, a psychiatrist in Waziristan, reports cases of “hysterical reactions” in his patients, “physical symptoms without a real basis, aches and pains, vomiting”—the same demonic symptoms Francesco Guazzo observed in the 17th century.
From the New Testament and through the Middle Ages, spirits have been thought of as material. Demonic spirits are not the opposite of the physical; they’re just a different kind of physical. They can look like shadows, they smell and make sounds.
“The noises of the apparitions were terrible, and their outbursts ferocious,” Anthony the Great remarked in the Egyptian desert. He was a third-century monk who battled demons in the wilderness.
“Suddenly,” the account says, “they saw descend among them a demon in the likeness of some sort of little beast.”
In his Divine Comedy, Dante repeated popular notions about demons when he described them as sounding like echoing sighs in the air, announcing themselves with noise. You can hear them before you can see them.
Karl Barth, the 20th-century Swiss theologian, wrote that demons were the concretization of nothingness—demons as the materialization of death, “always invading and attacking.”
“The drones are like the angels of death,” commented a shopkeeper in Miranshah, a town in Pakistan. “Only they know when and where they will strike.”
After a long day working in the local mine, Ahsan returned home to the Pakistani village of Zowi Sidgi in time for prayers at the mosque. As he prayed, Ahsan heard the hum of drones. When he walked outside, he saw them hover in the sky, then fire missiles into the village. “Body parts were scattered everywhere,” Ahsan said of the scene of death, “bodies without heads and bodies without hands or legs.”
Demons are the powers of hell ravaging the earth. The U.S. military locates its drone warfare program within the sphere of demonic power. They’ve named their weaponized drone after a demon: the MQ-9 Reaper. The emblem is the Grim Reaper, the angel of death. The U.S. Reaper fires hellfire missiles from the heavens—fire from hell, falling from the sky. The military invokes the demonic with its naming of drones and missiles.
Their weaponized drones are the demons of hell. Drone warfare is demonic warfare. Demons are not a metaphor for militarized drones. Drones are demons, material manifestations of “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
Resurrection was a victory against the forces of evil hovering in the sky. “The air is the sphere of the devil,” wrote Athanasius of Alexandria in the fourth century. “But the Lord came to overthrow the devil and to purify the air … for being thus ‘lifted up.’ He cleansed the air from all the evil of the enemy.”
Through prayer we proclaim the power of Christ’s resurrection over demons, the devil’s agents polluting the sky with death, Grim Reapers with their hellfire missiles. But, as Jesus said, some evil spirits—for example, weaponized drones—require diligent prayer and fasting.
At the Interfaith Conference on Drone Warfare at Princeton Theological Seminary in January, an imam called us to prayer because he knew that prayer is how we combat enemies not of flesh and blood but spirits, demons, drones.
The imam ended his exhortation with words from a song by Kareem Salama, a popular Egyptian-American musician: “We can bend iron with our prayers.”
With our prayers, we can break the wings the U.S. military’s demonic Reapers. With our prayers, we can extinguish the military’s hellfire. When we pray against drones, we join the prayers of countless people who suffer the terror of “angels of death.”
Isaac S. Villegas pastors Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship (N.C.) and serves on the governing board of the N.C. Council of Churches as well as the executive board of Mennonite Church USA. This reflection is adapted from his presentation Jan. 23-25 at the Interfaith Conference on Drone Warfare at Princeton Theological Seminary.
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