Updated 12/29/12 (below).
One of the predominant responses to my piece–about the amplified coverage of children killed by a lone shooter in contrast to the barely-existent coverage of those killed by US-led drone and missile strikes—was that these events were not “comparable.” I am informed by journalists with a superior moral compass to mine that this is because events like the Newtown, CT massacre are the result of a deliberate shooting of children, whereas others—like the December 2009 US-led missile strike in Yemen, which killed 21 children who were part of a wedding party–are accidental, unintentional, and part of the collateral damage of war. Therefore, it is wrong—even infantile–to compare the events.
Those who share this position include Brendan O’Neill, a London Telegraph blogger, who besides accusing me of infantilism, attributed a position to me that I never suggested (“An American professor says it’s dumb to feel emotional about Sandy Hook but not about drone strikes”). Several journalists agreed that the two are incomparable, including Rosamund Urwin, an Evening Standard columnist who responded to my interview on BBC’s Weekend Radio Program(me). (32:30)
Urwin, responding to my position that it is horrific to have children die regardless of whether they die at the hands of a shooter or as the consequence of a missile strike, said: “I don’t think it quite sits well as a comparison simply because what you’re talking about is somebody setting out to do something versus unintended consequences.”
Let’s unpack that misconception, shall we?
Over the last twelve years, there have been more than 320 drone strikes. Over 300 of those strikes were conducted under the auspices of the Obama Administration (the most recent 2 strikes in Yemen over Christmas not included). They have killed between 2600-3300 people, of which over 800 were civilians (these numbers require us to believe that 2600 people were terrorists). Around 176 were children.*
These are hardly “unintended” consequences. If 1 or 3—ok, 5–drone strikes are launched, and others besides the “intended” targets are killed, it is more plausible to believe that the consequences are “unintended.” It is easier to believe the position of former US Air Force drone pilot, Brandon Bryant, that by droning, he and his colleagues “were saving lives.” In fact, Bryant and his fellow drone pilots knew what they were trained to do: they were trained to kill—to “target” human beings, who were supposedly “terrorists.”
This is the story Bryant lived by until he could no longer hide behind the falsity. One day, Bryant launched a strike towards a site in Afghanistan, even as he saw a child walking around a corner. He and his co-drone pilot tried to convince themselves that they had killed a dog. But a dog has 4 legs, whereas this small figure had 2. Bryant may have unintentionally killed that child. But there were many others who died at his hands. Whether they were terrorists or unwitting victims—he, and we, will never learn.
As to the Obama Administration and the US Air Force—it is their business to know how precise their tools are. They are completely familiar with the consequences of imprecise “targeted” killings. The murders of hundreds—perhaps thousands– may not have been the “purpose” of these US cruise missiles and drone strikes, but they were hardly “unintended.” When 180 (or more) children die because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time—through no fault other than that they had the chutzpah to be born to Pakistani, Afghan, Yemeni, Somali, Filipino parents who live in the same vicinity as “suspected” terrorists—this is hardly unintended. POTUS, his advisers, and the US Air Force, are well aware that the consequences of remote drone strikes is widespread “collateral damage.”
Indeed, that is the point of using the term “collateral damage”: it allows the US government to sterilize and transform into a technical, impersonal statistic the macabre, bloody, material effects of an imperial war to “root out” terrorists indiscriminately. What makes the obfuscation even more predictable and still as heinous is that the hunt for terrorists is conducted in parts of the world where, as Larry Summers, former Treasury Secretary and head of the National Economic Council understood, 3rd world residents are worth less than 1st world lives.
The “collateral damage” is much more widespread than the approximately 3000 who were killed through “targeted drone strikes.” The damage is reflected in the children who die in raids, women who are raped, families who are shot by US soldiers in Afghanistan. The damage is evidenced by the children who are fatherless, the women whose husbands and brothers and fathers are taken away–for “good cause”–since, as we know, according to the Obama Administration, all men over the age of 16 “are potential militants.”
As the Der Spiegel profile on Bryant describes:
Many Afghans sleep on the roof in the summer, because of the heat. “I saw them having sex with their wives. It’s two infrared spots becoming one,” he recalls.
[Bryant] observed people for weeks, including Taliban fighters hiding weapons, and people who were on lists because the military, the intelligence agencies or local informants knew something about them.
“I got to know them. Until someone higher up in the chain of command gave me the order to shoot.” He felt remorse because of the children, whose fathers he was taking away. “They were good daddies,” he says.
If the Obama Administration tells us that the unfortunate deaths of civilians and children are “accidental” and yet necessary in their hunt for terrorists/militants, then apparently we are supposed to accept these deaths as part of the “costs of war.” Never mind that we haven’t declared war in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Philippines, or Mali even as the US is directing tens, even hundreds, of drone strikes towards people living in these countries.
Never mind that the mainstream American media is uninterested in covering the human impact of drone and missile strikes on the families whose relatives are maimed and killed by those drones. Never mind that we never learn the names of the children who died, unless someone like Julian Abagond spends hours trying to recover them.
Never mind that these strikes are uncompromisingly illegal according to international law—and being used in place of due process, where suspected “militants” or “terrorists” should be brought to a courtroom to see if there is enough evidence for an indictment, let alone a trial. Never mind that the “war” in question is informal, undeclared, and unilaterally pursued by a Democratic President (who was just re-elected for his remarkable human rights sensibilities, as evidenced through his multiple awards, such as the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, and the 2008 and 2012 Time Person of the Year Award).
Remember, once upon a time, the most visible distinction between the two US political parties was that the Democrats were supposed to be the stronger observers and advocates of human rights and international law. Once upon a time.
It is an interesting spectacle to observe as mainstream journalists and US politicians become remarkably earnest and forgiving about excuses that come from governments and elites. They insist that it is untoward, indeed impolite–the concept of unethical isn’t even on the table–to ask for 1) journalistic coverage of the casualties material consequences of US foreign policy and 2) governmental accountability when it comes to the deaths of civilians in the course of a unilateral attack on a population in the name of “security.” How shocking it is—shocking!—to suggest that after more than 300 drone strikes that have killed more than 3000 people, including many civilians and children, perhaps the U.S. is not completely unaware of the widespread death and havoc they are causing through the constant use of drones that “target” alleged terrorists.
On the other hand, Urwin suggests that “Western media” has a tendency to “fixate on people like them [Americans?].” She cites the case of Hurricane Sandy, which had passed through Haiti before waging a path of destruction in New Jersey, noting that media coverage of Sandy on Haiti was non-existent, whereas the focus on New Jersey dominated the media.
But if we abide by Urwin’s standard for media coverage—namely that even accidental deaths should be covered by Western media—then there is even less reason to exculpate American media from covering drone/missile strikes which resulted in hundreds—thousands– of “accidental” deaths.
Perhaps the unspoken assumption here is that I, like O’Neill and Urwin, should spend little to no time considering the immorality of deaths when caused by Western governments—because that would force us into a discussion of whether illegal drone strikes are ethical or even legitimate. It might force us into a discussion of American imperialism, and its ever-voracious appetite to invade, conquer, terroritorialize, and ‘civilize’ ‘backwards’ countries by exploiting the rhetorical goals of “national security,” “saving Afghan women,” “democratizing” other countries (some of which have a higher standard of due process than even the US). In the meantime, O’Neill and Urwin might have to explain the increasing hatred and contempt that Pakistanis, Yemenis, Afghans, Iraqis have for the US—proliferated by the continual invasion and destruction of their communities, children, spouses, fathers, uncles, brothers, lives, livelihoods, infrastructures, and knowing full well that the US has no intention or capacity to compensate them for the devastation of their lives.
When did the standard of accountability drop so low, such that—even after slavery and colonialism are supposedly atrocities of the past–Americans easily forgive their government when it wages an ever-expanding unilateral assault on countries that have never officially been declared enemies of the US–never even declared to be at war with them?
It is indeed a double ethical standard to insist that individuals who use assault rifles to shoot children are evil, heinous, mentally ill, and should be locked up, surveilled, tracked, and pre-emptively policed via an FBI database, while simultaneously exculpating the American government from addressing the “unintended” consequences of US foreign policy.
As we know, the Obama administration has killed–unaccidentally–multiple US citizens, some of them under the age of legal consent, as in the case of Abdulrahman Al-Aulaqi. Al-Aulaqi was a 16 year old US citizen who was killed in a drone strike in Yemen. He was killed 2 weeks after a US-led drone strike killed his father, Anwar Al-Aulaqi, considered to the “no. 2” leader of Al-Qaeda in Yemen.
Shouldn’t the Obama Administration explain the circumstances that led to young Abdulrahman’s death? Some civil rights lawyers think so, strangely enough. As Hina Shamsi and Vincent Warren, of the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights, respectively, wrote several days ago:
In court, government officials provided no explanation at all. Their response boiled down to an assertion that the government has the authority to kill Americans without having to account to any court for its actions.
Is a US federal court is also misguided to agree that the US must show evidence for Abdulrahman’s death, even if, as one unnamed Obama official suggests, it was accidental? Again as Shamsi and Warren argue:
But the U.S. Constitution requires due process when life is at stake. The government cannot be permitted to deprive an American child of his life without any judicial review, even after the fact. More broadly, thousands of people have been killed by U.S. drones in a program that began in 2002 and has expanded dramatically under the Obama administration.
The Obama Administration disagrees that it should be accountable for any such activity—before or after the murder of Abdulrahman Al-Aulaqi. But perhaps if American media were to cover this consequence of US foreign policy as aggressively as they did the Newtown massacre, the Obama Administration might eventually feel compelled to give some answers.
As it stands now, it is acceptable to ask for accountability only from lone individuals who are not part of the US political elite. To the latter—whether Republican or Democrat—we give Peace Prizes, consultancies, and their own shows on MSNBC. No accountability needed, because the thousands of deaths by drones—as the President’s men and women tell us—are accidental. Nothing else need be said.
Forgive, forget, and address only those facts that serve power well and are convenient.
*In Pakistan. The number of children who died in Yemeni and Somali drone strikes under Obama Administration: 28-36. No data on children killed in Philippines or Mali.
Update: Col. Morris Davis, former Guantanamo chief prosecutor, pointed out in response to this column that “collateral damage” legally excludes CIA drone strikes. Also, interestingly, “collateral damage” would include legitimate military targets in the U.S.: