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In the US, mass child killings are tragedies. In Pakistan, mere bug splats
Barack Obama's tears for the children of Newtown are in stark contrast to his silence
over the children murdered by his drones
By George Monbiot
Source: The Guardian
"Mere words cannot match the depths of your sorrow, nor can they heal your
wounded hearts … These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change."
Every parent can connect with what President Barack Obama said about the murder
of 20 children in Newtown, Connecticut. There can scarcely be a person on earth with
access to the media who is untouched by the grief of the people of that town.
It must follow that what applies to the children murdered there by a deranged young
man also applies to the children murdered in Pakistan by a sombre American
president. These children are just as important, just as real, just as deserving of the
world's concern. Yet there are no presidential speeches or presidential tears for them,
no pictures on the front pages of the world's newspapers, no interviews with grieving
relatives, no minute analysis of what happened and why.
If the victims of Mr Obama's drone strikes are mentioned by the state at all, they are
discussed in terms which suggest that they are less than human. The people who
operate the drones, Rolling Stone magazine reports, describe their casualties as "bug
splats", "since viewing the body through a grainy-green video image gives the sense
of an insect being crushed". Or they are reduced to vegetation: justifying the drone
war, Obama's counterterrorism adviser Bruce Riedel explained that "you've got to
mow the lawn all the time. The minute you stop mowing, the grass is going to grow
Like George Bush's government in Iraq, Obama's administration neither documents
nor acknowledges the civilian casualties of the CIA's drone strikes in north-west
Pakistan. But a report by the law schools at Stanford and New York universities
suggests that during the first three years of his time in office, the 259 strikes for which
he is ultimately responsible killed between 297 and 569 civilians, of whom at least 64
were children. These are figures extracted from credible reports: there may be more
which have not been fully documented.
The wider effects on the children of the region have been devastating. Many have
been withdrawn from school because of fears that large gatherings of any kind are
being targeted. There have been several strikes on schools since Bush launched the
drone programme that Obama has expanded so enthusiastically: one of Bush's
blunders killed 69 children.
The study reports that children scream in terror when they hear the sound of a drone.
A local psychologist says that their fear and the horrors they witness is causing
permanent mental scarring. Children wounded in drone attacks told the researchers
that they are too traumatised to go back to school and have abandoned hopes of the
careers they might have had. Their dreams as well as their bodies have been broken.
Obama does not kill children deliberately. But their deaths are an inevitable outcome
of the way his drones are deployed. We don't know what emotional effect these
deaths might have on him, as neither he nor his officials will discuss the matter: almost
everything to do with the CIA's extrajudicial killings in Pakistan is kept secret. But you
get the impression that no one in the administration is losing much sleep over it.
Two days before the murders in Newtown, Obama's press secretary was asked about
women and children being killed by drones in Yemen and Pakistan. He refused to
answer, on the grounds that such matters are "classified". Instead, he directed the
journalist to a speech by John Brennan, Obama's counter-terrorism assistant.
Brennan insists that "al-Qaida's killing of innocents, mostly Muslim men, women and
children, has badly tarnished its appeal and image in the eyes of Muslims".
He appears unable to see that the drone war has done the same for the US. To
Brennan the people of north-west Pakistan are neither insects nor grass: his targets
are a "cancerous tumour", the rest of society "the tissue around it". Beware of anyone
who describes a human being as something other than a human being.
Yes, he conceded, there is occasionally a little "collateral damage", but the US takes
"extraordinary care [to] ensure precision and avoid the loss of innocent life". It will act
only if there's "an actual ongoing threat" to American lives. This is cock and bull with
The "signature strike" doctrine developed under Obama, which has no discernible
basis in law, merely looks for patterns. A pattern could consist of a party of unknown
men carrying guns (which scarcely distinguishes them from the rest of the male
population of north-west Pakistan), or a group of unknown people who look as if they
might be plotting something. This is how wedding and funeral parties get wiped out;
this is why 40 elders discussing royalties from a chromite mine were blown up in
March last year. It is one of the reasons why children continue to be killed.
Obama has scarcely mentioned the drone programme and has said nothing about its
killing of children. The only statement I can find is a brief and vague response during
a video conference last January. The killings have been left to others to justify. In
October the Democratic cheerleader Joe Klein claimed on MSNBC that "the bottom
line in the end is whose four-year-old gets killed? What we're doing is limiting the
possibility that four-year-olds here will get killed by indiscriminate acts of terror". As
Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, killing four-year-olds is what terrorists do. It doesn't
prevent retaliatory murders, it encourages them, as grief and revenge are often
Most of the world's media, which has rightly commemorated the children of Newtown,
either ignores Obama's murders or accepts the official version that all those killed are
"militants". The children of north-west Pakistan, it seems, are not like our children.
They have no names, no pictures, no memorials of candles and flowers and teddy
bears. They belong to the other: to the non-human world of bugs and grass and
"Are we," Obama asked on Sunday, "prepared to say that such violence visited on our
children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?" It's a valid
question. He should apply it to the violence he is visiting on the children of Pakistan.