‘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 US 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 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 back”.
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 Many have been withdrawn from school because of fears that large gatherings of any kind are being targeted.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.