Dawn News

The good Americans

MEDEA Benjamin, co-founder of the anti-war group CodePink, recently said: “We want to publicly join the Pakistani call for an end to the drone strikes, and insist that our government apologise and compensate the families of innocent victims.

“We travel as ‘citizen diplomats’, modeling a relationship of respect and reverence for life that we would like our government to adopt.”

Benjamin is part of a delegation of American peace activists protesting drone attacks and that was scheduled to join a peace march — permission for which has been denied by the local administration — to South Waziristan in collaboration with the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf on Oct 7.

The American activists have been at the forefront of attempting to change the narrative on drone attacks in Pakistan among the American public.

It has been an uphill task. As a Washington Post poll from February this year noted, 83 per cent of Americans were in favour of using drones against “terrorist suspects overseas”.

Their position is supported by their ignorance: few Americans know anything about drones, the protocol followed in operating them, or the tactics used to select targets.

With the American economy and an unpromising job market dominating the headlines in the run-up to the US presidential election, most Americans seem content to leave the dirty, complicated business of rounding up terrorists to remote-control warfare without taking the trouble to demand accountability for the killing being done in their name.

Groups like CodePink and Veterans for Peace have tried to disturb this inertia. On Sept 27, 2012 Veterans for Peace conducted a simultaneous protest outside the San Diego manufacturing plants of General Atomics, the manufacturer of Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles used by the American and British militaries.

Reaper drones have been used to target and kill in Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Following the protest, which also took place in the London plant of the company, Veterans for Peace is collecting signatures protesting drone attacks in Pakistan that they plan to deliver to the UN secretary general, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, President Obama and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The intentions of these activists are clear; they see drone attacks as an invasion of Pakistan’s sovereignty, decry the civilian loss of life in the name of security for Americans and want to show Pakistanis that not all Americans share the self-serving view of US policymakers adept at using legal loopholes to accomplish short-sighted goals.

In Pakistan, however, their good intentions are likely to be challenged. As a recent poll done by the Pew Foundation demonstrates, Pakistan has the highest level of anti-American sentiment — 74 per cent of Pakistanis see the US as an enemy.

Pakistanis don’t need to look at these polls to know this; the raging mobs and rampant destruction following the protests against an anti-Islam video originating in the US barely a fortnight ago demonstrated the sentiment quite adequately.

In the local Pakistani pre-election context, defending Islam and Pakistan neatly equals denouncing America and in its recent most destructive iteration, everything American good or bad is fair game.

It is this last fact, the inability of many in Pakistan to distinguish between the good and bad of American policy or positions, that puts a question mark on whether such a peace march can take place, even if the most well-intentioned of Americans participate in it.

The Pakistani argument against drones is that they are an impingement on Pakistani sovereignty, cause more harm than good and are careless at distinguishing between Pakistani civilians and the terror suspects they are out to catch.

The now forbidden peace march poses the last question to Pakistanis: is it possible to be angry at drones, angry at the imperialist overreach, angry at the myopia of American foreign policy and still retain the reasonableness and empathy to distinguish between good and bad Americans?

As thorny questions go, there are few or no easy answers. If the protests surrounding the disparaging film were disturbing in their ferocity, the rhetoric of denunciation was similarly alarming in its inability to draw a distinction between the film as an act of a cruel provocateur who happens to live in the US and the film as a representation of official American views on Islam or Muslims.

Several Pakistani political figures eager to score election points and ride the anointing waves of anti-Americanism actively encouraged the conflation, and were not at all apologetic about whetting the already boiling rage across the country. Some of those who did so are also vocal against drones and affiliated with the party organising the peace march in Waziristan.

The American peace activists who arrived in Pakistan have come alone, without the security provided to American diplomats, the convoys of armed guards in SUVs that have such tragic associations in the Pakistani mind. They have come without protection to show that they regret and rebel against the position of their government that is unable to see the displacement and destruction it does via remote control in foreign lands.

They have come to a country suspended between logic and illogic. All Pakistanis can agree that the most tragic aspect of the violence surrounding the film protests were the many innocent shopkeepers, themselves devout and without any connection to the film or the US, who lost their businesses, the result of decades of sweat and savings, to the undifferentiating anger of a mob intent on destruction.

It is that suspension of logic and rationality that is Pakistan’s challenge for peace, and that stands between the gesture brought to them by the American peace activists and their ability to respect and value it with the grace of those who can look beyond their own pain.

Such an exchange requires the blurring of the line between enemy and friend. Its most stalwart opponents on either side, American and Pakistani, are the champions of war who wish to keep both Americans and Pakistanis angry and blind.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.


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Rafia Zakaria is an attorney and human rights activist. She is a columnist for DAWN Pakistan and a regular contributor for Al Jazeera America, Dissent, Guernica and many other publications.

She is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon Press 2015). She tweets @rafiazakaria

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (8) Closed

Oct 03, 2012 07:57pm
Always like reading you. The difference between the American people and their Government is like chalk and cheese.
Oct 04, 2012 12:20pm
The rest of the Americans are NOT bad Americans.
Greg Allen
Oct 03, 2012 04:46pm
I'm American and I am against the drone attacks. I respect the soverignty of Pakistan and am saddened that they often kill innocent people. But what to do about the terrorists that hide in Pakistan and sneak back into Afghanistan and kill Americans and Aghanis? I would like to know what Paksitanis suggest is the solution to the drones.
jay komerath
Oct 03, 2012 03:42pm
what is wrong with the drone if it kills the terrorists?If the pak govt cannot stop the double talk,somebody else will have to do the job EX- " Bin laden is not in pakistan" I
Keti Zilgish
Oct 03, 2012 12:59pm
What about the many Pakistanis who's voice is not being heard? I'm referring to those who are very grateful to America for the drone attacks simply because they keep the fundamentalists in check. The pro-drone attack Pakistanis are themselves too peaceful to be able to take on the fundamentalists on their own. I know very well that many Americans are afraid that soon their governments will be using drones against anti-state militants in America and that these 'peaceful' Pakistanis i am referring to are in no position to help the anti-state militants in America against the American Government. The natural allies of the anti-state militants in America are bound to be the peace-loving anti-fundamentalist Pakistanis.
Oct 03, 2012 10:33am
American public is good then American government. I also love with American people but hate with American govt..
Ash Mirza (USA)
Oct 03, 2012 05:34am
Most Americans have BIG HEART for innocent victims.....I love America..God Bless America. Sincerely, Ash Mirza
Anwer Kirmani
Oct 03, 2012 09:17am
Rafia Zakaria asks: ' Is it possible to be angry at drones, angry at the imperialist overreach, angry at the myopia of American foreign policy and still retain the reasonableness and empathy to distinguish between good and bad Americans?' Yes it is and it should be so. We are taught this lesson regularly in our daily lives whether we are Pakistanis or non- Pakistanis. What we have to learn is to limit the 'emotional over-reach' of self-serving politicians and other vested interest groups who want to keep the pot boiling. Rafia Zakaria is at her usual best in presenting the other side of the coin of a politically binary logjam.