Drones — One white death can change everything

Published April 27, 2015
What scores of civilian deaths could not do was easily accomplished by the death of one Warren Weinstein. —DawnNews screengrab
What scores of civilian deaths could not do was easily accomplished by the death of one Warren Weinstein. —DawnNews screengrab

Let us kill the people who are trying to kill us,” President Obama has been reported as telling his aides in relation to drone attacks.

Indeed, drones have been the darlings of the Obama administration; their remote capabilities and their reputed precision allowing them to claim the heads of a bunch of Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives without ever having to worry about American soldiers returning in caskets.

Reducing brown bodies in other countries to dots on digital screens, the drone campaign with its 514 hits in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen has been feted and applauded as no cost killing at its best.

See: Secret govt document reveals scores of civilians killed in US drone strikes

Then this January came the death of a white, American hostage: Warren Weinstein, an American who was being kept hostage in the tribal areas of Pakistan. In an instant, what had been a near round celebration of remote controlled killing has transformed into calls for an honest investigation of the program.

The over 2350 drone casualties documented by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism could not provoke the calls for accountability that one white American death has provoked.

While 38 Westerners have been killed by drone strikes over the past several years; most have been non-white, hence deserving of lesser attention and no analysis.

So important was the announcement that an American had been accidentally killed by an American drone strike, that it was announced by the American President himself, his tone and body language appropriately apologetic and solemn.

Following his statement, the view of drones that is visible to the rest of the world was (at least for an instant) made apparent to the public of the country that uses them to kill and never bothers with the details. The New York Times called it a “a devastating acknowledgment for Mr Obama, who had hoped to pioneer a new, more discriminating kind of warfare”.

With Warren Weinstein’s death: a darling technology, a nifty way to kill others elsewhere, had become questionable, problematic, worthy of reckoning and questioning.

The realities of places like Pakistan, the demographic changes and internal strife that are a result of drone strikes and security operations, are not visible to far away Americans. Like the bombing of Yemen, the droning of Pakistan is a low-cost way to wage war; its casualties imposing no political cost in global politics.

Also read: Pakistani family urges US to end drone strikes

Oct 29, 2013: At a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, nine-year-old Nabila Rehman holds a photo with a drawing she made depicting a drone strike that killed her grandmother. — AP
Oct 29, 2013: At a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, nine-year-old Nabila Rehman holds a photo with a drawing she made depicting a drone strike that killed her grandmother. — AP

Just as Yemen appears mysterious and dehumanised, so does Pakistan. The fact that terror attacks and organisations have both proliferated and increased their capacity in the decade of drones also seems to have little or no effect on their use.

The fact that drones can make mistakes, and do make mistakes that are counted in human lives, is a point that has been made by the death of Warren Weinstein.

The fact that it could not be noticed until it killed a white American civilian underscores the calculus which says that the losses of certain lives belonging to certain countries are inherently more tragic than the rest.

Tribesmen sit with Sadaullah Khan (C), a man from North Waziristan, who says he lost both legs and one eye in a drone strike on his house in 2009, as they demonstrate near the parliament house in Islamabad on December 9, 2010. — Reuters
Tribesmen sit with Sadaullah Khan (C), a man from North Waziristan, who says he lost both legs and one eye in a drone strike on his house in 2009, as they demonstrate near the parliament house in Islamabad on December 9, 2010. — Reuters

The value of other innocent civilians – Pakistanis, Yemenis and Somalis – do not register on the indicators of global tragedy determined by these discriminatory mathematics.

They occasion no international mourning, no worldwide outcry.

In Pakistan, and at close range, there is no ignoring the devastation, whether it is in the droves of homeless, hapless refugees; the rekindling of ethnic wars; the submerging of a whole country into a darkness borne via remote control.


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