Barack Obama has teared up. He has spoken movingly. And now he’s taking his first steps on gun control.
Obama has said he will “use all the powers of this office” to go after gun violence even as the little victims of the Newtown elementary school massacre are laid to rest. And he’s appointed his vice president Joe Biden to head the task force that would come up with a “very specific” set of proposals to submit to Congress.
The president has faced some flak for his reaction to the Sandy Hook school killings. But it has not come from the National Rifle Association or the gun hawks in Congress all of whom went into radio silence as outrage swept America.
It’s come from the left. And it says the president’s tears and outrage exposes one thing – not all children are equal. Children in villages in Yemen and Pakistan have been dying for months, killed by drone strikes authorized by the same president.
George Monbiot writes in The Guardian:
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.
George W. Bush launched the drone programme as a sort of war by remote control. One drone strike infamously killed 69 in a religious seminary in Chenegai when it flattened the school. The target was apparently the headmaster, a known militant reported the Express Tribune. Pakistan’s government first claimed it had carried out the bombardment but eventually backtracked. A key aide to then-President Pervez Musharraf said: "We thought it would be less damaging if we said we did it rather than the US. But there was a lot of collateral damage and we’ve requested the Americans not to do it again."
Well, the United States has done it again. And again. And Nobel Peace prize winner Obama has expanded the drone strikes.
Drones were supposed to make war safer and less messier (for the ones launching the drones). They were part of an American shock and awe campaign that was meant to tell the enemy that they were not safe even when there were no American troops on the ground. In fact, America did not need boots on the ground. Someone could press a button in a suburb of Sacramento in California and someone could die half way across the world. The message was you can run but you cannot hide.
Drones might have made war safer for Americans. But it also made war less human. As Rolling Stone reported the military slang for a man killed by a drone strike is “bug splat” because that’s what it looks like on the screen. A drone pilot described operating a drone as "almost like playing the computer game Civilization" – something straight out of "a sci-fi novel." He said blowing up a technical college occupied by insurgents in Iraq left him “electrified” and “adrenalized.” “I had yet to realize the horror,” he recalled.
Brandon Bryant has realised the horror.
A feature story in Der Spiegel recounts the day Bryant pressed the button that sent a drone crashing into a village somewhere between Baghlan and Mazhar-e-Sharif and understood there was no way to rewind. (Read the full story here.)
"Did we just kill a kid?" he asked the man sitting next to him.
"Yeah, I guess that was a kid," the pilot replied.
"Was that a kid?" they wrote into a chat window on the monitor.
Then, someone they didn't know answered, someone sitting in a military command center somewhere in the world who had observed their attack. "No. That was a dog," the person wrote.
They reviewed the scene on video. A dog on two legs?
Bryant ended up leaving the military. He said that he is having trouble sleeping these days. However it’s far from clear that America is losing much sleep over these deaths. Vijay Prashad writes in the Daily Hampshire Gazette that the deaths of some children just don’t make the news.
Sometimes it’s because they die in ones and twos, not in a hail of bullets wielded by a 20-year-old gunman at an elementary school. For example, 117 children died from handgun violence this year alone in Chicago. Obama at least acknowledged those deaths in his speech.
Whether it is an elementary school in Newtown, or a shopping mall in Oregon, or a temple in Wisconsin, or a movie theater in Aurora, or a street corner in Chicago — these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods, and these children are our children.
But the Pakistani and Arab children dying in drone attacks did not get a mention in Obama’s moving eulogy. Prashad names some of them. Noor Aziz, 8, Talha, 8, Najibullah, 13, Adnan, 16, Hizbullah, 10, Wilayat Khan, 11, Asadullah, 9, Sohail, 7.
Prashad writes that when confronted about the morality of drones on television, Time Magazine’s Joe Klein (a supporter of Obama’s record) “answered emotionlessly, 'The bottom line in the end is — whose 4-year-old gets killed? What we’re doing is limiting the possibility that 4-year-olds here will get killed by indiscriminate acts of terror.’”
That’s why despite the impassioned arguments of people like Prashad, the shootings in Newtown will not force America to look into the mirror about drones. For three simple reasons.
One, when push comes to shove, a country will always prioritize its own four-year-olds.
Two, the shooter in Newtown deliberately targeted those children. No one can claim the drone operator does the same.
Three, if Obama is indeed to get tough on gun control he will need plenty of political cover. He cannot afford to open himself up to attack as a soft queasy liberal by issuing a moratorium on drone strikes now.
America might have newly discovered some resolve to take on its epidemic of guns. But it’s unlikely the benefits of that resolve will be felt in those parts of the world in the crosshairs of its drones. In fact, they might feel the heat all the more.