Not all children are the same – some are collateral damage


President Barack Obama, looked terribly distressed at the vigil to commemorate the victims, twenty of whom were children. Obama’s words, as well as his emotions, were sincere. He said

 The majority of those who died today were children, beautiful little kids between the ages of five and ten years old..They had their entire lives ahead of them, birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own.

The Newtown shooting has been a terrible tragedy, so shocking that it has reopened the debate about gun crime in a country with  300 million of them among a population of 311 million.  Could the massacre have been avoided? In the current situation, probably not. That school could have been anywhere, and the killer apparently acted out of his mind rather than out of a plan.Obama has children of his own and his sadness over the event is very real. He can, as he said more than once, empathise with the parents. He reminded his audience that parents can do everything, but there is no way to provide one hundred percent security for one’s own children. Things happen.

Yet not all ‘beautiful little kids’ are the same: some are ‘collateral damage’.

Mr Barack Obama, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, has made a very similar decision to that of Mr Adam Lanza: to take joy, beauty, hope and life away from innocent children. The only differences are that Mr Lanza killed twenty children while Mr Obama’s Hellfire Missiles have killed 178 beautiful kids in Pakistan and Yemen (and still counting); Mr Lanza took his own life after his crimes and Mr Obama decided to run for President again, presenting his anti-terror strategy as a success.

To understand anthropologically the differences in reaction, we need to observe first the language used in describing drone victims. These victims would all be innocent for any western court since they are all, ‘collateral damage’ or not, extra-juridical executions and there is no possible appeal to the death-sentence. In this, indeed, drone operations are very similar to terrorist actions as they are based upon a decision to sentence people to death that is rooted in political, ideological and strategic justifications.

Let us observe the terminology: children have been purposely misidentified as ‘dogs‘ in order to help the operator of the drone to feel less guilty.  Then there is the famous ‘bug splats‘, and even, as adviser Bruce Riedel explained, a comparison of assassinations to gardening: ‘you’ve got to mow the lawn all the time. The minute you stop mowing, the grass is going to grow back‘.

Then the victims  are not counted, they are non-humans by definition; they do not exist, their lives and deaths dissolve in the flash of the Hellfire as does the stress  and trauma of living a life of fear, in particular for children. The fact is that we are not dealing with de-humanization, we are dealing with human obliteration in all meanings.

Compare the unknown names and faces of children killed by Obama’s drones with the well reported names and faces, life histories and videos of the victims in Newtown;  compare the stories of stress and pain among the Newtown parents with what we know of the parents who have lost children to drone strikes. Can you mention one single name? One single place? Can you close your eyes and see one single face of a child killed by drones? I suspect the answer is no. Yet Obama has approved all lists of extra-juridical killings. He knows that among the dead will be beautiful kids, yet something makes them different from those in Newtown, something makes them unworthy of public tears. How can such a sensitive man sleep at night knowing that he indirectly killed beautiful Fatima?

We do not know very much about empathy, but neuroscience has provided some important insights in such respect. Research shows that an essential aspect of it  is to perceive the other person as like the self. Also, research shows that contextual appraisal, group membership, in-group/out-group dynamics, personal beliefs may modulate empathic neuronal activation.

Furthermore, empathy often involves co-activations in networks associated with social cognition, depending on the specific situation and information available in the environment. In other words, what we call empathy is the product of a sophisticated neuro-mechanism based on an individual’s capacity to make sense, imagine and perceive the mental states of other people. There are strong evidences that we use the same neural circuits for making sense of ourselves and  others.  We literally feel others.

Yet Obama peacefully sleeps while drones  ‘mow the grass’.  The reason is that Obama is sheltered from the pain, photos, names, ages, life histories of those children killed by the President’s drones. For Obama, this ‘collateral damage’ is comprised of faceless numbers, which are ‘dogs’ or ‘bugs’ for drone operators and, for certain advisors, the 178 children are ‘grass’.  The process is called de-humanization.

The similarity between Mr Lanza’s action and Obama’s drone policy is stronger than one might imagine. Both Mr Lanza and Obama have the capacity for empathising with other people, but like in a videogame, there are no people or ‘beautiful kids’ in the Newtown school or in Pakistani and Yemenite neighbourhoods: there are only targets.

5 thoughts on “Not all children are the same – some are collateral damage

  1. True the lives and hopes of children are snuffed out whether by a madman’s bullet or a remotely operated drone. Let’s not erase the humanity and identity of the drone victims. Publish their names, pictures, hopes and stories and the feelings of their families and keep sending their details to the man who authorises their murders. Maybe then he will put his tears into perspective.

  2. I agree with Gary’s comment, not only do we need to know the names, we need to know the numbers. A great moral crime was committed in the late 1980’s when that awful term ‘collateral damage’ was introduced into the lexicon. I’m interested in language and you outlined the use of ‘bug splats’ ‘dogs’ and ‘mowing the grass’ very well. And the effect is clear; there is no emotional attachment when a child is obliterated in Pakistan or Yemen. And try and find the information when their deaths aren’t even counted.
    There is a site attempting this. Not sure about posting links in your comments, so I will just leave the title if you wish to google “Pakistan Body Count’.
    Great post

  3. We can’t ignore the way that we feel a certain fatalism about deaths in the context of war that happen in a war-zone. You just can’t pretend that the context of war or peace does not matter. The US drone attacks do not happen without cause or good reason and its as wrong to talk about extra-judicial killing in the context of the war against Islamic extremists as it would have been to make similar claims about any previous killing during say WW2 .

    • Yet your point had a serious vulnus: If this were a war (although Yemen and Pakistan are not at war with the US) it means that the “Islamists” have the right to attack the US. Hence, according to you, we do not have “terrorism” but a war. A war means to acknowledge the enemy as such and try to find a solution or by a clear victory– which must be acknowledged by your enemy– or by a armistice– if the war cannot be won by the two parties.

      I do not see this traditional war dynamic in the war on terror. The US has created a new form of war, one that cannot be won or lost. Democracy has its risks and has its rules. One of this is a strong and firm believes in justice. The US is not fighting a war against an enemy, it fighting a war against a label “terrorism”. That’s the problem. Drones attacks are assassination and illegitim as much as suicide operations which kills civilians. The war on terror is a conceptual disaster, a mistake of logical typing of which the US has lots control of.

  4. Gabrielle

    Yet your point had a serious vulnus: If this were a war (although Yemen and Pakistan are not at war with the US) it means that the “Islamists” have the right to attack the US.

    The war is between a nation state and non state belligerents and as such all non state belligerents are legitimate targets for the use of deadly force, frankly the “right” of Islamists to attack the USA is a moot point.

    Hence, according to you, we do not have “terrorism” but a war. A war means to acknowledge the enemy as such and try to find a solution or by a clear victory– which must be acknowledged by your enemy– or by a armistice– if the war cannot be won by the two parties.

    Well I say that when faced with an enemy who are not amenable making peace you have two choices, either surrender or seek to otherwise neutralise the threat that they pose to your people and infrastructure through military means. That said wars are never clean or pretty but the imperative to avoid “bad” press means that every effort is made by the USA to minimise civilian causalities where as maximum civilian casualties are the aim in most Jihadist “missions” frankly that makes it hard for me to feel anything but contempt for those who do violence in the name of Islam and to feel that taking out their combatants with drone strikes is entirely justified.

    I do not see this traditional war dynamic in the war on terror. The US has created a new form of war, one that cannot be won or lost.

    Hmm who created the war again? Wasn’t it Muslim Hijackers who flew the planes into the twin towers? That said I depute the suggestion that this is a war that can not be won.

    Democracy has its risks and has its rules. One of this is a strong and firm believes in justice. The US is not fighting a war against an enemy, it fighting a war against a label “terrorism”.

    Justice is not only found in the courts and the legalistic processes that they entail. When it comes to the drone strikes you have to ask yourself just one question and that is were the individuals who were targeted active Jihadists, ? Because if your answer is yes then why are they not legitimate targets for the use of deadly force?

    That’s the problem. Drones attacks are assassination and illegitim as much as suicide operations which kills civilians. The war on terror is a conceptual disaster, a mistake of logical typing of which the US has lots control of.

    All concepts of the rules of war claim that all combatants and agents of the state apparatus are considered legitimate targets for military action and when you are dealing with a trans-national non state actor then all members of its command and control hierarchy are likewise legitimate targets, even when they deliberately hide behind the bodies of innocent women and children.

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