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.