Imagine with me…
It is a day like any other. Your backyard is filled with balloons, laughter, food, family, and friends. The sun is drenching the whole scene in a pleasant warmth and soft light, and the songbirds of summer seem to be chirping and chiming from the arms of every oak and maple that border the lawn. In a gesture of hospitality, you lift the glass pitcher of lemonade off the patio table and make your way through the familiar crowd to refill the empty cups.
Suddenly, slicing through the merriment, you think you hear a whistling sound. The briefest of instants later there is an abrupt, earth-pounding pulse and the whole world is spinning in the wake of a deafening explosion—grill, grass, and loved ones are strewn over the lawn amidst debris. Your first thought is of your daughter, three years old today. You desperately scan the remains of the yard, and quickly recognize the two shoes sticking out beyond the edge of the sandbox. Stumbling, tripping, you rush over and the sight that greets you is unfathomable, sending you into a wailing shock.
This sweet innocence has been shredded by shrapnel. Her face is missing and half of her head is caved in, shrouded by a few blood-stained blond ringlets that have somehow remained. A piece of metal has split her tender skull in two, and her right arm is lying limp, nearly detached from her side, as a flash flood of warm red pools on the ground beneath and all around her.
Dazed, dumbstruck, and so overwhelmed with sudden grief you can scarcely believe this is real, you struggle to breathe, choking on sobs and smoke as you stumble around looking for something to hold on to. The backside of your home is blown out, and the ground is smattered with debris. Confusion and chaos are everywhere. Your eyes lock on your spouse lying on the ground, struggling to sit up from beneath a pile of debris, bleeding with apparent abrasions from shards of flying glass, twisted metal, and God knows what else. There are a few screams of agony and entirely too much silence for the number of people who were there just moments ago.
The gritty stench of death and churned up dirt is palpable. It sticks in your nostrils like a clogged garbage disposal. Terrorism has come barging through your door and it shows no mercy.
Step away now.
This scene sounds fantastical. Impossible. Out of the imagination of an overly dramatic novelist. Yet this is a regular occurrence in Middle Eastern nations that are targets of US drone strikes. This scene is a part of their lives.
A comprehensive study conducted jointly by the Stanford University International Human Rights & Conflict Resolution Clinic and New York University’s Global Justice Clinic entitled “Living under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians From US Drone Practices in Pakistan” sheds some light on drone warfare.
This study shows that the US government is hesitant to release any real statistics on unintended civilian casualties of our drone strikes, while revealing an obvious exaggeration by officials of their success and repeated downplaying of the catastrophic consequences the strikes are having on the people on the ground.
Hundreds of civilians have been murdered by US drones in northern Pakistan alone. The report judged the most credible figures to be from 474 to 881 civilians killed by drones between June 2004 and September 2012, in northern Pakistan alone. Many of these are women and children. In addition, there are hundreds more suffering from severe burns, amputations, and head injuries. Other studies show an average of 28 innocent bystanders killed—including women and children— for every ‘bad guy’ targeted.
Children in these communities are especially suffering from extreme symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as a result of constant drones overhead and witnessing the people in their communities being blown to pieces as drone strikes go ripping through their neighborhoods without warning. Typical child behavior in these areas includes constant crying, bed-wetting, a fear of leaving the house and an inability to sleep. Some have been so traumatized, they have entirely lost their ability to talk in the aftermath of repeated strikes. The constant fear of a messy death from a misplaced missile is very real, and looms large. The sound of drones overhead produces panic-induced shaking that frequently overcomes these kids. In some areas, our drones have been a near constant presence.
A Pakistani mental health professional shared his worries about the long-term ramifications of such psychological trauma on children:
“The biggest concern I have as a [mental health professional] is that when these children grow up, the kinds of images they will have with them is going to have a lot of unfortunate consequences. You can imagine the impact it has on personality development. People who have experienced such things, they don’t trust people; they have anger, desire for revenge . . . So when you have these young boys and girls growing up with these impressions, it causes permanent scarring and damage.”
In some areas of northern Pakistan, people have refrained from gathering together for school, town meetings, funerals and weddings because a pattern has been recognized: Evidence suggests that the United States military has become suspicious of gatherings. Where people gather, drones strike. Schools have shut down in some areas because children are stuck clinging to their parents, afraid to leave the house, and parents often won’t allow their children to be caught “gathering” on drone video surveillance because they have seen what might happen. Countless homes, schools and community centers have been destroyed.
Many studies reveal that terrorism and anti-American sentiments are multiplying at alarming rates in the places where we repeatedly send our drones. Aljazeera reported that in a recent poll the Pew Research Center found that 74 per cent of Pakistanis now consider the US an enemy. In other words, our attempts to make the world “safer” through the use of drones, is backfiring and breeding more terrorists. The adage “violence begets violence” proves true.
When foreigners enter our country and unleash unethical tactics of violence on civilians, we call it “terrorism.” When we do the same thing to civilians in other countries we attempt to justify it with different labels and terminology.
In conversation, a close friend of mine recently revealed to me that she had had an abortion a couple decades ago. She still thinks about what might have been, and mourns what never was. But she also explained to me that she was in a very desperate situation at the time and knew of no way out. She had little income, no health insurance, no support from family, and was trying to scrape together what she could to get through community college. As I reflect back on that conversation I wonder where the church was in such a time. Perhaps there could have been a way out for her and her unborn child. Perhaps one life didn’t have to be chosen over another.
Considering drone warfare leaves me with similar thoughts and questions. Is there a way for the church to model a different way, one in which we don’t have to choose between our lives and those of others? If my friend had been better supported by fellow Christians, would she have decided to have an abortion? If the church led the way in speaking of people in the countries that we’re targeting in ways that emphasize their humanness, would we be so willing to write children and civilians off as “collateral damage”?
When a woman considers abortion, pregnancy resource centres have noticed that her willingness to choose an abortion changes once she has seen an ultrasound of the little one growing so innocently inside her. Seeing the beating heart adds a layer of humanness to her decision. When unmanned drones strike, do we give ourselves a chance to look into the face and see the humanity - the reflection of God - in the one whose innocent life is being taken?
Sometimes we think we have the power and wisdom to decide which lives are more valuable and which lives are expendable. But all of life is precious. All of life is sacred. All of life is created and loved by God. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to grasp the power to make these kinds of decisions - decisions that are always tilted to favor ourselves regardless of which side we’re on and which generally make little attempt to hear and empathize with the story of the other.
Jesus gives us a third way - a way that values love over hatred, forgiveness over grudges, peace over violence. And sometimes I wonder if we fail to have ears to hear him. His way is one that respects all life. He tells us to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us. His wisdom plunges deeper than our understanding is able to reach or fully comprehend. Perhaps we need to trust in him and his wisdom even when it seems to make no earthly sense to our fallen human nature. We know this won’t be easy. It may even require sacrifice. It will perhaps even cost us our lives. But God promises to send his spirit with us to be an ever present guide and comfort.
Leaving the negative political and foreign policy ramifications aside, it is clear that anyone who cares deeply for the sanctity of human life must not only be opposed to the policy of drone warfare, but must be an advocate to end it. This is not an ambiguous issue for followers of Jesus. The world is watching and wondering “where is the church?” Let’s work together for the protection of innocent life—all of it.
[Image: Flickr user Nadir Burney]