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Tomgram: Allegra Harpootlian, The School Shooters of the Planet

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

Here's something that should still stun anyone, but has had no discernible impact in this country. Between December 29, 2001, when B-52 and B-1B bombers killed more than 100 revelers in a village in Paktia Province, Afghanistan, and December 2013, when a drone slaughtered perhaps 15 members of a car caravan headed for a wedding in Yemen, U.S. air power wiped out at least eight wedding parties -- brides, grooms, musicians, relatives, celebrating villagers, you name it -- in three countries across the Greater Middle East. To the best of my knowledge, only this website has ever tried to either count such incidents up or keep track of them over the years. As I've written in the past, if an Islamist terrorist had ever taken out an American wedding party here in the United States, the media coverage would have been overwhelming and unending -- and I doubt the event would have been forgotten any time soon, if ever.

In 2004, then-Major General James Mattis caught the spirit of the era perfectly. Responding to reports of the deaths of at least 40 celebrants in an Iraqi wedding party, including women and children, he asked, "How many people go to the middle of the desert... to hold a wedding 80 miles from the nearest civilization?" In fact, the almost- or just-wedded dead across the Greater Middle East never registered here at all. There were certainly individual news stories about such incidents, but no shock, no horror, no self-reflection whatsoever. Assumedly, the departed and instantly forgotten of Washington's distant wars since September 11, 2001 -- a day that will live in infamy, unlike the days when those wedding slaughters occurred -- don't matter a whit to Americans. Today, I doubt that one in a million of us even knows that the U.S. military ever did such things again and again and again.

Sadly, the tradition -- if that's even the word for it -- of such wedding slaughters has only continued. In April 2018 and again that July, Saudi air strikes in a war being fought with American planes, bombs, and intelligence assistance took out two Yemeni wedding parties. In the first, at least 23 villagers were killed and many more wounded. ("It took us over a week to find all the body parts," said one survivor.) In the second, 11 people in a caravan on their way to a wedding were killed, mostly women and children. Add it all up and, in those 10 brutal attacks, hundreds and hundreds of civilians in those three countries have died or been wounded while attending (or heading for) weddings.

Today, Allegra Harpootlian, a media associate at ReThink Media and a specialist on American drone strikes, considers the upsurge in emotion and protest against gun violence, especially school shootings, in this country by a mobilized new generation. In the process, given her professional focus, she asks an all-too-appropriate (and rare) question: When will Americans, young or old, start to think about the civilians that have died in striking numbers in these years of "infinite war" across the Greater Middle East and Africa? Tom

School Shooters and Drones
Linking Gun Violence at Home to America's Wars Abroad
By Allegra Harpootlian

In the wake of the February 14, 2018, mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which killed 17 students and staff members, a teacher said the school looked "like a war zone." And to many young Americans, that's exactly what it felt like. But this shooting was different. Refusing to be victims, Parkland survivors disrupted the "thoughts and prayers" cycle by immediately rallying student activists and adults across the country, mobilizing them around such tragedies and the weapons of war that often facilitate them.

Recent history suggested that such a movement, sure to be unable to keep the public's attention or exert significant pressure on lawmakers, would collapse almost instantly. Yet, miraculously enough, the same fear -- of their school being next -- that had kept young Americans paralyzed for almost 20 years was what drove these newly impassioned activists not to back down.

Let me say that, much as I admire them, I look at their remarkable movement from an odd perspective. You see, I grew up in the "school-shooting era" and now work for a non-profit called ReThink Media tracking coverage of the American drone war that has been going on for 17 years.

To me, the U.S. military and CIA drones that hover constantly over eight countries across the Greater Middle East and Africa, and regularly terrorize, maim, and kill civilians, including children, are the equivalents of the disturbed shooters in American schools. But that story is hard to find anywhere in this country. What reports Americans do read about those drone strikes usually focus on successes (a major terrorist taken out in a distant land), not the "collateral damage."

With that in mind, let me return to those teenage activists against gun violence who quickly grasped three crucial things. The first was that such violence can't be dealt with by focusing on gun control alone. You also have to confront the other endemic problems exacerbating the gun violence epidemic, including inadequate mental health resources, systemic racism and police brutality, and the depth of economic inequality. As Parkland teen organizer Edna Chavez explained, "Instead of police officers we should have a department specializing in restorative justice. We need to tackle the root causes of the issues we face and come to an understanding of how to resolve them."

The second was that, no matter how much you shouted, you had to be aware of the privilege of being heard. In other words, when you shouted, you had to do so not just for yourself but for all those voices so regularly drowned out in this country. After all, black Americans represent the majority of gun homicide victims. Black children are 10 times as likely to die by gun and yet their activism on the subject has been largely demonized or overlooked even as support for the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students rolled in.

The third was that apathy is the enemy of progress, which means that to make change you have to give people a sense of engagement and empowerment. As one of the Parkland students, Emma Gonzalez, put it: "What matters is that the majority of American people have become complacent in a senseless injustice that occurs all around them."

Washington's Expanding Drone Wars

Here's the irony, though: while those teenagers continue to talk about the repeated killing of innocents in this country, their broader message could easily be applied to another type of violence that, in all these years, Americans have paid next to no attention to: the U.S. drone war.

Unlike school shootings, drone strikes killing civilians in distant lands rarely make the news here, much less the headlines. Most of us at least now know what it means to live in a country where school shootings are an almost weekly news story. Drones are another matter entirely, and beyond the innocents they so regularly slaughter, there are long-term effects on the communities they are attacking.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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