Here's a what-if that continues to haunt me. What if some disturbed "lone wolf," "inspired" by the Islamic State's online propagandists, went out with an assault rifle or two and -- San Bernardino-style -- shot up a wedding, killing the bride and killing or wounding many others at the ceremony? Let's posit as well the sort of casualties that did come out of the San Bernardino attack: 14 dead and 22 wounded. It doesn't take a prophet or a media expert to know what the results would be: steroidal San Bernardino-style coverage 24/7 that would go on for weeks. It would be the horror story of the century. We would experience the tears, the accounts of wounded survivors, the funerals, the testimony of grief counselors, families in pain, and of course endless interviews with TV terror experts and pundits of every sort. You can imagine the role it would play in any future presidential campaign debates, what politicians in Washington would say, and so on. The thirst for revenge over such an act would be unquenchable. It would be seen, to chose a word Donald Trump has favored, as yet another revelation of the thoroughly "medieval" nature of our enemies (though with weaponry that was anything but).
And yet here's the thing that, after all these years, continues to puzzle me: such a wedding slaughter has indeed occurred. In fact, it's happened again and again in the twenty-first century -- just with a somewhat different cast of characters, next to no media coverage, and just about no one in the United States paying the slightest attention. I'm speaking about the eight times between December 2001 and December 2013 when U.S. Air Force planes or, in one case, an American drone attacked wedding parties in three countries in the Greater Middle East -- Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen -- slaughtering brides, grooms, bridal parties, and scores of revelers. By my rough count (and it speaks volumes that TomDispatch is the only place in these years which has even tried to keep track of or count up these deaths), almost 300 Afghans, Iraqis, and Yemenis died in these slaughters, including in one case even the musicians playing at the wedding. Since 2013, two more wedding parties have been eviscerated, again to next to no notice here -- both in Yemen by the U.S.-backed Saudi air force in its indiscriminate air war against Houthi rebels.
In our world, despite the fact that most of these weddings were clearly targeted "by mistake," with not a terrorist suspect in sight, no conclusions are drawn. None of it is considered "medieval." None of it counts as "barbaric." (Only one of the eight incidents, in which a number of children died, even resulted in an official American apology.) None of it is worth 24/7 coverage for weeks, or any significant coverage at all. Can there be a more striking record of how little the deaths of civilians in Washington's endless war on terror have fazed Americans or how little such deaths and the feelings of the grieving parents, siblings, children, relatives, friends, and neighbors left behind have been on the American mind? Few here seem to find any of this strange. That's why TomDispatch regular Mattea Kramer's piece today particularly speaks to me. She is the rare soul who finds an equivalency between our natural feelings of grief and loss and horror at the slaughter of American civilians, of those we care for, and the deaths of the distant victims of our wars. Tom
Killing Someone Else's Beloved
Promoting the American Way of War in Campaign 2016
By Mattea Kramer
The crowd that gathered in an airplane hangar in the desert roared with excitement when the man on stage vowed to murder women and children.
It was just another Donald Trump campaign event, and the candidate had affirmed his previously made pledge not only to kill terrorists but to "take out" their family members, too. Outrageous as that might sound, it hardly distinguished Trump from most of his Republican rivals, fiercely competing over who will commit the worst war crimes if elected. All the chilling claims about who will preside over more killings of innocents in distant lands -- and the thunderous applause that meets such boasts -- could easily be taken as evidence that the megalomaniacal billionaire Republican front-runner, his various opponents, and their legions of supporters, are all crazytown.
Yet Trump's pledge to murder the civilian relatives of terrorists could be considered quite modest -- and, in its bluntness, refreshingly candid -- when compared to President Obama's ongoing policy of loosing drones and U.S. Special Operations forces in the Greater Middle East. Those policies, the assassinations that go with them, and the "collateral damage" they regularly cause are based on one premise when it comes to the American public: that we will permanently suspend our capacity for grief and empathy when it comes to the dead (and the living) in distant countries.
Classified documents recently leaked to the Intercept by a whistleblower describe the "killing campaign" carried out by the CIA and the Pentagon's Joint Special Operations Command in Yemen and Somalia. (The U.S. also conducts drone strikes in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Libya; the leaked documents explain how President Obama has institutionalized the practice of striking outside regions of "active hostilities.") Intelligence personnel build a case against a terror suspect and then develop what's termed a "baseball card" -- a condensed dossier with a portrait of the individual targeted and the nature of the alleged threat he poses to U.S. interests -- that gets sent up the chain of command, eventually landing in the Oval Office. The president then meets with more than 100 representatives of his national security team, generally on a weekly basis, to determine just which of those cards will be selected picked for death. (The New York Times has vividly described this intimate process of choosing assassination targets.)
Orders then make their way down to drone operators somewhere in the United States, thousands of miles from the individuals slated to be killed, who remotely pilot the aircraft to the location and then pull the trigger. But when those drone operators launch missiles on the other side of the world, the terrifying truth is that the U.S. "is often unsure who will die," as a New York Times headline put it.
That's because intel on a target's precise whereabouts at any given moment can be faulty. And so, as the Times reported, "most individuals killed are not on a kill list, and the government does not know their names." In 2014, for instance, the human-rights group Reprieve, analyzing what limited data on U.S. drone strikes was available, discovered that in attempts to kill 41 terror figures (not all of whom died), 1,147 people were killed. The study found that the vast majority of strikes failed to take down the intended victim, and thus numerous strikes were often attempted on a single target. The Guardian reported that in attempts to take down 24 men in Pakistan -- only six of whom were eventually eliminated in successful drone strikes -- the U.S. killed an estimated 142 children.
Trump's plan merely to murder the relatives of terrorists seems practically tame, by comparison.
Their Grief and Mine
Apparently you and I are meant to consider all those accidental killings as mere "collateral damage," or else we're not meant to consider them at all. We're supposed to toggle to the "off" position any sentiment of remorse or compassion that we might feel for all the civilians who die thanks to our country's homicidal approach to keeping us safe.
I admit to a failing here: when I notice such stories, sometimes buried deep in news reports -- including the 30 people killed, three of them children, when U.S. airpower "accidentally" hit a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, last October; or the two women and three children blasted to smithereens by U.S. airpower last spring at an Islamic State checkpoint in northern Iraq because the pilots of two A-10 Warthogs attacking the site didn't realize that civilians were in the vehicles stopped there; or the innumerable similar incidents that have happened with remarkable regularity and which barely make it into American news reports -- I find I can't quite achieve the cold distance necessary to accept our government's tactics. And for this I blame (or thank) my father.
To understand why it's so difficult for me to gloss over the dead, you have to know that on December 1, 2003, a date I will never forget nor fully recover from, I called home from a phone booth on a cobblestone street in Switzerland -- where I was backpacking at the time -- and learned that my Dad was dead. A heart attack that struck as suddenly as a Hellfire missile.