The response to the recent tragic shooting at a US elementary school, in which 27 civilians – including 20 children – were killed in cold blood, has been unanimous in its support to the families of those involved, and the memories of the innocent have been mourned all over the world. From Barack Obama to QPR Football Club, messages of grief and solidarity have been flooding in to comfort those tending to their own physical and emotional wounds.
In 2012, America has launched more than one drone strike per day against targets in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia: places as far away, in many respects, as it is possible to be from Newtown, Connecticut. They’re countries that rarely come up in conversation, and seldom make their way into our thoughts. Which is probably why we don’t feel the same sense of sadness, day-to-day, at the loss of innocent life that those drone strikes bring about.
While exact figures about these attacks and the victims of them are hard to come by, the ones that we do have available tell a rather chilling tale. Only about 2% of the deaths from the strikes kill high-level targets, a Stanford Law School and New York University's School of Law report – titled Living Under Drones – concluded earlier this year. The same report put the number of civilians killed by drones in the last 8 years, in Pakistan alone, at anywhere between 474 – 881, including 176 children.
These strikes are generally kept out of the public eye. Out of popular sight and mind. That makes projects like Dronestagram of utmost importance. Dronestagram reports drone strikes via an Instagram feed, with Google Maps Satellite images of the areas targeted – most are remote and rural – posted to Twitter and a tumblr blog. It’s the brainchild of James Bridle, owner of popular blog "The New Aesthetic", who aims to make the targeted locations “just a little bit more visible, a little closer. A little more real”.
Mr Bridle hopes that his project will make us all stop and think about the impact of modern warfare on the lives of people living in areas ripped apart by conflict. “These are just images of foreign landscapes”, he says, “yet we have got better at immediacy and intimacy online: perhaps we can be better at empathy too.”
And it’s hard to argue that these drone strikes, and their innocent victims, are not worth thinking about. After all, if we are to care about defenceless children dying in the U.S., or in our country for that matter, it makes sense to say that we should care at least a little about young Yemenis who have their life’s tragically ended, caught in the crossfire of a war that they didn’t subscribe to.
It’s hard to imagine the fear felt by families living in the North-West region of Pakistan, where the unmanned drones hover 24 hours a day, knowing that an attack could come at any time. It’s a sentiment summed up in Living Under Drones: “Kids are too terrified to go to school, adults are afraid to attend weddings, funerals, business meetings, or anything that involves gathering in groups. Yet there is no end in sight, and nowhere that the ordinary men, women and children of North West Pakistan can go to feel safe.”
This is not the only use of social media that aims to highlight the impact of the drone strikes. NYU student Josh Begley uses the Twitter handle @dronestream to chronicle every strike since 2002, including details of the victims of the attacks. He started tweeting 5 days ago, and he’s only just reached August 2010. Reports of civilian casualties are regular: faceless Afghans and Pakistanis having their lives cut short. 3 days ago, Begley tweeted about an attack on Sep 8, 2009. “A US drone killed 7. Elders in the area said many 'were civilians staying in a village house' (Pakistan)”. From earlier in the week: “: 12 people were killed in the 2nd drone attack in 24 hours, including 2 women and 3 children (Pakistan).”
Begley’s tweets have revealed a worrying trend: an affinity for the so-called “double tap” that seems to be a part of many of these attacks – with areas hit by a number of strikes in quick succession. Typically, this tactic is used by terrorist groups such as Hamas, and targets rescue groups that come to the aid of anyone caught in the initial strike. The thought that the US could be engaging in this type of warfare is sobering, to say the least.
Reading through both Dronestagram and @dronestream, it’s easy to forget the purpose that these attacks serve. Of course, the targeting of terrorists is not an easy business, and if we are to be committed in fighting the war on terror, we will have to accept at least some civilian casualties. But the way that the deaths of innocents go unreported, as if nothing has happened, is surely unforgivable. The loss of an Afghan child’s life should be as biting a reminder of our fragility as the death of any one of the 20 children horrifically killed in Connecticut last week, and Dronestagram and its contemporaries aim to remind us of just that fact.