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Pakistan’s defence ministry told parliament recently that US drones have killed 67 ordinary Pakistani citizens in the past six years. The figure is open to dispute (most estimates are around the 400 mark), but that isn’t the point because there is no degree of culpability dependent on the size of a death toll. If you kill two people you aren’t judged to be half as guilty of the crime of murder as in a case in which you killed four people. If you are guilty of killing but one innocent person, you are a murderer.
In the same week that the figure of 67 was conjured up the Taliban barbarian Hakimullah Mehsud met his inevitable drone-struck end, and, of more importance, a Pakistani girl aged nine and her 14 year-old brother told the US Congress how their grandmother, Momina Bibi, had been killed in an American drone attack a year ago.
The announcement that 67 civilians had been killed by American drones was greeted by one Pakistani commentator with the warm-hearted observation that “It is a very interesting turn in this whole debate . . . It’s going to play havoc with all those who have been arguing that drones kill a lot of people and therefore must be stopped.” Does that mean the killing of Pakistani civilians by US drones is all right, provided there aren’t “a lot” of them? Some people seem to think that the CIA’s killing of “a lot” of innocent people by drone strikes might — possibly — be a bad thing, but that the slaughter of a mere 67 in six years doesn’t really matter.
If US drones kill innocent people at the rate of ‘only’ one a month for six years, is that acceptable, as some compassionate commentators appear to believe? But what death rate is not acceptable? Two a month? Three? Seven? Would it be all right for Pakistan to protest the deaths of 100 in six years? Or the likely real figure of 400? How many dead people constitute “a lot”? Can there possibly be a highest threshold of death of innocents that could be acceptable in legal or moral terms?
On 29 October the Pakistani children whose grandma had been killed by the CIA were being listened to at a Congressional hearing in Washington by five members of the US House and Senate. — Yes; out of 535 US legislators, a whole five turned up to hear the little girl, Nabila, ask America “What did my grandmother do wrong? When I hear that they are going after people who have done wrong to America, then what have I done wrong to them? What did my grandmother do wrong to them? I didn’t do anything wrong.”
But you didn’t do anything right, you poor innocent child. Unlike Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by Taliban savages, you didn’t make people feel happy and warm inside. They couldn’t feel self-righteous and smug about what happened because it was America’s missile blasts that not only killed your grandma but injured you so that you had to try “to bandage my hand but the blood wouldn’t stop. The blood kept coming.” There can never be celebrity photo-opportunities, dear Nabila, when grandmothers are blasted to shredded death by CIA drones.
You did wrong in making them feel guilty. Nobody likes that; and 530 members of the US House and Senate knew they would feel uncomfortable when you described how their video-gamesters, the mouse-clicking killers of Florida, killed your grandma, so they displayed their moral courage by ignoring you. In their defence we must remember that cameras would have roved round the room, flicking from your memory-stricken face to the embarrassed countenances of US legislators when you described the terrors of that horrible day of death — just as the drone’s cameras would have caught your grandma’s terrified expression in the split-second before she was blasted to bits.
Nabila’s father, Rafiq, has even less celeb-appeal than his children. He’s just a boringly good man, a schoolteacher in a remote area who tries his best, in Pakistan’s lousy education system, to spread tolerance and moderation. “As a teacher,” he said “my job is to educate. But how do I teach something like this? How do I explain what I myself do not understand? How can I in good faith reassure the children that the drone will not come back and kill them, too, if I do not understand why it killed my mother and injured my children?” There’s no answer to that, of course — which is why 530 US legislators refused to hear his testimony. What a bunch of spineless humbugs.
But the Florida video-gamers also killed Hakimullah Mehsud, which was a good thing, because he was a wholly wicked man who got a kick out of murder — albeit in a different way to the CIA’s techno-dweebs in their hi-tech offices who sometimes kill a grandma for freedom. The world is a better place without him, but it is difficult to see how it’s a better place without Nabila’s grandma.
So there is the difficulty for the government of Pakistan — and others around the world — because sometimes the Americans kill really horrible people who are enemies of civilisation, while sometimes they kill nice people who haven’t harmed anyone, and nobody — nobody at all — is held legally or morally responsible for what is indubitably murder.
Nabila’s brother Zubair told unhearing America that “As I helped my grandmother in the field, I could see and hear the drone hovering overhead, but I didn’t worry. Why would I worry? Neither my grandmother nor I were militants. When the drone fired the first time, the whole ground shook and black smoke rose up. The air smelled poisonous. We ran, but several minutes later the drone fired again.” Just as they will, no doubt, when the CIA kills Hakimullah’s successor, the even more bigoted and brutal Maulana Fazlullah (if the army doesn’t get him first). But meantime, how many more grandmothers will be killed for freedom?
Brian Cloughley’s website is www.beecluff.com
A version of this article appeared in The News of Pakistan.