The Unworthy Victims of US Drones Attacks

The Editors, 8 May 2012 | 1 Comment

Categories: Pakistan | USA | Drones | War |

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Many victims of acts of terrorism or state aggression receive the sympathy they deserve from the international media. In the case of certain aggressors however, the victims are 'unworthy'. On behalf of these victims, our media has little interest in consulting with experts on terrorism or international relations. Nor do they speculate about what the punishment or international response should be to the attackers.

The numerous people killed by US drones in the Waziristan area of Pakistan (the latest attack was 3 days ago, killing nine 'suspected militants' in a 'suspected militant compound' in an area 'thought' to be a Taliban hub) are one set of people for whom our news does not show sympathy. News of civilians or 'suspects' killed in these attacks does not demonstrate the kind of outrage that we might naturally expect in other cases. It is quite possible that this is because they are the victims of the US’s ‘war on terror’.

A total of 35 articles from the BBC website cover 324 deaths from US drones in Pakistan since the start of 2011. While international journalism performs well in bringing us the news of these killings, it is often the case that the coverage does not conjure the same sympathy in readers as it does in the case of (for example) the activists and rebels who are killed by government forces in Syria.

It seems that in the case of the victims in Pakistan, a consistent theme is that the dead are described in the terms that the killers will have used to justify the killing. Over half of the dead are referred to either as ‘suspected militants’ (39%) or ‘militants’ (15%).

The suggestion here is not that the media attempts to make the killings appear justified. Rather that when the killing is done by an ally of the UK, in this case the US, the BBC and other news providers of western countries move to explain why the attacks took place and rationalise and normalise the idea of targeted killings.

The standards that we rightly apply to others who use violence (sticking with the example of the Syrian government) simply do not seem to apply to the US, and our media reflects and encourages this by ensuring that those killed in the regular attacks in the Waziristan region are, in short, unworthy of our sympathy.


Numerous reports about killing and deaths in Syria include an image of Assad looking stern and defiant, or videos of victims in hospitals. We get a sense, however disproportionate, of the victims being subject to horrors by a ruthless government, as well as a sense of the existence of a party responsible for the killing.

Reports of drone deaths in some cases contain a map of the area in which the incident took place, but in most cases the accompanying image is an almost catalogue-standard image of the military hardware that has been used to do the killing. The sexing-up of war is acceptable, it seems, when it is the UK or its allies doing the attacking. When the US kills people, reports do not contain unflattering images of Obama, the leader of the country behind the attacks. Neither do we see images of the destruction wrought nor civilians wounded.

Tone and Emotion

Compare this report on deaths in Syria in April 2012:

Harrowing scenes were reported in the town of al-Latmana, where 17 women and eight children were said to have been crushed under the rubble of their homes in the second attack on the area in days.

with this report on deaths in Pakistan in April 2011:

Missiles were fired on a large compound in the town of Spinwam, but five women and four children in a nearby house were also killed.

The area is a haven for al-Qaeda and Taliban militants.

In Syria, women and children have been killed by an aggressor, and this is justifiably ‘harrowing’ to the reporter. The deaths of women and children killed in Pakistan, however, are seen as collateral damage - an inevitable result of killing ‘suspected militants’ without trial.

Imagine a report from Syria which stated that the government had attacked a rebel ‘compound in the town of al-Latmana, but 17 women and 8 children in a nearby house were also killed. The area is a haven for the Free Syrian Army’. Or imagine a description of a ‘harrowing scene’ which has resulted from US military aggression in Waziristan. Such descriptions hardly exist in our media. For whatever reason, despite the fact that the US military has for some time been the world leader in unleashing military aggression, the BBC is not keen to convey the horrors that result from this aggression in the way that it does in the case of Syria for example.

Public Opinion

Eleven articles about Pakistan drone attacks tell us that they are ‘hugely unpopular with the Pakistani public’ – the fact that it needs to be pointed out to us that firing hellfire missiles at houses and cars is 'hugely unpopular' with the locals is a testament to the endless deception we are subject to about NATO invasions, occupations and interventions. We don’t, after all, need to be told that the violence in Syria is ‘unpopular’ with the population. In the case of the US, the starting assumption propagated by the mainstream media is that they invade countries because of their respect for human life and human rights. It then becomes unfortunately necessary for our news to point out that killing ‘suspected militants’ and their children pre-emptively in another country is ‘unpopular’ with the local population.

The BBC college of journalism teaches us that ‘impartiality is in large measure a mindset’, a mindset that ‘gathers the facts and opinions that those involved in the story see as significant and relevant’. The idea that the news reports about drone attacks reflect the ‘significant and relevant’ facts and opinions about those ‘involved in the story’ is ultimately not convincing, and it seems that a different ‘mindset’ is at play - one which determines the value of a life based on who the killer is.

Categories in which this article appears: Pakistan | USA | Drones | War |

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Comments (1)

1. Sal08 May 2012 12:26

The utter terror of being hunted by an unmanned killing machine is one of the cliches of Hollywood cinema. London's direct experience of paralysing dread when under attack from the (relatively primitive) V1 and V2 bombs in WWII is well known. It makes the dehumanised reporting of drone attacks on Pakistan even more culpable. Also more explicable, of course, as there is a pre-made horror reaction that could be called into action and protest.

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