American administrations prefer their invisible wars to be…you know, invisible.
After all, they’re out there battling for our peace, freedom, and global dominance. If we would just shut up and stay the hell out of their business, they could accomplish their valiant goals. In recent years, the government has grown particularly vexed by the work of journalists, whistle-blowers, and human rights activists, who have the gall to expose secret U.S. activities, including torture and the murder of innocents.
So when a decent family from a small village in Pakistan makes a visit to our nation’s capital to politely ask for justice, well, it’s a little awkward.
Because this is not the face of terrorism.
67-year-old Momina Bibi, the family matriarch, isn’t in this picture. Last year she was picking okra in her garden with her grandchildren when she was suddenly killed by a drone strike. The kids were sprayed by shrapnel and hospitalized. The father, a local teacher, was devastated and left with the question: Why?
Momina was the village midwife, not a terrorist. There were no indications of any terrorists in the vicinity. The event had the mark of a tragic mistake, especially since mistaken drone attacks are not uncommon in rural Pakistan. But there is never an apology, never support for medical treatment, never an acknowledgement that the killing of good and innocent people requires a response.
The powerful do not make such responses. Discussion of drones in Washington are typically limited to policy, tactics, statistics and other abstractions. So the Rehman family’s visit to Congress offered a vivid insistence that human devastation runs deep through many of these drone attacks.
The family loved Momina. She was the center of their life. 14-year-old Zubair Rehman talked about the lovely blue sky above their heads that day. They all had seen the drone hovering, but that was normal. They were used to it. It would not attack them. But that day, it did.
Now the blue sky means death. Zubair says, “I prefer cloudy days when the drones don’t fly.” Like many children in communities targeted by drones areas, he and his sister prefer to simply stay inside. And if the American government won’t listen to them, perhaps they’ll at least look. So 9-year-old Nabila Rehman came prepared.
Most members of Congress, however, couldn’t be bothered to attend such an unimportant event. A mere five U.S. representatives welcomed the family and listened to their story. But reporters were there [1, 2, 3]. And so we know about it. And we can see the picture she has drawn.
And anyway, the father, Rafiq Rehman, was speaking to Americans, not just their leaders:
“We’re all human beings. I knew that Americans would have a heart, that they would be sympathetic to me. That’s why I came here — I thought if they heard my story, they would want to listen to me and influence their politicians.”
[Reports of civilians killed by drones remain a matter of great dispute. The American and Pakistan governments says the number is small, with Pakistan claiming there have only been 67 drone-related civilian fatalities in its nation since 2008. A more reliable estimate comes from London's Bureau of Investigative Journalism which estimates that between 407 and 926 civilians have been killed by drones in Pakistan since 2008, or between 16% and 25% of all deaths. But since the drones are deadly, the locations remote, and some attacks go unreported, the numbers could be higher still.]