The Human Impact of Drones

Sept. 26, 2012, 10:30 p.m.

Human life is infinitely precious. The actions of the U.S. government with respect to drone strikes, however, do not reflect the values of a country that views innocents as human beings worthy of dignity and respect. Drone attacks by the United States have killed, at minimum, hundreds of civilians in Pakistan, many of them women and children. These attacks are conducted in the most brutal form, incinerating bodies and leaving unidentifiable pieces of flesh for others to collect.

The incredible physical destruction, psychological harm and loss of life caused by drones, often to those who have no stake in a fight against the United States, is documented in a report released by Stanford Law School’s International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic, along with NYU Law School, the product of months of legal research and fieldwork in Pakistan. The attacks are particularly disturbing because the U.S. government has repeatedly downplayed the number of civilians killed by drones. The myth of exact, targeted attacks and minimal civilian casualties unfairly absolves U.S. officials of culpability for significant harm. Time and again, U.S. government officials have refused to acknowledge civilian deaths until they are presented with contrary evidence. In fact, John Brennan, the president’s chief counterterrorism advisor, went as far as to say that “there hasn’t been a single collateral death” between August 2010 and June 2011, despite 10 separate attacks where at least 45 civilians were killed, including the highly publicized March 17, 2011, attack on a jirga, a decision-making body assembled to resolve disputes. A widely circulated investigative piece in The New York Times in May detailed how President Obama at times personally decides when it is appropriate to kill civilians.

Protecting civilians from errant (or purposeful) missiles, however, is not enough. Our research revealed that the harm extends far beyond those who are killed. In addition to evidence of significant strategic blowback, the U.S. administration must consider that its drone campaign has devastated entire communities. Victims and witnesses of drone attacks interviewed by our research team described widespread emotional suffering and symptoms of severe psychiatric illnesses. As drones have come to represent death by violent means, many expressed that they were terrified at the mere presence of drones circling overhead because of the possibility that a missile might annihilate them at any time.

Beyond individual trauma, community life is also being damaged. Many residents of North Waziristan can no longer engage in normal activities, such as congregating in groups for social gatherings, out of fear of being targeted by drones. Furthermore, the United States has consistently targeted first responders attempting to rescue victims of drone strikes with follow-up attacks, making immediate emergency aid to victims very difficult. Similarly, the U.S. has targeted funerals and spaces where families gather to offer condolences to the deceased, preventing families from holding dignified burials.

The United States’ international legal obligations aside, such actions by our government are inhumane and uncharacteristic of any decent human society. Last month, after the mass shootings in Colorado, President Obama told the nation he and his wife would be “fortunate enough to hug our girls a little tighter tonight.” The lives of civilians, and especially children, killed in Pakistan are equally important.

Whereas unprovoked and senseless attacks in this country elicit widespread outrage, similar actions by the U.S. government in other nations remain largely unchallenged by the wider public. That such apathy exists for killings conducted in our name should be cause for deliberation and introspection. As Republican and Democratic leaders gear up for elections, all citizens and conscientious human beings should demand that U.S. officials involved in hurting and killing innocents be held accountable for their actions.

Mohammad M. Ali ’10 M.A.’10 J.D./MBA ’14  is co-author of  a human rights report, “Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians,” released by Stanford Law School’s International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic.

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