In our world, a blue sky is the quintessence of a perfect day. It is easy to picture the sound of children playing and birds chirping, but it is perhaps more difficult to close one’s eyes and imagine what a blue sky might mean to others. In explicating his experience of a drone strike that killed his mother, thirteen year old Zubair Rehman says that he “[n]ow prefer[s] cloudy days when the drones don’t fly. When the sky brightens and becomes blue, the drones return and so does the fear.” The same boy that might be found playing on the playground with his friends in America is left cowering in fear in the face of the sun in the combat zones of the Middle East. Like the blue sky, it is often difficult for one to understand and sympathize with how others experience violence in particular. In the context of drone strikes, the same distance that inhibits our sympathy has enabled a new structure of warfare where even children like Zubair must fear for their lives.
The infamous Predator drone has attracted a great deal of controversy in recent years. Its unique capabilities as a weapon both give it unprecedented efficiency and a chilling distance between the operator and their target. However, opposition to drone strikes has dwindled in the recent political climate and many largely accept drone strikes as a legitimate foreign policy tool. In the face of ever-imminent terrorist threats, talk about structural violence supported by drones is not normally welcomed in mainstream political discourse. Leading proponents of drone warfare dismiss opposition as impractical and moralizing, and the narrative of self-defense has gained significant momentum across party lines. President Obama has increased the use of drone strikes in comparison to George Bush. He notes in his defense that “This is a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists, who are trying to go in and harm Americans, hit American facilities, American bases and so on.” Given that liberals typically oppose a military response, Obama and Democratic party leaders’ support of drone strikes has made it difficult for dissenting voices to be introduced.
A recent campaign to bring to light the realities of drone warfare is the “Not a Bug Splat” movement in Pakistan. A collective of artists put up an enormous portrait in Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa of a child who had been killed by a drone strike. The portrait is sized and positioned in order to be in view of the drone operator’s cameras in the region. The name of the campaign is a reference to the term operators use to refer to drone strike victims: “bug splats.” It may seem easy to dismiss the inappropriate remarks the military employs, but given drone strikes’ lethal potential and how discourse can shape our understanding of certain persons, it is imperative to condemn any practice that mocks a dead body.
However, it is an especially grave mistake to conclude this was an anomalous error made by a few heartless soldiers rather than an indication of problematic cultural norms more broadly. Henry Giroux explains the importance of critiquing these norms using the example of Abu Ghraib:
“Often framed within dominant forms… of meaning, such images frequently work to legitimate…meaning marked by disturbing forms of diversion…This position is evident in…the endless commentaries that view the abuses at Abu Ghraib as caused by a few “bad apples.” Subjecting such public pronouncements to critical inquiry can only emerge within…pedagogical sites…in which matters of critique and a culture of questioning are requisite to a vibrant and functioning democracy.”
Thus, before the public is quick to support the defense of American lives, it is critical to examine defense for whom and from whom. If as a public we narrow our frame of reference to only those near to us, it is easy to ignore what forms of distant violence can be inflicted upon marginalized bodies. In an age where killing itself is viewed through the lens of the computer screen, it is particularly important to ensure the lives taken away are acknowledged as genuine deaths instead of “bug splats.” If a commitment to ending unjustified violence in the Middle East produced by stereotypes is important, it is pertinent to understand phrases like “bug splat” to be indicative of a broader cultural problem. An American flag may wave in our own backyard, but we must remember how a commitment to the flag might affect those thousands of miles away.