Louder Than Bombs

What is the dream?

I dream that my legs have been cut off, that my eye is missing, that I can’t do anything ... Sometimes, I dream that the drone is going to attack, and I’m scared. I’m really scared.

After the interview is over, Sadaullah Wazir pulls the pant legs over the stubs of his knees till they conceal the bone-colored prostheses.

The articles published in the days following the attack on September 7, 2009, do not mention this poker-faced, slim teenage boy who was, at the time of those stories, lying in a sparse hospital in North Waziristan, his legs smashed to a pulp by falling debris, an eye torn out by shrapnel. Nor is there a single word about the three other members of his family killed: his wheelchair-bound uncle, Mautullah Jan and his cousins Sabr-ud-Din Jan and Kadaanullah Jan. All of them were scripted out of their own story till they tumbled off the edge of the page.

Did you hear it coming?


What happened?

I fainted. I was knocked out.

As Sadaullah, unconscious, was shifted to a more serviceable hospital in Peshawar where his shattered legs would be amputated, the media announced that, in all likelihood, a senior al-Qaeda commander, Ilyas Kashmiri, had been killed in the attack. The claim would turn out to be spurious, the first of three times when Kashmiri would be reported killed.

Sadaullah and his relatives, meanwhile, were buried under a debris of words: “militant,” “lawless,” “counterterrorism,” "compound,” (a frigid term for a home). Move along, the American media told its audience, nothing to see here. Some 15 days later, after the world had forgotten, Sadaullah awoke to a nightmare.

Do you recall the first time you realized your legs were not there?

I was in bed, and I was wrapped in bandages. I tried to move them, but I couldn’t, so I asked, “Did you cut off my legs?” They said no, but I kind of knew.

Three years after the attack on Sadaullah and his family during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and eight years after the drone attacks began killing people in Pakistan, the New York Times has finally confirmed details about the vetting process for kill lists, about crowd kills, and the way death by drone transforms any Muslim body into a “militant.”

Survivors and families of the dead have been saying exactly this for quite some time. The truth is carved out on their bodies, but it has taken a smattering of quotes from anonymous administrative officials to turn it into an important story. After all, who can believe those people — not the anonymous unaccountable ones, but the ones with the missing limbs and dead relatives, those illiterates, savages, liars, terrorists and neighbors of terrorists, and terror spawn — who can believe them?

Why do you think they attacked you?

They say there were terrorists, but it was my home... There are no terrorists. It’s just common people with beards.

Yes, it is useful for the Obama administration to admit, even anonymously, that it has defined away the problem of killing civilians by classifying a “militant” as someone who is killed by an American drone. But my point is a different one: It is about the open secret, the information that is now public knowledge but technically classified by the government. It’s about the way the American government’s hammy, theatrical performance of this faux secrecy frames the questions worth asking and determines the information worth printing.

Consider, for example, New York Times journalist Scott Shane’s response to accusations by Harvard’s media monitoring website, Nieman Watchdog, that the paper of record was enabling a “smear campaign” against those exposing the drone wars by citing accusations from anonymous officials. Here is Shane explaining how the theatre of public secrets works:

The drone program, as I have written, is in the strange category of classified but public information, which creates difficulties both for government officials and for journalists. Many outsiders and some government officials think the situation is untenable and that the program should be made overt, so that real debates could take place on Congress [sic] and the public on these issues.

In the meantime, journalists often have a choice of quoting anonymous officials or writing stories about accusations of bad strikes and innocent deaths and including no response at all. I feel it’s important to include some voice from the other side, and my editors have agreed. In addition, it seems to me important to citizens to know what the government says, even if some citizens find the statements unpersuasive or worse.

Shane alludes to what has become a well-worn practice in the American media: the reduction of all issues and politics to an abysmally farcical battle of quotes, to one side and “the other side” — as if the American state were simply the bureaucratic
equivalent of a teen amputee living in a war zone. And it gets even more convoluted. Because the state is also ostensibly a democratic and accountable one, it becomes even more necessary, as Shane says, for “citizens to know what the government says.”

But with the state representing both the position of one voice among many and also the American expression of democracy writ large, the government’s view is presented two ways: On the one hand, it’s an essential view — citizens have a right to know. On the other hand, this view often goes to print unverified, since it is one voice among competing others in a point-counterpoint model of journalism wherein differing parties offer their versions of the truth for the reader to decide. In other words, it is the government’s talk or lack thereof that constitutes all the news that’s fit to print.

So, nearly a decade after the drone strikes, what makes the news news is not the endangered lives of America’s others, but the government’s theater of secrets which keeps journalists busy hunting, cajoling, and dealmaking for leaks and official quotes to confirm what we already know. For the mainstream American press, “real debates,” as Shane honestly says, only happen after the government makes the information public. Till then, the government says move along, and the press largely obliges. This is how the domain of the real becomes government property. All else is just a dream. Or, a nightmare.


Where it concerns Pakistan, mainstream American media hardly ever seems to get around to the actual men, women, and plenty of children ripped apart by drones. Sadaullah and others like him are waiting to be heard in the mainstream U.S. press. They’ve volunteered time and again to speak to reporters. Photo and videos of them exist. The lawyer for some of these  survivors and families of victims has offered interviews, and yet each time, the mainstream press refuses. No space. No time. Not right for us. The staff is too busy to verify.

It is not that leaks or stories about them are worthless or unimportant; they are not. Indeed, the treatment of Private Manning proves how enormously important leaks are. But the public performance of secrecy by the government conditions the discussion so much that it has diminished the ability to consider seriously the lives of others.

When the government claims that the definition of a “militant” is a secret, or that the drone attack program in Pakistan’s tribal areas is classified, segments of the anti-war movement and human rights organizations respond by demanding transparency and accountability. The hope is that transparency will open the program to questioning and meaningful review. What transparency and accountability often mean concretely in the context of drone attacks on Pakistanis is evident in a press release by Human Rights Watch issued this April. The release exposes how smartly the government’s public secrets’ theatre
shifts the terms of the problem:

Remarks by a U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) official suggesting the agency is not legally bound by the laws of war underscore the urgent need for the Obama administration to transfer command of all aerial drone strikes to the armed forces ... The CIA is playing an increasing role in drone attacks with no transparency or demonstrated accountability, Human Rights Watch said ... The U.S. government’s refusal to acknowledge the CIA’s international legal obligations or provide information on strikes where there have been credible allegations of laws-of-war violations leaves little basis for determining whether the U.S. is meeting its international legal obligations, Human Rights Watch said.

In other words, the government says the basis of its actions is secret. HRW responds by demanding that the government hand over control of the drone attacks from the CIA to the military. (The assumption that the military will be more transparent is rather dubious.) Once the problem — and consequently, the solution that flows from it — is framed in these terms, it is the government’s secrecy on which the whole issue turns. The only question here is how many “civilians” versus “militants” are killed; that is, if we could just get the calculus right, there would be no further ethical or political questions. Such a position merely calls for the legalization of an illegal war. It is a sensibility of rules without a sense of principle. Rather than questioning from where we have come and where we are going, it simply asks that the trains run on time.

Even as we debate the legal machinations, official leaks and governmental manipulations by which they are killed, the daily, material, precarious existence of the people living under the disquieting hum of American drones in Pakistan’s tribal areas rarely sits at the center of discussion.

But what if it did? If, instead of the public secret, one begins with a prosthetic limb, a glass eye, and a funeral photo, the nightmare takes form, solidifies.

There is Sadaullah before you or Karim Khan talking about the brother and son he lost, or S. Hussein offering you the funeral snapshot of his months-old niece, you know that the difference between being killed by an administration that lies about how many civilians it has killed and one that has simply “changed the definition” is exactly zero. This is not information that affects the lives at hand. It doesn’t really matter if you’re killed by a lie or a definition.

When you ask Sadaullah or Karim or S. Hussein and others like them what they want, they do not say “transparency and accountability.” They say they want the killing to stop. They want to stop dying. They want to stop going to funerals — and being bombed even as they mourn. Transparency and accountability, for them, are abstract problems that have little to do with the concrete fact of regular, systematic death. The technologies to kill them move faster than the bureaucracies that would keep more of them alive: A Hellfire missile moves at a thousand miles per hour; transparency and accountability do not.

Offering the latter as a solution to the former is to demand that they endure the horrifying and survive the untenable until such time as when these tangled administrative procedures can adjudicate whether the practice is legal. It confuses legality with justice, the law with ethics. It is fine for the lawyers, but as general talk within the left, it is a very roundabout way of showing that you care.

At its core, the kind of journalism and the legalistic solutions I am discussing here are more about the government’s kabuki secrecy than with the problem of imperiled, exposed lives in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia. Such solutions have very little to say about the problem of killing and dying in those places.

Meanwhile, the people in Pakistan’s tribal areas do endure. Many will tell you that they take pills for psychological illnesses, and hearing that, it becomes impossible not to ask: on what grounds does it make sense to put these people under conditions
of terror so that the U.S. can hunt for terrorists? This question is thousands of miles away from the constitutional intricacies of kill lists. While issues of law and governance have deep implications for American democracy, it is critical to separate the interests of American citizens from the interests of the victims of the American government. To do any less is to mistake self-absorption for empathy, to fail to recognize that the theatre of secrets masks the concrete nightmare Americans refuse to see.

At some point later, I asked Sadaullah half-jokingly, Why should I believe you? He pointed at his plastic limbs, his fake eye. Look at me, he said.