A few weeks ago, a 29 year old Irish woman named Jill Meagher was at a bar in Brunswick in inner Melbourne, drinking with friends on a Friday night. After leaving the bar late that night, in the early morning hours of Saturday 22 September, she disappeared. The search for Jill's whereabouts became front page news and seized the attention of Melburnians, including myself.
Our worst fears were confirmed a few days later when Jill's body was found, raped and murdered, near Gisborne, 50 kilometres north-west of Melbourne. A man has been arrested and is currently awaiting trial.
The following weekend, a local photographer organised an impromptu rally to send a message of hope. Spontaneously, thirty thousand people showed up, rallied and marched, and created a stunning floral tribute. Such a touching display of human solidarity, at such short notice, illustrates how profoundly people were affected by the tragedy.
I felt it too. And my family. I accidentally left my mobile phone in the other room on silent for a few hours one evening around then — by the end of which, it was flooded with missed calls and increasingly frantic messages, and my family, not usually given to paranoia, was convinced that I, too, had gone missing.
The whole episode touched a deep nerve in our collective psyche — a deeply rooted belief that we should be able to go about our lives without fear. The brutal abduction of someone off the street, let alone rape and murder, offends our most basic notions of how life should be.
To walk the upon this world should not be to walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
Melburnians felt this, on a collective scale. It may be an interesting question why this particular incident received such overwhelming attention, but the essential point remains — human beings should not have to live looking at each other down the barrel of a gun.
* * *
On Tuesday 25 September, as Jill Meagher remained missing, and the Victorian police force appealed to the public for help, a report was released by the Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic at Stanford University, and the Global Justice Clinic at New York University School of Law. The report investigated some of the impacts of the ongoing war in Afghanistan and Pakistan — a war, of course, in which Australian military forces continue to fight.
A significant part of the impact of this twenty-first century war comes from a new technological development — we now wage war by robot.
Robotic drone aircraft now regularly patrol the skies above Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Without a human on board, they are small and light, and can fly for 24 hours or more at a time — remote controlled planes with missiles. Their pilots can unleash hellfires from afar, and view the aftermath doubly remotely, via computer screen via on-board camera.
The investigators from Stanford and NYU spent nine months conducting interviews with those affected by drone warfare, reviewing media reporting, consulting experts and humanitarian and medical workers. Those affected are, of course, mainly civilians.
The investigators summarised:
those interviewed for this report… described how the presence of drones and capacity of the US to strike anywhere at any time led to constant and severe fear, anxiety, and stress, especially when taken together with the inability of those on the ground to ensure their own safety. Further, those interviewed stated that the fear of strikes undermines people’s sense of safety to such an extent that it has at times affected their willingness to engage in a wide variety of activities, including social gatherings, educational and economic opportunities, funerals, and that fear has also undermined general community trust.
Drone attacks may not be happening everywhere all the time, but as one local put it,
even in the areas where strikes were less frequent, the people living there still feared for their lives.
The presence of drones was often constant — lightweight drones circling for hours before striking, or not.
Community members, mental health professionals, and journalists interviewed for this report described how the constant presence of US drones overhead leads to substantial levels of fear and stress in the civilian communities below. One man described the reaction to the sound of the drones as “a wave of terror” coming over the community. “Children, grown-up people, women, they are terrified. . . . They scream in terror.” Interviewees described the experience of living under constant surveillance as harrowing. In the words of one interviewee: “God knows whether they’ll strike us again or not. But they’re always surveying us, they’re always over us, and you never know when they’re going to strike and attack.” Another interviewee who lost both his legs in a drone attack said that “[e]veryone is scared all the time. When we’re sitting together to have a meeting, we’re scared there might be a strike. When you can hear the drone circling in the sky, you think it might strike you. We’re always scared. We always have this fear in our head.”
Psychological problems, too, are widespread, such as anxiety disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
A Pakistani psychiatrist, who has treated patients presenting symptoms he attributed to experience with or fear of drones, explained that pervasive worry about future trauma is emblematic of “anticipatory anxiety,” common in conflict zones. He explained that the Waziris he has treated who suffer from anticipatory anxiety are constantly worrying, “when is the next drone attack going to happen? When they hear drone sounds, they run around looking for shelter.” Another mental health professional who works with drone victims concluded that his patients’ stress symptoms are largely attributable to their belief that “[t]hey could be attacked at any time.”
Interviewees described emotional breakdowns, running indoors or hiding when drones appear above, fainting, nightmares and other intrusive thoughts, hyper startled reactions to loud noises, outbursts of anger or irritability, and loss of appetite and other physical symptoms. Interviewees also reported suffering from insomnia and other sleep disturbances, which medical health professionals in Pakistan stated were prevalent. A father of three said, “drones are always on my mind. It makes it difficult to sleep."
Parents relate their dilemma as to whether they should send their children to school:
Another father stated that when his children go to school “they fear that they will all be killed, because they are congregating.” Ismail Hussain, noting similar trends among the young, said that “the children are crying and they don’t go to school. They fear that their schools will be targeted by the drones.” … These fears are not without a legitimate basis, as drones have reportedly struck schools in the past, resulting in extensive damage to educational infrastructure, as well as the deaths of dozens of children.
The deterioration in education led interviewees to express concern for the future.
We lag behind because of our lack of education and lack of facilities in our area. . . .We want our girls and boys to get [a] proper education. [We want] someone to become a doctor, someone to become an air pilot, but just because of drone attack[s] we can’t take them to school, can’t allow them.
The constant attacks have affected cultural practices such as funerals.
Because drone strikes have targeted funerals and spaces where families have gathered to offer condolences to the deceased, they have inhibited the ability of families to hold dignified burials. Interviewees stated that they stayed away from funerals for fear of being targeted. According to Ibrahim Qasim of Manzar Khel, “[t]here used to be funeral processions, lots of people used to participate. . . . But now, [the US has] even targeted funerals, they have targeted mosques, they have targeted people sitting together, so people are scared of everything.” Firoz Ali Khan provided a similar account, noting that “not many people go to funerals because funerals have been struck by drones. Many people are scared. They don’t go to funerals because of their fear.” Dawood Ishaq, who lost both his legs in a strike, confirmed this, explaining that people are reluctant to go to the funerals of people who have been killed in drone strikes because they are afraid of being targeted.
This is in addition to the problem that,
because the Hellfire missiles fired from drones often incinerate the victims’ bodies, and leave them in pieces and unidentifiable, traditional burial processes are rendered impossible.
The report also reviewed the significant evidence of double-bombing tactics, whereby a target is hit by a missile — and then again, shortly afterwards
Evidence also indicates that such secondary strikes have killed and maimed first responders coming to the rescue of those injured in the first strike.
Those interviewed for this report were acutely aware of reports of the practice of followup strikes, and explained that the secondary strikes have discouraged average civilians from coming to one another’s rescue, and even inhibited the provision of emergency medical assistance from humanitarian workers.
It is not just emergency workers who are unwilling to approach a bombing scene; ordinary people are unwilling even to approach each other to gather in groups.
Many said that they were afraid even to congregate in groups or receive guests in their home. Umar Ashraf, who has noticed the changes in community dynamics over the past few years, observed that “[W]e do not like to sit like this, like friends [gesturing in front of him at the small circle of interviewer, interviewee, and translator], because we have fear, since [they] usually attack people when they sit in gatherings.” Sameer Rahman, whose family’s house was hit in a strike, confessed that “there are barely any guests who come anymore, because everyone’s scared.” He also stated that he does not allow his children to visit other people’s homes when they have guests over, because he believes having guests makes it more likely that the house will be attacked.
The report continues in this vein for over 150 pages, carefully and methodically combining the evidence from interviewees with legal analysis and media reports to obtain an overall picture of the effect of drones on everyday life — an effect which can fairly be described as a life of continual terror.
* * *
The efforts of Melburnians on that Sunday — and, of course, efforts are not limited to Melbourne — spontaneously turning out in the tens of thousands to reclaim the streets, was a beautiful and reassuring manifestation of collective humanity and love. We are rightly outraged at having to live in fear. We demand the ability to go about our lives as we please without interference and without fear — least of all, the fear in extremis of sudden abduction, rape and death.
But in Afghanistan and Pakistan, there is also fear. And it is not just fear that a person might be, late at night after a social gathering with friends, abducted off the street by a sexual predator and killed.
It is not just late at night — for the drones circle 24 hours a day without attacking, until they fire missiles without warning.
It is not just on the street — for the missiles have been known to hit bus depots, schools, and funerals.
It is not a one-off or rare event — during his term so far President Obama alone has ordered at least 292 strikes in Pakistan alone.
It is not just social gatherings with friends — for congregations of almost all types have been targeted, from schools, to funerals, to friends in one's home; and delay-repeat missile tactics incinerate medical and rescue personnel as well.
It is not one person — the best estimates, which are difficult to make, report deaths from drone strikes in the range 2,600-3,300, including 176 children; with "high-level" terrorists estimated at 2% of the casualties.
And it is not just fear — it is mass neurosis. Disorders such as anticipatory anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder are seen on a tragically vast scale.
And, finally, it is not the work of one pathological individual, but the military forces of democratic nations that are inflicting this suffering. Unlike the difficulties of apprehending a lone psychopathic individual, this suffering can be stopped simply by not inflicting it.
Now, Australia has drones, but they are not armed — yet. For the moment they are used "only" for surveillance, targeting and "observing patterns of life" — which means hovering 24/7 above over a village with a machine known to those below to rain sudden death and terror. But in addition, US drones have fired missiles at the direction of Australian forces, and the Australian military is enthusiastic about these machines. One Wing Commander effuses to the ABC "It's like crack cocaine, a drug, for our guys involved — just can't get enough of it". Australian troops pose enthusiastically for photographs with their drones. It does not exonerate Australians to say that the drones belong to the US — Australian forces use them, support them, and work closely with them, and with the US and NATO war effort in general.
If we are a people decent enough to turn up in the tens of thousands to restore hope and overcome fear, on the death of one woman — then are we a people decent enough to stop the suffering of constant death, grief, and terror being inflicted upon hundred of thousands of families in Afghanistan and Pakistan?
As Melbourne so profoundly expressed, we should not have to live looking at each other down the barrel of a gun. And there is an easy way to make a start. Stop shooting the gun, and put it down.