On January 26, The New York Times claimed that “a CIA drone strike in Yemen. . . . killed three suspected Qaeda fighters on Monday.” How did they know the identity of the dead? As usual, it was in part because “American officials said.” There was not a whiff of skepticism about this claim despite the fact that “a senior American official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, declined to confirm the names of the victims” and “a C.I.A. spokesman declined to comment.”
That NYT article did cite what it called “a member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” (AQAP), who provided the names of the three victims, one of whom was “Mohammed Toiman al-Jahmi, a Yemeni teenager whose father and brother were previously killed in American drone strikes.” The article added that “the Qaeda member did not know Mr. Jahmi’s age but said he was a member of the terrorist group.”
In fact, as the Guardian reported today, “Mr. Jahmi’s age” was 13 on the day the American drone ended his life. Just months earlier, the Yemeni teenager told that paper that “he lived in constant fear of the ‘death machines’ in the sky that had already killed his father and brother.” It was 2011 when “an unmanned combat drone killed his father and teenage brother as they were out herding the family’s camels.” In the strike two weeks ago, Mohammed was killed along with his brother-in-law and a third man.
Mohammed’s older brother Maqded said he “saw all the bodies completely burned, like charcoal” — undoubtedly quite similar to the way the Jordanian combat pilot looked after he was burned alive last month by ISIS. That’s not an accident: the weapons the U.S. military uses are deliberately designed to incinerate people to death. The missiles shot by their drones are named “Hellfire.” Of his younger, now-deceased 13-year-old brother, Maqded told the Guardian: “He wasn’t a member of al-Qaida. He was a kid.”
There are a few observations worth making about this repugnant episode:
(1) The U.S. media just got done deluging the American public with mournful stories about the Jordanian soldier, Moaz al-Kasasbeh, making him a household name. As is often the case for victims of America’s adversaries, the victim is intensely humanized. The public learns all sorts of details about their lives, hears from their grieving family members, wallows in the tragedy of their death.
By stark contrast, I’d be willing to bet that the name “Mohammed Tuaiman al-Jahmi” is never uttered on mainstream American television. Most Americans, by design, will have no idea that their government just burned a 13-year-old boy to death and then claimed he was a Terrorist. If they do know, the boy will be kept hidden, dehumanized, nameless, without the aspirations or dreams or grieving parents on display for victims of America’s adversaries (just as Americans were swamped with stories about an Iranian-American journalist detained in Iran for two months, Roxana Saberi, while having no idea that their own government imprisoned an Al Jazeera photojournalist, Sami al-Haj, in Guantanamo for seven years without charges).
When I was in Canada last October during two violent attacks — one in southern Quebec and the other in Parliament in Ottawa — both of the soldiers killed were (understandably) the subject of endless, intense media coverage featuring their lives, their dreams and their grieving parents. But I’d bet that the Canadian public was incapable of naming even a single foreign individual killed by their own government over the last decade.
It’s worth considering the extreme propaganda impact that disparity has, the way in which the U.S. media is so eagerly complicit in sustaining ongoing American militarism and violence by disappearing victims of U.S. violence while endlessly heralding the victims of its adversaries.
(2) I have no idea whether this 13-year-old boy was “a member of al-Qaeda,” whatever that might mean for a boy that young. But neither does The New York Times, which is why it’s incredibly irresponsible for media outlets reflexively to claim that those killed by U.S. drone strikes are terrorists.
That’s especially true since The NYT itself previously reported that the Obama administration has re-defined “militant” to mean “all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants.” In this case, Mohammed did not even qualify for that Orwellian re-definition, yet still got called a terrorist (by both the Obama administration as well as a “member of AQAP,” both of whom are, for different reasons, motivated to make that claim). Whatever else is true, extreme skepticism is required before claiming that the victims of the latest American drone strike are terrorists, but that skepticism is virtually never included.
(3) The next time there’s a violent attack on the west by a Muslim, and journalists immediately declare that Islam is the culprit and set out to demonize those who suggest it might be “blowback,” perhaps this incident can be remembered. Does one really need to blame a radical version of religious dogma to understand why people get really angry when they hear — yet again — that the children of their nation have been extinguished — incinerated — by another American drone?
If it were American teenagers rather than Yemeni ones regularly being burned to death — on American soil rather than Yemeni soil — does it take any effort to understand why there’d be widespread calls for violence against the perpetrators in response? Consider how much American rage and violence was unleashed by a single-day attack on American soil 13 years ago.
In fact, if it were the case that this 13-year-old boy were a “member of AQAP,” is it hard to understand why? Do we need to resort to claims that some primitive, inscrutable religion is to blame, or does this, from the Guardian article, make more sense:
When the Guardian interviewed Mohammed last September, he spoke of his anger towards the US government for killing his father. “They tell us that these drones come from bases in Saudi Arabia and also from bases in the Yemeni seas and America sends them to kill terrorists, but they always kill innocent people. But we don’t know why they are killing us.
“In their eyes, we don’t deserve to live like people in the rest of the world and we don’t have feelings or emotions or cry or feel pain like all the other humans around the world.”
In 2009, the U.S. got caught using cluster bombs in Yemen in an attack that slaughtered 35 women and children. Obama then successfully demanded that the Yemeni journalist who proved that the attack was from the U.S., Abdulelah Haider Shaye, be imprisoned for years. In December 2013, a U.S. drone strike killed 12 people as they traveled to a wedding.
What’s confounding and irrational and inscrutable isn’t that people react by turning to “radicalism” and violence. It’s that many journalists and officials in Western nations seem to think that they can go around for decades invading, occupying, imprisoning without charges and dropping bombs on multiple other countries around the world, regularly killing innocents, including children, and then act shocked and surprised when people in those countries, or who identify with them, want to bring violence back in return. That is a sentiment grounded in deep irrationality, blind nationalism and primitive tribalism.
Photo: Eric Gay/AP