Glenn Greenwald has this lengthy and passionate piece on why Americans respond so differently to the killings in Newtown from the way they respond to the deaths of children killed in drone strikes. “There’s just no denying that many of the same people understandably expressing such grief and horror over the children who were killed in Newtown steadfastly overlook, if not outright support, the equally violent killing of Yemeni and Pakistani children,” he writes.”
It is well worth asking what accounts for this radically different reaction to the killing of children and other innocents. Relatedly, why is the US media so devoted to covering in depth every last detail of the children killed in the Newtown attack, but so indifferent to the children killed by its own government?
To ask this question is not – repeat: is not – to equate the Newtown attack with US government attacks. There are, one should grant, obvious and important differences.
Greenwald posits two possible reasons:
To begin with, it is a natural and probably universal human inclination to care more about violence that seems to threaten us personally than violence that does not. Every American parent sends their children to schools of the type attacked in Newtown and empathy with the victims is thus automatic. Few American parents fear having their children attacked by US drones, cruise missiles and cluster bombs in remote regions in Pakistan and Yemen, and empathy with those victims is thus easier to avoid, more difficult to establish.
One should strive to see the world and prioritize injustices free of pure self-interest – caring about grave abuses that are unlikely to affect us personally is a hallmark of a civilized person – but we are all constructed to regard imminent dangers to ourselves and our loved ones with greater urgency than those that appear more remote. Ignoble though it is, that’s just part of being human – though our capacity to liberate ourselves from pure self-interest means that it does not excuse this indifference.
Then there’s the issue of perceived justification. Nobody can offer, let alone embrace, any rationale for the Newtown assault: it was random, indiscriminate, senseless and deliberate slaughter of innocents. Those who support Obama’s continuous attacks, or flamboyantly display their tortured “ambivalence” as a means of avoiding criticizing him, can at least invoke a Cheneyite slogan along with a McVeigh-taught-military-term to pretend that there’s some purpose to these killings: We Have To Kill The Terrorists, and these dead kids are just Collateral Damage. This rationale is deeply dishonest, ignorant, jingoistic, propagnadistic, and sociopathic, but its existence means one cannot equate it to the Newtown killing.
I agree with both of Greenwald’s explanations, though not with the disparaging tone he takes toward the second one. But I also want to mention a third explanation—one that strikes me as obvious but which Greenwald seems to overlook in his column, though it is perhaps implicit in his second point about collateral damage: Civilian deaths in drone strikes are not intentional.
I don’t think even Greenwald believes that American forces are targeting children, as Adam Lanza did in Newtown. The day that happens—that is, the day an American drone pilot shoots a Hellfire missile at a school because it is a school and because it contains children, I would very much hope my emotional reaction would be similar to my reaction to Newtown (though Greenwald’s first point might still generate some differential in the event’s emotional power). But this is not what even the fiercest critics of drone strikes believe to be taking place. Rather, when civilians—adults and children alike—have been killed in drone strikes, they have been killed by accident, either in the course of targeting others or in confusion about who they were. One can criticize American targeting practices as being to liberal, as many do, and one can urge greater care, but a big part of what is so horrifying about Newtown—the intentional targeting of children—is simply not present.
This is not a matter of what Greenwald calls “perceived justification.” It is, rather, a basic difference our moral reaction to the tragic accident versus the intentional crime. A terrible car crash, even when one side is negligent or drunk, might inspire great moral opprobrium, but it doesn’t inspire the same moral horror as, say, intentionally driving one’s car into a crowd in order to kill people. Even if, like Greenwald, one does not accept that the United States is fighting a legitimate war and that civilian deaths are a tragic but inevitable feature of warfare—that is, even if one rejects the United States’s “perceived justification” utterly—there remains a significant difference between accidentally killing innocents and deliberate targeting them. Without diminishing the two factors Greenwald mentions, I think this factor accounts for a part of the disparity as well. It certainly has high salience for me.