Don’t See Us.

Adam Serwer is a little uncomfortable with President Obama’s ‘predator drones” joke at this weekend’s White House Correspondents Dinner:

So you have to wonder why in the world the president’s speech writers would think it was a good idea to throw a joke about predator drones into the president’s speech during the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, given that an estimated one-third of drone casualties, or between 289 and 378, have been civilians. It evinces a callous disregard for human life that is really inappropriate for a world leader, especially a president who is waging war against an enemy that deliberately targets civilians. It also helps undermine that outreach by making it look insincere. It’s already hard enough to convince Muslims that the U.S. isn’t indifferent to civilian casualties without having the president joke about it.

Other people have compared this to George W. Bush’s joke about missing weapons of mass destruction, but I think this is sort of irrelevant. The American people have really refused to cope with the human cost of using drone attacks against suspected terrorists because for the most part, as long as we feel “safe,” we’re indifferent to what the government does in the name of security. [Emphasis mine]

I think it’s a little more accurate to say that the American people have refused to cope with the human cost of our national security policies in general. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an American politician apologize for or acknowledge the massive amounts of violence and destruction we’ve unleashed in Iraq and Afghanistan. There isn’t a single official figure for the number of civilians killed by the war in Afghanistan since 2001, but the estimated total numbers in the tens of thousands. Likewise, there’s no single official figure for the number of civilians killed in the Iraq War. Current estimates put the civilian death toll at 100,000, but that’s almost certainly higher. We’ve unleashed a staggering amount of suffering over the last decade, and most Americans are — at best — only dimly aware of it.

I’m not sure why this is the case, given that Americans like to pride themselves on being more humanitarian than most. But it is clear that we have a habit of indifference towards the victims of our foreign policy. While we have admirably dedicated a lot of time to remembering the American costs of Vietnam, we hardly talk about the 2 million Vietnamese also killed during the war. And I’d be surprised if more than a handful of Americans know about the 250,000-plus Filipinos killed during our war with and occupation of the Philippines in the early 20th century. This is to say nothing of the thousands killed by the American-baked Contras in the 1980s, or the hundreds (possibly thousands) killed in our dubious invasion of Panama.

Simply put, when you consider our nation’s long-standing unwillingness to confront the costs of our policies, Obama’s “joke” isn’t really all that surprising. Like most Americans, Obama and his writers didn’t give any real thought to the real people affected by our actions. It’s depressing, sure, but it’s also very typical.

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Jamelle Bouie is a writer for Slate. He has also written for The Daily Beast, The American Prospect and The Nation. His work centers on politics, race, and the intersection of the two. You can find him on Twitter, Flickr, and Instagram as jbouie.

3 comments to Don’t See Us.

  • I think that Americans like the idea of going after our “enemies” via drone strikes. No soldiers or Marines are directly in harm’s way, and collateral damage is accepted when it’s swarthy brown skinned people dying.

    There has been little outcry over the helicopter strike recently revealed where a Reuters photojournalist was killed and fleeing, unarmed civilians were mowed down. The war is “over there” and incidents like Nigerian underwear bomber Umar Abdulmutallab, Ft. Hood shooter Maj. Hasan, and NY bomber Faisal Shahzad keep people scared enough not to question our drone policy in countries that we haven’t declared war upon.

    It came to light that the LA County Sheriff’s Department were using military surplus drones to monitor my hometown when the FAA grounded them for unauthorized flights. I’m sure they are flying again once the proper permits were obtained…

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