New Internationalist

Democracy only works when we know the truth

May 2013

Chris Coltrane wants to know the facts about drone attacks.

You, the reader of New Internationalist, are clever. I am not. I am one of the 99.9 per cent of people who are a bit stupid and don’t know much about world politics. I’m also one of the 8.4 per cent of people whose heart is in the right place, so I try to learn what I can.

For example, until recently I knew very little about President Obama’s drone attacks on Pakistan*, and so my opposition was based on history. Because you and I both know that the US has ‘previous’ when it comes to bomb-dropping errors. In any situation where the US is killing people in another country, you can say with 100-per-cent certainty that it is behaving illegally, immorally and incorrectly. It’s a statistical inevitability and an uncomfortable truth.

But as always with war, facts mix with rumours and propaganda. If you want to base your opinion on facts, you’ll have a difficult time. To start with, the CIA refuses to discuss the drone attacks, except in the most opaque terms. In fact, the US is so shy that whenever they do mention it, the fact that they’ve mentioned it is itself a news story.

Pakistani authorities once claimed that, between January 2006 and April 2009, the attacks killed 14 al-Qaeda leaders and 687 civilians. But US officials claim that since 2001 they have killed over 2,000 militants and only 50 civilians.

Now, I’m no mathematician. But those numbers are quite different, aren’t they? Perhaps the CIA believes everyone in Pakistan is a militant. I expect they see children playing in the street, and bomb them in case they’re actually high-ranking Taliban leaders involved in some hopscotch-based strategy planning. A game of Pat-A-Cake could easily be a secret militant handshake. You can’t be too careful, nowadays.

US sources will claim, off the record, that their technology is now so advanced, their tracking so intelligent, that civilian deaths are near to impossible. Which surely can’t be true. Or do 21st-century bomb explosions somehow magically only hurt the bad guys, like in old video games? Does a dropped bomb suddenly fly back up to the drone if it sees a child in the street?

So it seems that the civilian death count is high. But then again, the information coming from Pakistan is itself a mess of conflicting interests and agendas. For example, there are rumours that Taliban militants cordon off any strike target, bury all the dead, and then declare everyone buried a civilian.

That’s not to say that all sources are useless. There’s been some remarkable journalism on this, from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (2,347 killed; 392 civilians) to the New America Foundation (1,374 to 2,189 killed; 277 to 435 civilians), both of which paid great attention to source reliability. And quite frankly, when even the UN human rights chief calls the killings ‘indiscriminate’, I think it’s safe to say that opposing the drone attacks on Pakistan is as evidence-based an opinion as you can get.

The facts are scant. The stats are contradictory. Of course, the US needs it this way. Its expansion of the drone tactic into Yemen and Somalia would surely collapse if it were open and honest. The US will always stay silent, because it knows that evidence and facts are the enemy of imperialism and neoliberalism. It’s only when we actually know what’s going on, when we’re informed, that we can make decisions like grown-ups. Democracy only works when we know the truth. And I suppose that’s why it is essential that politicians do everything they can to muddy the waters – because otherwise, how do you expect them to bomb who they like without punishment?

Chris Coltrane is a stand-up comedian and anti-austerity activist. His show ‘Activism Is Fun’ is a free download at chriscoltrane.com

  1. See Mark Engler’s column in last month’s issue.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 462 This column was published in the May 2013 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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