Last week, the US government announced over a million dollars in compensation for Giovanni Lo Porto, a 37-year-old Sicilian development worker who was killed by the CIA in a drone strike in the tribal areas of Pakistan, in a case of him and another Westerner Warren Weinstien being mistakenly believed to be militants or high-value targets. These two aid workers were abducted and held hostage by militants for some time.
This is an important occasion – Giovanni becomes the first civilian killed in a drone strike inside Pakistan to have been compensated by the US government. This is not all, earlier on April 23, 2015, President Barack Obama delivered a three-and-a-half minute apology to the families of these two unfortunate victims of the ‘war on terror’. Weinstein and Lo Porto’s deaths have finally given the US president the moral courage he needed.
In the unending ‘war on terror’ – a theatre of war where so much gore remains shrouded in mystery – first the apology and now a hefty compensation is a truly historic development. But the unfortunate part is that this privilege is extended only to a Western civilian. No Pakistani civilian has yet received such compassion of the Americans to be treated as an equal.
Ever since the CIA launched its savage drone campaign in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, human rights activists and lawyers from around the world had been warning about how indiscriminate and inaccurate a weapon of war drones really are. Independent studies conducted such as by Stanford and NYU or TBIJ, amongst others, confirm that over the past half a decade, thousands of civilians have lost their lives in the drone attacks carried out by the US at the CIA’s behest.
When the human rights community initially began pointing out the immense death toll being inflicted on civilians through drone warfare, the CIA tried to deny it outright. When the evidence became too overwhelming for a flat denial, it was explained away as necessary ‘collateral damage’. But the blood of Weinstein and Lo Porto might have finally brought us to a much-needed turning point. The old ruses aren’t working anymore; the public now knows that drones can’t differentiate between the likes of Weinstein and Al-Qaeda terrorists.
Never before in these five years has the US president felt compelled to assume full responsibility for civilian deaths caused by mistargeted drone strikes or issue an apology in this regard. Seeing Obama finally take stock of the tragedy that is the drone campaign was therefore a heartening development for all those activists who have been pressing this issue. It was a day we had been hoping to see.
But Obama’s selective compassion has raised more questions. Why is it that Weinstein and Lo Porto are the only ones amongst several thousand civilians whose deaths have been deemed worth condoling? Why is it that nine-year-old Nabila whose grandmother was murdered in front of her eyes is unlikely to ever receive acknowledgment of the death of grandmother, leave alone a heartfelt and touching apology from the White House?
Within President Obama’s apology as well as the compensation, one find hints of the very painful but very real answer which underlies this selective approach: ultimately, what counts is not the sanctity of human life, but the prestige of a person’s nationality. By accident of birth, Weinstein was an American national and La Porto an Italian. The other civilian victims had no such luck; they happen to have been born in the wrong part of the world.
What this reminds me of is a haunting line from Shakespeare’s ‘Merchant of Venice’, the words of Shylock the Jew. Shylock is clearly not the kindest of characters in Shakespeare’s oeuvre. Having neither the quiet confidence of Antonio, nor the exuberant charms of Bassanio or the legal acumen and bewitching beauty of pretty Portia, he is unlikely to curry any favours with the audience.
But there comes a moment in the play where the voice of this otherwise despicable character suddenly emerges as the author’s dominant voice. Cornered by his self-righteous critics, Shylock comes out lashing at medieval Christian society’s refusal to acknowledge the essential humanity of the Jewish people:
Hath not a Jew eyes?/ Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?
Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons,/ subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means,/ warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is?
If you prick us, do we not bleed?/ if you tickle us, do we not laugh?/ if you poison, us, do we not die?
As a ‘non-white’ citizen of an underdeveloped impoverished nation, representing hundreds of civilian victims of drone strikes, witnessing Obama’s apology and then the selective compassion, I couldn’t help but think back to these lines. Why is it so unthinkable that the deaths of the hundreds of ‘non-white’ victims of drone will ever receive such compassion? Why will the world’s most powerful man not seek the forgiveness of their families? Have we not eyes?
Shakespeare did not pretend to be above the prejudices of the century he lived in. This is why, on the whole, his ‘Merchant of Venice’ is not particularly forgiving to Shylock or to the Jewish people. But for one moment at least, Shakespeare lets his inner voice triumph over the fate of the times he lived in. For one moment at least, he let Shylock have a go at his self-righteous critics.
Maybe it is too early in the progress of humanity for brown people to expect a recognition of their full and equal humanity. This enlightened century cannot be asked to treat the blood of brown people with the same sanctity that it accords the blood of white people. But is it too much to expect that we be granted little spaces like this op-ed to pose the prickly question that is on our minds: If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you poison, us, do we not die?
The writer is Reprieve legal fellow in Pakistan, director and founder of
Foundation for Fundamental Rights.