Some dead children are mourned; others are dehumanised.

by George Monbiot

“Mere words cannot match the depths of your sorrow, nor can they heal your wounded hearts … These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.”(1) Every parent can connect with what Barack Obama said about the murder of 20 children in Newtown, Connecticut. There can scarcely be a person on earth with access to the media who is untouched by the grief of the people of that town.

It must follow that what applies to the children murdered there by a deranged young man also applies to the children murdered in Pakistan by a sombre American president. These children are just as important, just as real, just as deserving of the world’s concern. Yet there are no presidential speeches or presidential tears for them; no pictures on the front pages of the world’s newspapers; no interviews with grieving relatives; no minute analysis of what happened and why.

If the victims of Mr Obama’s drone strikes are mentioned by the state at all, they are discussed in terms which suggest that they are less than human. The people who operate the drones, Rolling Stone magazine reports, describe their casualties as “bug splats”, “since viewing the body through a grainy-green video image gives the sense of an insect being crushed.”(2) Or they are reduced to vegetation: justifying the drone war, Obama’s counterterrorism adviser Bruce Riedel explained that “you’ve got to mow the lawn all the time. The minute you stop mowing, the grass is going to grow back.”(3)

Like Bush’s government in Iraq, Barack Obama’s administration neither documents nor acknowledges the civilian casualties of the CIA’s drone strikes in north-west Pakistan. But a report by the law schools at Stanford and New York universities suggests that during the first three years of his time in office, the 259 strikes for which he is ultimately responsible killed between 297 and 569 civilians, of whom 64 were children(4). These are figures extracted from credible reports: there may be more which have not been fully documented.

The wider effects on the children of the region have been devastating. Many have been withdrawn from school because of fears that large gatherings of any kind are being targeted. There have been several strikes on schools since George W Bush launched the drone programme that Obama has expanded so enthusiastically: one of Bush’s blunders killed 69 children(5).

The study reports that children scream in terror when they hear the sound of a drone. A local psychologist says that their fear and the horrors they witness is causing permanent mental scarring. Children wounded in drone attacks told the researchers that they are too traumatised to go back to school and have abandoned hopes of the careers they might have had: their dreams as well as their bodies have been broken(6).

Obama does not kill children deliberately. But their deaths are an inevitable outcome of the way his drones are deployed. We don’t know what emotional effect these deaths might have on him, as neither he nor his officials will discuss the matter: almost everything to do with the CIA’s extrajudicial killings in Pakistan is kept secret. But you get the impression that no one in the administration is losing much sleep over it.

Two days before the murders in Newtown, Obama’s press secretary was asked about women and children being killed by drones in Yemen and Pakistan. He refused to answer, on the grounds that such matters are “classified”(7). Instead, he directed the journalist to a speech by John Brennan, Obama’s counterterrorism assistant. Brennan insists that “al-Qaida’s killing of innocents, mostly Muslim men, women and children, has badly tarnished its appeal and image in the eyes of Muslims”(8). He appears unable to see that the drone war has done the same for the United States. To Brennan the people of north-west Pakistan are neither insects nor grass: his targets are a “cancerous tumour”, the rest of society “the tissue around it”. Beware of anyone who describes a human being as something other than a human being.

Yes, he conceded, there is occasionally a little “collateral damage”, but the US takes “extraordinary care [to] ensure precision and avoid the loss of innocent life.” It will act only if there’s “an actual ongoing threat” to American lives(9). This is cock and bull with bells on.

The “signature strike” doctrine developed under Obama, which has no discernable basis in law, merely looks for patterns(10). A pattern could consist of a party of unknown men carrying guns (which scarcely distinguishes them from the rest of the male population of north-west Pakistan), or a group of unknown people who look as if they might be plotting something. This is how wedding and funeral parties get wiped out; this is why 40 elders discussing royalties from a chromite mine were blown up in March last year(11). It is one of the reasons why children continue to be killed.

Obama has scarcely mentioned the drone programme and has said nothing about its killing of children. The only statement I can find is a brief and vague response during a videoconference last January(12). The killings have been left to others to justify. In October the Democratic cheerleader Joe Klein claimed on MSNBC that “the bottom line in the end is whose 4 year-old get killed? What we’re doing is limiting the possibility that 4 year-olds here will get killed by indiscriminate acts of terror.”(13) As the estimable Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, killing 4 year-olds is what terrorists do(14). It doesn’t prevent retaliatory murders; it encourages them, as grief and revenge are often accomplices.

Most of the world’s media, which has rightly commemorated the children of Newtown, either ignores Obama’s murders or accepts the official version that all those killed are “militants”. The children of north-west Pakistan, it seems, are not like our children. They have no names, no pictures, no memorials of candles and flowers and teddy bears. They belong to the other: to the non-human world of bugs and grass and tissue.

“Are we,” Obama asked on Sunday, “prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?”(15) It’s a valid question. He should apply it to the violence he is visiting on the children of Pakistan.

Further Reading:


  4. International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic at Stanford Law School and Global Justice Clinic at NYU School Of Law, September 2012. Living Under
    Drones: Death, Injury and Trauma to Civilians from US Drone Practices in Pakistan.
  5. eg
  6. International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic at Stanford Law School and Global Justice Clinic at NYU School Of Law, September 2012, as above.
  8. John Brennan, 30th April 2012. The Ethics and Efficacy of the President’s Counterterrorism Strategy.
  9. John Brennan, as above.
  10. International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic at Stanford Law School and Global Justice Clinic at NYU School Of Law, September 2012, as above.


  1. Please, there is absolutely no moral equivalence between the two aforementioned scenarios.

    I implore the editor to refrain from publishing such inflammatory rhetoric. To not do so risks radicalizing and thus marginalizing Permaculture at a time when we should seek to be inclusive and embrace those with differing political views.

    I’m even starting to hear from those who use the term permaCULTure to refer to those with such extremist views.

  2. All valid points, but what does this have to do with permaculture? Also, this post overlooks the fact that drone strikes are a war tactic. The US is engaged in war wherein the targeted combatants surround themselves with women and children, intentionally so, to ensure their self preservation. The end result, or desired objective of the US government does not justify their actions but it must be noted that it is a war tactic and war by it’s very nature means there will be bloodshed. The efficacy, morality, and legality of using armed drones can be debated, and have been, at length but this is hardly the place to do so. This post was an effort to show how hypocrisy and irony seem to go unchecked and unnoticed within the the upper echelons of the US government and US populace in general; well no shit Sherlock.

    We permaculturists are well aware of these failures in human compassion but we are here to help raise up the wounded and disenfranchised, not point to the obvious, as that has been done time and time again. If you would like to read more about the complexity of the US’s relationship to South and Central Asia I suggest reading some books and articles by Steve Coll and Ahmed Rashid then comment till your heart’s delight on pieces by the Guardian, New York Times, Washington Post, et al, but please refrain from cluttering up this site.

  3. This is one of the best pieces of writing I have ever read from George. Says what I have felt for a long time. So glad you posted it on the site. I read it in a direct mail from George. Unfortunately his website doesn’t have a comment facility.
    Kev C

  4. Its typical of the attitude of the Americans The nation was created with a gun mentality which still existes to this day to the extent that if you got a problem shoot it and if they are not perly white then who gives a dam its ownly a bug splat. Well one day someone may find out how to turn these drones around and send them back to the sender so they can feel how it is to be a bug splat on their window.

  5. Thanks George for the relevant post, “we are in the final war we either win it or the lights go out for ever” quote Bill Mollison.

  6. Thankyou for this post and this discussion. This is the time for a far more sober conversation than we have had to date, about Government and the wars fought in our name. Mr Obama’s selective grief is cause for our concern. What is done against Pakistan today will be done against America’s own people on the American continent tomorrow. Can the madness be stopped or be let go of? Can Governments in their power and glory turn away from militance driven by fear? Can we as citizens face the fact that fear is driving us in our support for our Governments at war. In USA citizens fear their Government so much that they want to continue to allow guns to be sold by mail and on the internet to all comers. Is this a rational fear? Maybe it is. While Obama kills people, some of whom are children, some of whom are wedding parties or other harmless civilians, who can be sure that the madness will not spread to “threats” nearer home?

  7. Gil.
    May I point out that the majority of parents, who may not even have heard of Permaculture, will feel the same grief for a bereaved Pakistani father,Palestinian grandmother,Iraqi mother, as they will for the Newtown parents. Empathy is a basic human emotion and it transcends any attempt to rationalise or explain the murder of children whether through isolated freak civilian events or military incompetence.
    Monbiot’s article is entirely appropriate.

  8. I am glad that such article can be read here. Its so rare to hear anything but biased judgements from the west. Serbia and Montenegro was bombarded heavily in 1999, and the only things you could hear were collateral damage and similar. Millions of people died in Iraq but for most people from the west these victims are not humans.

    We are seeing new colonialism in action now with nice words as democracy, human rights, destroying dictators and similar, but chaos is only bigger and bigger.
    I hope that as permaculture changes our culture for better in agricultural things it does change the people and the world as well, because its all conencted, we are all one.

  9. For those who wonder what this article has to do with permaculture I offer a respectful reminder that permaculture also focuses on interactions between members of a community and though most of us most commonly think of community being small and local, the ultimate community is an interactive web of communities worldwide. If we mourn the children of one community without mourning the children of another we are not promoting a permaculture community.

  10. Thanks you George for a very stirring and sober article, a great piece of writing.

    A subtle reminder for those who can’t recall the Permaculture ethics, the first is “care for the planet”, the second is “care for the people” and the third is “fair sharing of the surplus”. Firsty, caring for people means ALL people, and the killing of an innocent child under whatever circumstances is equally morally reprehensible.

    Most people outside the US don’t even believe the propaganda about a “war on terror” that is supposedly waged to protect Americans, and clearly see that the US is just fighting on behalf of other Middle Eastern interests…

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