8-Year-Old Girl on Drones: 'When They Fly Overhead I Wonder, Will I Be Next?'

The innocents killed in U.S. strikes in places like Pakistan are their biggest victims. But the human cost is also exacted on thousands who live in their shadows.

An eight-year-old girl provided Amnesty International with the quote that leads its latest report on targeted killing in Pakistan's tribal regions. A drone strike killed the girl's 68-year-old grandmother as the old woman gathered vegetables last autumn. "I wasn't scared of drones before," the little girl said, "but now when they fly overhead I wonder, will I be next?"

Her uncertainty is understandable. An elderly matriarch's death is inevitably tragic for her grandchild. Her survivors are made to bear an even greater burden when the death is cloaked in mystery. Was the strike a murder? A terrible mistake? Did the grandmother inadvertently do something to make the drone pilot suspicious? How can other innocents avoid her fate? The U.S. doesn't just refuse to explain its actions (or to compensate the families of innocent people it wrongfully kills). Our government cloaks the killings in extreme secrecy, refusing even to acknowledge its role. Of course little eight-year-old girls wonder if they're next. What would you think if a Hellfire missile arbitrarily blew up your grandma? I wonder if an eight-year-old girl is next too. It would make no more or less sense. 

Last year, I encouraged readers to remember the fear that Americans felt on September 11, 2001. Many expected another attack to materialize at any moment. Anxiety even played on the nerves of people who lived far from any major city. That's how drones make innocents in Pakistan and Yemen feel every day, I wrote, citing research completed by the law clinics at NYU and Stanford. A mother they interviewed explained that "because of the terror, we shut our eyes, hide under our scarves, put our hands over our ears." Said a day laborer, "I can't sleep at night because when the drones are there .... I hear them making that sound, that noise. The drones are all over my brain .... I just turn on the light and sit there .... Whenever the drones are hovering over us, it just makes me so scared."

Children in these communities are particularly vulnerable. 

"When children hear the drones, they get really scared, and they can hear them all the time so they're always fearful that the drone is going to attack them," an unidentified man reported. "Because of the noise, we're psychologically disturbed, women, men, and children .... Twenty-four hours, a person is in stress and there is pain in his head." A journalists who photographs drone strike craters agreed that children are perpetually terrorized. "If you bang a door," Noor Behram said, "they'll scream and drop like something bad is going to happen."

Americans seldom hear from the people in Pakistan's tribal regions, ground zero for U.S. drone strikes. The interviews the NYU/Stanford report conducted were an important reminder that the Obama Administration's secretive drone war affects not only dead militants and the many innocents killed as "collateral damage." Drone strikes increase terror in whole communities—rational, fully justified terror. 

How terrified would you be if a foreign power flew armed drones over your house day after day?

The Amnesty International report released today is an effort to shed more light on targeted killing in remote areas of Pakistan. Its researchers gained rare access to people who live there, and relied on more than 60 interviews conducted between late 2012 and September 2013. There are too many noteworthy findings to lay them all out here, but having already written about the awful effects that U.S. drone strikes have on whole communities, I thought I'd return to that subject. In short, Amnesty International's new research is consistent with what NYU and Stanford researchers found. The hundreds of innocents killed by U.S. drones are their biggest victims, but far from the only humans who bear terrible costs. America makes life worse for a lot of innocent people who aren't ever killed or maimed every time it sends a Predator drone buzzing over populated areas.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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