The Drone Summit, the Lunchbox and the Invisibility of Charred Children

I kept finding myself thinking about the lunchbox.

I was at the all-day Drone Summit in Washington DC organized by Codepink, the antiwar group whose mostly female members are famous for putting on theatrical protests while wearing bold pink. I spent the day listening to human rights activists talking about civilians killed by US drone strikes, lawyers who complained that the strikes violated international law, and scientists worried that the United States is on the brink of automating the use of lethal force by drones and killer robots.

And I kept thinking about the lunchbox.

The lunchbox belonged to a schoolgirl in Hiroshima. Her body was never found, but the rice and peas in her lunchbox were carbonized by the atomic bomb. The lunchbox, turned into an exhibition piece, became, in the words of historian Peter Stearns, “an intensely human atomic bomb icon.” The Smithsonian museum’s plans to exhibit the lunchbox as part of its 1995 exhibit for the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II enraged military veterans and conservative pundits, who eventually forced the exhibit’s cancellation.

Everyone knows, in the abstract at least, that the atom bomb killed thousands of children in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But any visual representation of this fact – even if done obliquely, through a lunchbox, rather than through actual pictures of charred children – was deemed out-of-bounds by defenders of the bombing.

I found myself thinking about the lunchbox while listening to a Drone Summit presentation by the Pakistani lawyer Shahzad Akbar of the Foundation for Fundamental Rights. Akbar is a Pakistani lawyer who represents civilian victims of US drone strikes in Waziristan (a tribal area on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan). He has given Waziris cameras and trained them to take photographs of the aftermath of US drone strikes, such as this very disturbing image. Some activists have now begun pairing pictures of the wreckage of Hellfire missiles, made by Lockheed, with pictures of the children killed by that particular strike.

In Japan after World War II, the US occupying authorities made it illegal for Japanese citizens to own any pictures of the aftermath of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. In Japan, Akbar would have been locked up by General MacArthur.

Although Akbar has not been locked up, his Transparency Project has not been welcomed by the Obama administration. Akbar was invited to speak at Columbia University in May 2011; although he had visited the United States many times before and had even consulted for US agencies, he was not given a visa. It looked as though he would not be allowed to speak at the Drone Summit either, but after months of pressure from human rights organizations, the State Department relented and, four days before he was due to take the podium, allowed Akbar a visa.

According to another speaker at the Drone Summit, Chris Woods of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, while the CIA claims its drones only kill what US authorities refer to as “militants,” US drone strikes have killed at least 174 children in Pakistan and somewhere between 479 and 811 civilians in all. Akbar pointed out that, lacking air conditioning, Pakistanis often sleep outside, and children’s bodies are particularly vulnerable to shrapnel. Akbar, who would like the CIA officials responsible for the strikes to stand trial for murder, showed the audience many heart-rending photographs of children in hospital or laid out for their funerals after drone strikes.

In an affecting statement after the shooting of Trayvon Martin by a Florida vigilante, President Obama said, that, if he had a son, he might have looked like Martin. One wonders if the president saw Akbar’s photographs of dead brown-skinned girls whether he would find himself thinking that these could have been his daughters.

In a 1996 interview with “60 Minutes,” Lesley Stahl asked Secretary of State Madeleine Albright if US sanctions against Iraq were justified given that they were said to have killed half a million Iraqi children. “This is a very hard choice,” she responded, “but we think the price is worth it.” We can disagree with her answer, but at least she had the honesty to confront the question and give an honest answer. One wonders if Obama and the CIA officials responsible for the drone program ever think about the dead children that follow from their decisions. Do they have the honesty to look at the lunchbox?