Drone film director decries U.S. strikes

By MARY KATE TURNER | November 21, 2013

“What does it mean to be haunted by loss?”

That was the chilling question that follows a brief clip of President Obama speaking on counterterrorism policy in the opening scene of Madiha Tahir’s documentary Wounds of Waziristan; her voice-over plays as photographs of dead and wounded Pakistani civilians flash across the screen.

Tahir is a writer, journalist, and filmmaker who specializes in Pakistani conflict and culture. Her first short film, which premiered in late October, details the drone attacks in the small Pakistani state of Waziristan launched by the United States since 2004.

“I wanted to create a film that could linger over the experiences of the survivors,” Tahir said in a panel discussion following the screening of the film last Thursday in Gilman Hall sponsored by the Human Rights Working Group, which opposes drone research at Hopkins.

The documentary featured the stories of several survivors of American drone attacks, all of whom had lost loved ones.

“We are very plugged into American media context, and one doesn’t see in the American media what happens after the bombs,” Tahir said.

Professor Bernadette Wegenstein, director of the Center for Advanced Media Studies, was also a panel member. She applauded Tahir’s work.

“It’s important to give an image to this kind of suffering,” she said to Tahir. “You’re lending your voice and your humanity to these people.”

The film consists of several heart-wrenching survival stories and countless images of corpses and body parts strewn across piles of rubble.

Tahir wanted the testimonies to be as real as possible. Making the decision to use film instead of the written word was for him key to eliciting the most compelling response during the interviews.

“With a camera, it’s much clearer to them what is being captured in a way that I think with writing, it’s not,” Tahir said about the interviews.

One of the survivors featured most prominently in the documentary was a teenage schoolboy named Saddam Hussein who lost his brother and sister-in-law in a drone attack.

“Death would have been better than this kind of life. I’m tired of innocent people being martyred. That’s why I don’t like my life anymore,” Hussein says in the film, choking back angry tears.

Perhaps one of the most consequential decisions Tahir made was to use the word “martyred” rather than “killed” or “died” in the subtitles that accompanied the survivors’ testaments. She explained that after hearing all of her interviewees repeat this same word in their language, she realized that “martyred” was the literal translation and that it certainly made an impact.

But not just any victim can be called a martyr.

“Martyrdom implies a cause,” first year graduate student Anna Scott said. “What do these people think they’re dying for?”

To this, Tahir replied, “Certainly these people and many of the survivors feel themselves to be attacked for being Muslim, and that’s how they conceive of this war. Some will connect what has happened to them with the wars that the United States has waged on other parts of the world. They are feeling that they are being attacked for who they are.”

Later on in the discussion, another member of the audience pointed out that in many languages, the word martyr also means “witness.”

Tahir also spoke about how he struggled with whether or not to include the survivors’ interest in taking revenge on Americans. She worried that no amount of attention would be able to do those feelings justice.

“I felt like I had to be very careful about how I presented them,” Tahir said. “But I’m hoping to be able to write about this and engage with these questions.”

She shared that one of her interviewees, Karim Kahn, claimed he would kill the first American soldier he saw for what was done to his family.

“I think there is no bigger terrorist than Obama or Bush,” Kahn says when asked for his definition of terrorism.

“The killer drone strikes only promote more terrorism directed at the U.S.,” political activist Max Obuszewski wrote in a letter to Congressman Elijah Cummings obtained by The News-Letter.

This certainly seems to be a common opinion. The term “fighting fire with fire” was thrown around in Thursday’s discussion.

“It’s such an old argument to use: because they are lawless, it allows us to become lawless,” co-panelist Veena Das said.

Tahir also talked about how she has experienced the hatred of people who are for the use of drones and how she is often attacked for being a “Taliban sympathizer.” She said that it sometimes goes so far that the topic becomes almost taboo.

“As for those who support drone strikes, we would have trouble labeling them,” Obuszewski wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “We can assume they have good intentions, but four U.S. citizens have been killed by drone strikes. A real conservative would be very upset that U.S. citizens would be denied due process. We generally avoid labeling our opponents, and hope once presented with evidence they might reconsider their beliefs.”

As mentioned, Wounds includes a clip from a speech Obama made this May addressing American drone strikes. In the address, the President recognizes the fact that the attacks have caused civilian casualties.

“Those deaths will haunt us for as long as we live,” he says.

The problem with this, Wounds argues, lies with two realities. The first is that it is impossible to be certain just how many civilians have been “martyred” because their bodies are often rendered unidentifiable due to the amount of damage caused by each strike. The second is that many of these civilians are considered by the American government to be militants.

“In spite of the assurances from President Obama that the victims of drone strikes are surgical targets, it has been reported that hundreds of victims who are innocent of crimes against the US have been killed including civilian men, women and children. These people have names and families who love them,” Obuszewski wrote.

International Studies major and freshman Adelaide Morphett was against the use of drones even before she watched the movie.

“Since I first learned about the governmental use of drones, I have been against their use for military aggression. I do not believe that we, as a country, have the right to use our technological might to assassinate a citizen of a foreign, sovereign state. No matter how much of a threat we perceive someone to be, I do not think it is right to take advantage of drone technology we possess,” Morphett wrote in an email to The News-Letter.

Fellow IS major and freshman Alex Weisman, however, remains skeptical that drone use should be limited.

“This war is unlike any other war in the sense that one side wears clear uniforms, carries its weapons openly and targets suspected terrorists, at least attempting to discriminate between enemy combatants and civilians. The other side, however, couldn’t care less. These terrorists not only use civilians as their shields, but also kill enemies and civilians alike. Many of the individuals in the film seemed to suggest that the United States is a terrorist in itself, but to suggest that the two sides are morally equivalent is ludicrous,” he said.

“Although the loss of innocent lives in any military engagement is a tragedy, I believe that drone strikes do try to minimize the collateral damage. Although they cannot completely eliminate it, they certainly do a better job than ground forces would,” Weisman added. “Part of our own government’s responsibility is to minimize the loss of our own troops, and there’s no argument that drones do that.”

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