Like many, I’m deeply immersed in the coverage of Israel’s bombing campaign in Gaza and the volleys of rocket fire from Hamas. In most media accounts, continuing a practice that has been in place since time immemorial, the deaths of women and children are counted separately from those of men (e.g. “Palestinian Health Minister says number of killed in Gaza since start of operation reaches 100, including 24 children and 10 women”). The sexism in this practice is so thinly veiled—that “including” helps give it away—that I’m surprised it isn’t called out more often. But perhaps the trope is just so deeply ingrained and long inherited that few give it a second thought. The practice is unfair to men and women alike, indicating, as it does, that the deaths of innocent males are inherently less tragic than the deaths of innocent women. But the sense of paternalism is even more galling, as women are robbed of any agency, existing only as innocent bodies or, in turn, dead ones, to be mourned and used as a political cudgel, a sign of the enemy’s unremitting savagery, with the attendant presumption that an equal number of dead males would be less of a crime. After all, one might have mistaken them for militants.
This worldview received a perhaps unintended boost earlier this year, when the Obama administration announced that it classifies any military-age males in northwest Pakistan as potential combatants. Consequently, when a drone strike kills military-age males—even when the administration has no idea who it has killed in a so-called signature strike—they are not counted as civilians. It’s this sort of methodology that allowed John Brennan to claim that no civilians had died in US drone strikes (he later said that innocents had died but that it was “exceedingly rare,” despite studies that show otherwise).
This form of accounting, with its wide but rigidly fixed categories, is very convenient for parceling out guilt and plaudits. A military can claim to be acting justly, righteously, even sensitively, if it kills only those people who fall under the umbrella of a combatant, despite that being a fluid designation in guerrilla and revolutionary conflicts. (Increasingly, we hear of terrorist “facilitators” or “propagandists” being on the receiving of American missiles in, for example, Yemen. One wonders if a family who, in accordance with custom, gave shelter to some al-Qaeda militants would be labeled facilitators.) Politicians can speak in high dudgeon about massacres of women and children, while media organizations can single out their deaths and prominently deploy images of piles of small, bloodied bodies.
These are the problems with classifying some lives apart from others, based largely on the rudiments of biology. These categories are blunt and built on biases. They leave little room for individuals or individual stories. And in holding up these numbers above all, we often neglect other traumas, other casualties, which may be just as consequential for the calculus of war and peace, guilt and innocence, war crime and proportional response. They may have just as much influence over the development of a society and its future prospects.
For example, many defenders of Israel’s campaign write about the daily hardship and fear for people in Sderot and other Gaza border communities. Upon hearing a warning siren (should it sound), they have 15 seconds or less to run to a shelter. They may not suffer physically—injuries and deaths do occur, though rarely—but they deal with constant, almost-paralyzing stress, an awareness that one must always be near a place of shelter and security. They have difficulty starting businesses and caring for their children. They can’t move because they can’t sell their homes—no one is interested in buying them. The Israeli government invests, though largely in fortifications and Iron Dome anti-missile systems. They don’t invest much in programs that may help make these poor communities more prosperous and more livable. The populations remain infantilized, frightened but grateful for the defense assistance they do receive. (It’s with this in mind, I believe, that an Israeli friend of mine wrote, with a bit of anesthetizing irony, a song in praise of Iron Dome.)
Palestinians, of course, have no Iron Dome or fortified shelters against Israeli missiles and bombs, which are supposed to strike militants and rocket caches but so often find other targets. Palestinians too deal with daily trauma, not only from the occasional targeted killing, coming without warning, but also from flyovers of F-16s and the omnipresent specter of drones overhead, the sound of which has earned the name “zenana” (meaning buzz, or, in Egyptian Arabic slang, a nagging wife). In northwest Pakistan, many children no longer go to school and some businesses have closed because of this sound. It is too frightening to go outside, to become subject to potential attack. Because the gaze of the drone is an algorithmic one; it deals in fixed categories—guilty, innocent, suspicious. And it never rests; it only continues to look, to interrogate, to probe, before deciding where and when to fire. Under this kind of interrogation, no one can speak back. It is difficult even to be a person. Only after the smoke clears do these people regain some vestige of their humanity, as their bodies are counted—women, children, men.