The recent frenzy over "balloon boy" Falcon Heene that dominated cable news was odd, considering the scant coverage of the carnage wreaked by another kind of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). The balloon incident involved a 6-year-old boy who was thought to be inside a homemade contraption that came unmoored and flew unguided for 70 miles before crash-landing in a field. News helicopters brought a nationwide television audience the live footage of the balloon’s flight and climactic crash, but the boy was later said to be found hiding in an attic. The media obsession has continued, though, after the eventual confession that the incident was a publicity stunt by the boy’s parents.
Unlike the ultimately harmless unmanned aerial vehicle in the balloon story, American drones continue to cause the deaths of children in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq. However, these killings receive little attention from the mainstream press, with any mention of the Predator UAV attacks usually highlighting the death of the alleged al-Qaeda target (and as in the cases of Mohammad Ilyas Kashmiri and Abu Mustafa al-Yazid, reports of these deaths may be greatly exaggerated).
As the balloon story developed and the Heene children were trotted out for interview after interview, a backlash against the parents continued to grow. Commentators trashed their character and parenting decisions, and that was before the event was revealed to be a hoax. Presidents Bush and Obama, both fathers themselves, have ordered UAV missile strikes on people in several Middle Eastern countries despite the inherent limitations on knowing exactly who will be killed by an attack from a UAV high above its target. There is no dispute that more than a few children have been killed in these strikes, with the latest data on the Pakistan strikes alone indicating that 49 civilians are killed for every al-Qaeda leader assassinated. However, these actions by fathers Bush and Obama do not inspire the same questions about character that the Heenes face for an act that resulted in zero deaths.
During the balloon’s fateful journey, many concerned people sent their prayers and thoughts to the Heene family, including United States Congressman J. Gresham Barrett (R-S.C.) on his Twitter page. At least until it was announced that the boy was safe, there was a great deal of empathy expressed for the supposedly terrified parents. As the death toll of children slaughtered in drone strikes by American UAVs continues to mount, conspicuously absent is any concern on the cable news networks (or Congressman Barrett’s Twitter page) for the innocent victims of the drone killings. Perhaps it is difficult to comprehend what people living in the regions targeted for drone strikes must feel on a daily basis, as no sane American seriously worries that a guided missile will destroy their home after they turn in for the night. As Glenn Greenwald wrote recently:
"Note, too, the vast gap between how Americans perceive of their [those abusing detainees] actions (mere ‘aberrations’) and how so much of the rest of the world perceives of it, especially those in the targeted regions. So much of this disparity is explained by a basic lack of empathy: imagine if every American spent just a day contemplating how they’d react if some foreign army from a Muslim nation invaded and bombed the U.S., occupied the country for the next several years with 60,000 soldiers, killed tens of thousands of citizens here…."
Even before the balloon story was determined to be a hoax, there was a great deal of speculation about the cost of the law enforcement response and the liability of the Heene family. One estimate figured the direct costs at over $100,000. The push for a financial reckoning for the Heene family stands in stark contrast to the total lack of personal accountability for American military debacles. For each errant UAV strike that kills innocent civilians, neither the person controlling the UAV from a video monitor nor the person who ordered the missile to be fired is called upon to compensate anyone for lives or property lost. They do not have to reimburse the Treasury for the cost of the missile, which is over $50,000. In a country where people really paid for their dishonest waste of public money, the Bush family fortune would be turned over to the taxpayers as restitution for a tiny fraction of the cost of the Iraq war.
A pair of segments that aired back to back on CNN Newsroom Oct. 24 illustrated the point. When one anchor concluded the latest "balloon boy" report with news that the Heenes had staged the brouhaha to build buzz for a potential reality show, the other anchor sarcastically asked, "How’d that work out?" He then delivered a succinct summary of the 16 reported dead in the latest drone attack on Pakistan, without injecting any personal comment into the story. Perhaps he should have asked, "How’d that work out?"