12/21/2012 02:43 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2013

Attention and Action: The Connecticut Shootings vs. Drone Strikes

On Wednesday, President Obama called for changes to gun laws that would better keep weapons out of the hands of dangerous or mentally unstable individuals. He also urged citizens to push for those changes:  

And I'm not going to be able to do it by myself. Ultimately if this effort is to succeed it’s going to require the help of the American people — it’s going to require all of you. If we're going to change things, it’s going to take a wave of Americans — mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, pastors, law enforcement, mental health professionals — and, yes, gun owners — standing up and saying “enough” on behalf of our kids.

On Monday, The Guardian's George Monbiot contrasted concern shown for the children killed in Connecticut with children killed abroad by U.S. drone strikes:

It must follow that what applies to the children murdered there by a deranged young man also applies to the children murdered in Pakistan by a sombre American president. These children are just as important, just as real, just as deserving of the world's concern. Yet there are no presidential speeches or presidential tears for them, no pictures on the front pages of the world's newspapers, no interviews with grieving relatives, no minute analysis of what happened and why.

As Monbiot noted, a September, 2012 report issued jointly by researchers at Stanford and NYU estimated that between January, 2009 and December, 2011, at least 64 children were killed in drone strikes. At least 901 were estimated to have been injured. (See p. 164 of the report for the statistics.) 

Tragedies, unto themselves, are not relative. While overall loss of life must be factored into all kinds of policy calculations, from wartime actions to health care discussions, the needless death of even one innocent person is inherently tragic. There is therefore no need to take attention away from the children who lost their lives last week in Newtown. 

But, as Monbiot wrote, there is also no reason to dedicate more attention and consideration to their lives than to children killed abroad by American military action. 

Obama was right to state that changes to American gun policy will be impacted by public agitation. It remains to be seen what steps he'll take, beyond speeches, to activate his network of supporters on behalf of new gun legislation. However, an OFA email sent out on December 17th and signed by David Axelrod linked to Obama's remarks from Connecticut.

"Last night," it read, "President Obama addressed the families of Newtown, offering the love and prayers of a nation, and vowing to use whatever power his office holds to protect our children from such unthinkable acts of violence. He spoke from the heart -- as a president and a parent."

"As we reflect on the lives lost last week," the message continued, "we must also, as the President urged, consider how each of us can play a part in making our country worthy of the memory of those little children." 

At the same time, it seems clear that neither OFA, nor the President, have a history of encouraging civic engagement surrounding drone policy. Obama has seldom addressed civilian casualties caused by drones (his January, 2012 Google Hangout discussion of the topic was a rare exception). And during the campaign, the president went through three national debates without saying "drone" once.

As both Greg Miller of the Washington Post and Scott Shane of the New York Times have reported (Miller here and Shane here), administration officials are working to systematize, bureaucratize and institutionalize the nation's use of drones. They are doing so, then, at the same time that they're making little effort to bring the topic to the public's attention. 

I am not arguing that the president and his advisers are acting in an insincere or cynical way when expressing concern about the Connecticut killings, nor am I arguing that they do not care about civilian casualties abroad. My point, rather, is an obvious one: the administration has and will continue to pick and choose which issues, and which tragedies, it highlights - which issues deserve public attention and action. Drones do not appear to be one of those issues.  

It is therefore up to the American people to decide how troubled they are by civilian deaths abroad caused by U.S. drone strikes, and whether those tragic deaths warrant the same degree of attention and action prompted by domestic losses - for example, a change in drone policy, greater transparency for the drone program, or more public discussion and debate of the way these weapons are used.  

One final note: on December 14, a petition went up on the White House's website calling for "the Obama Administration to produce legislation that limits access to guns." Such petitions often languish in obscurity, garnering a few thousand signatures at most. But in a matter of days, this one has been signed by over 195,000 people, the most of any petition ever posted there.

The public's empathetic response to the Connecticut shootings is real, just as there are many Americans who truly care about the issue of drone policy. Yet, as of this writing, there are no open petitions on the White House site that mention the word "drone."