“Hey Tommy, did you study for the test today?”
“What test, what are you talking about?” You were shocked. Nobody had told you about any test.
Suddenly the playground shifted, merged, and you were transported into a classroom with a very loud clock. You were seated, and in front of you was a test paper. The handles tick-tocked, tick-tocked, but you couldn’t quite make out what was written, as if the text was blurred. Picking up the paper to look at it closer, it began turning to dust in your hands, and your test slipped through your fingers, fluttering away in the cross-wind of the open window.
“No! Wait! I haven’t answered the questions!”
The teacher at the front of the classroom turned around and stared at you, and as the minute handle reached its zenith, a horribly loud bell rang.
“What? Where am I?”
“You fell asleep in class again. Come on, school’s done for the day!”
A dream? It was but a dream!
Happy that you had not failed your tests, you grabbed your backpack and merrily trotted to bus No. 3 waiting outside. You couldn’t wait to get back home and eat your favorite spaghetti Bolognese. Your mum really knew how to cook up a meal!
Sitting on the bus, you noticed there were fewer and fewer children as the days went by. You turned around and asked one of the older kids at the back where your friend Sam was. He didn’t answer at first, and then he leaned in and said, “I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but… when you go home, go on your computer and do a search for drones.”
“Drones?” You were puzzled. Did he mean drones in video games?
“Just do it, and make sure it’s a news search for local stories. You’ll see.”
On the way home, you daydreamed about all the things you would do after school, making sure not to forget your research homework about drones. As the bus went over a few bumps, you could feel your stomach begin to rumble in delightful anticipation of the meal to come.
“Tommy, it’s time to go to bed! Switch off your computer, come on now.”
“Yes mummy, just a moment.”
“And don’t forget to wish your little sister good night.”
You had been searching for local news about “drones”, and couldn’t quite understand. Why would the Chinese people be sending these mean drones to kill people? In school, you were told the Chinese were your greatest ally.
Confused and with more questions than you had before you began, you switched your computer off and walked to your sister’s room. She was already fast asleep, a little booger making its way in and out of her nose with each breath. You could barely contain a giggle.
“Good night, Mary-Ann.” You whispered, and closed the door.
After brushing your teeth, you went back to your room and crawled into bed, waiting for that moment when it finally became warm and comfy to sleep in.
A door shut closed below, and you could hear your father’s voice. “I’m home, dear.”
“Go tuck Tommy in, he’s probably already in bed.”
That brought a smile to your face. Often, your father would work so late you wouldn’t see him – and he seemed to leave so early in the mornings…
“Hi Tommy!” Your father was tired, with circles under his eyes, but that didn’t stop him from giving the widest smile you had ever seen as he walked in. “How was school?”
“I… I think I dozed off during my last lesson, dad.” You said rather timidly.
“Oh, don’t worry about it. You just need to rest that big brain of yours!” He said as he leaned in to kiss you on the forehead.
“Good night, son.”
“Good night, dad,” you said with a deep sense of happiness. It was weeks since you had last seen your mum and dad fight, and the house had assumed a kind of quiet serenity.
A few minutes later you would doze off, half-wondering if you would get another nightmare about tests at school…
You awoke in half a shock.
“What’s going on?” Your mouth said, but you couldn’t hear it. A strange teeee was sounding in your ears, as if the computer tone of a crashing program had gotten stuck in your speakers again.
The air was heavy with some kind of dust, and you could barely see.
Coughing, you thought to yourself: am I in another dream? But then the pain came. You mindlessly moved your hand to where it hurt, and felt a strange sticky liquid.
“What, what is this?” You moaned in pain.
You brought your hand closer, and it was covered in crimson.
“Mummy!” You shouted, finally able to hear your own voice.
The window to your room had its glass shattered, and you could now see that a piece of the glass was lodged in your leg.
What was going on?!
You heard a crash to your left, and saw your father, covering his face with a scarf, burst down the door.
You pointed to your leg, and your father’s eyes widened.
“Oh, Tommy! What’s happened to you? Here, give me your hands.” He grunted as he pulled you up.
It had been years since your dad lifted you. He always said you had grown too big.
“We have to get out of here. Here, breath through this.”
Carrying you over your shoulder, he ran downstairs and outside, dodging a fire that had spread throughout the corridor.
Outside, your mother was on her knees, hunched over something, crying unstoppably.
“Alice, did you save Mary-Ann?” Your father asked.
“Nothing can save Mary-Ann!” Your mother was frenetic. She could not put her grief into words, so she simply held up the charred body of your little sister. She… she seemed to be missing an arm.
You couldn’t believe your eyes. It seemed like just a moment ago you saw your little sister peacefully sleeping, and now… now…
Tears began coming out of your eyes, and you started to sob uncontrollably. You had by now forgotten all about your leg.
Sirens sounded somewhere in the distance, and several neighbors approached, but everything was becoming a chaotic blur, and you fell, slipping into unconsciousness…
Regular beeps seemed to sound all around you, and you woke up in a strangely white room.
“Tommy! Thank God you’re okay.” Your mother hugged you intensely.
“Am I in a hospital?” You were puzzled by all the machines around you, and the little wires attached to your finger.
“Yes, dear. But you’re alright.” She said as she pulled back.
“He’s just off talking with some friends, he’ll be back soon, don’t worry about it. How are you feeling?”
“I’m okay. My leg hurts a little… where’s Mary-Ann? Is she alright?”
Your mother’s face darkened and she looked away somewhere. “She’s… waiting for us in another world. Don’t worry about her, okay?” She turned back towards you, and tears were streaming down her face. She hugged you again, and buried her teary-eyed face in your shirt.
“What happened, mum? Was it the drones? Was it the drones?”
She just held on tighter than before, and didn’t say a word.
Several days passed before you were released from the hospital. Doctors explained that you had passed out because an important artery in your leg was cut by the glass, and that you had lost a lot of blood. The ambulance arrived just in time to save you, but… by then Mary-Ann was gone.
The atmosphere at home was completely different.
Your father had taken a few days off work, and spent a lot of time in his study, talking with his friends about something. Your mother seemed awfully worried, and they would argue every night after his friends left.
After a while though, the arguments stopped, and your mother’s attitude changed entirely. She started participating in the talks in the study, and would welcome your father’s friends with hot food.
One day, sitting alone at home, you switched on the T.V. and there was a report on drones!
“Drone attacks are on the increase. In just the last week, three homes were mistakenly targeted. Five people lost their lives, and twelve were injured.”
What the T.V. didn’t explain to you was why these drone attacks happened in the first place? You just couldn’t understand why somebody would do such a thing.
After a couple of weeks, you went back to school, and your dad went back to work. But something had changed, because that night you heard your parents leave the house at night.
Ever since the drones attacked your home, you had nightmares and sleepless nights. If before you could sleep through a storm, now every little sound woke you up. So when your parents began leaving the house every night, you heard them, and saw them drive off into the darkness.
One night, half-asleep, you walked downstairs and tried to ask them what they were doing, but they just hushed you and told you not to speak to anyone about it.
“We’re going to make everything better,” your father told you one night.
I asked him why they had packed large bags, and if they were leaving. He said, “No, no. Don’t worry, we’ll be back by morning.”
But that was the last time you saw your parents.
The next morning, some men in suits showed up at your house. You didn’t want to open the door, because you didn’t recognize them, but they said they had important news about your parents.
When they came in, some of them immediately started searching the house and making a horrible mess.
“Stop! What are you doing?” You shouted, and grabbed hold of one of the man’s hands to try and stop him.
“Sit down kid, we have some news about your parents.” Said the first man.
You let go. “Where are they?”
“It turns out your parents were terrorists, son. Last night they tried to blow up the local Chinese airfield that was being used by peacekeepers. They, uh… they won’t be seeing you again.”
Gone? They were gone?
You slumped into a chair. You wanted to cry, but something had changed in you. The world didn’t look happy anymore. It looked cruel, and sad. The people in it were mean and callous. And you weren’t going to cry for them. Whatever you did, you weren’t going to give them that weakness. So the tears never came. Instead there was just silence, as you sat and watched your home become ravaged and turned upside down.
Years passed, and the bombings ended, but nothing could bring back your family. You still don’t know if they were killed, or if they were locked up in a secret prison somewhere. There were no bodies at the funeral. You grew up alone, in a foster home – like so many other children.
As you sat in a coffee shop and watched the people busily moving outside, you were lost in thought.
To this day, you could not understand why the people of that great country had no empathy for your family. They called them terrorists, but all they tried to do was destroy the airfield from which the drones took off to bomb innocent civilians. They tried to bring some justice for Mary-Ann, but instead they were labeled criminals.
The government didn’t do anything. The Chinese would regularly send “aid packages”, which ensured the local politicians didn’t complain too much about the growing list of casualties, and the media more and more referred to these strikes as “surgical”, and “laser-pointed”. The truth was that 80% of those murdered were innocent civilians.
Thousands of children were slaughtered over the course of a multi-year campaign of bombings. Nobody could sleep at night, because the drones would always be in the sky above – ready to bring down death at any moment, and with no notice. Everyone was kept in constant fear.
Not a single politician in China went to jail for this. Not a single pilot was held responsible. They didn’t even bother to determine exactly how many people they had killed. That’s how little value they placed on a human life.
Empathy. Empathy is what people lacked. You later found out that the Chinese media had conducted an intense propaganda campaign to label all Americans as “savages”, as “potential terrorists”.
You realized that for any great crime to be committed, the victims must first be dehumanized. For what great deal is it if a few innocent savages lose their lives? After all, nobody is innocent, right? Even Mary-Ann, these demagogues would say, was guilty of something.
And so it came to pass that an unimaginable amount of pain was committed against an entire people, and the rest of the world barely whimpered.