Michelle Obama’s #BringBackOurGirls picture sparks criticism of American drone strikes


Michelle Obama tweeted this image on May 7, 2014. (The White House)

With one picture, Michelle Obama took a trending hashtag last week and turned it into a social-media supernova. In an image that has now come to represent the #BringBackOurGirls movement, it demands the return of more than 200 Nigerian school girls captured by Boko Haram.

“In these girls, Barack and I see our own daughters,” Michelle Obama said in a five-minute address last weekend. “We see their hopes, their dreams, and we can only imagine the anguish their parents are feeling right now.”

But the image — and perhaps the message itself — has now turned against her. Criticism began as a trickle late last week, but has given way to a torrent of tweets, cresting a new hashtag: #WeCantBringBackOurDead. Many are now dispatching somber photographs of men and women holding signs that implore the Obama administration to cease its drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and other countries.

The images, which compare the terrorist activities of Boko Haram to drone strikes, have been reproduced and retweeted thousands of times. They illustrate anew the capricious nature of social media, and how even messages with good intentions can be quickly politicized.

The New York Police Department, for example, asked its followers to tweet images of the NYPD a few weeks ago in a gambit to foster goodwill. Instead, users uploaded pictures of cop-inflicted violence.

But those images, though striking, do not have the global impact of this newest social media trend. Drone strikes have become the most divisive, defining elements of the president’s foreign policy. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, drones have killed at least 2,400 people in the past five years. Since the campaign began, the report alleged, the CIA has launched at least 330 strikes in Pakistan alone. Former president George W. Bush only ordered 51 strikes in the previous four years.

Human Rights Watch released a report late last year charging that drones in Yemen killed at least 82 people — 57 of them civilians — between September 2012 and June 2013.  In Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that among the 2,400 people allegedly killed by drones, 273 of them were civilians.

Obama told the New Yorker that he wrestles with the knowledge of civilian casualties, but defended the program. “I have a solemn duty and responsibility to keep the American people safe,” he said. “That’s my most important obligation as President and Commander-in-Chief. And there are individuals and groups out there that are intent on killing Americans — killing American civilians, killing American children, blowing up American planes.”

Nigerians say the government should do everything it can to rescue more then 200 kidnapped school girls but should not “negotiate with terrorists.” (Reuters)
Terrence McCoy writes on foreign affairs for The Washington Post's Morning Mix. Follow him on Twitter here.
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