7 famous characters killed by drones


First aired on Day 6 (26/01/13)

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"Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. Pity. A signature strike leveled the florist's."

"Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was killed by a Predator drone."

"Call me Ishmael. I was a young man of military age. I was immolated at my wedding. My parents are inconsolable."

Those aren't quite the lines we remember opening Virgina Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, Franz Kafka's The Trial or Herman Meliville's Moby Dick. But, that is how writer Teju Cole recrafted them and four other opening lines from famous books into 140-character tweets about drone attacks.

In late January, the UN announced it was launching an investigation into "the civilian impact of drones and other forms of targeted killing," according to its website As numbers of civilian deaths are hard to come by -- though the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates between 860 and 2060 civilians have been killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia -- Cole decided he wanted to reframe the conversation on drone strikes.

He coined the term empathy gap. He says people distance themselves from the victims of violence we hear about in the news. "There seems to be an absolute gap between us and those people," he told CBC's Day 6.

But, when people read great literature, he says the empathy gap closes. So, Cole took famous, beloved literary characters "and put them into this messy and unpleasant world where people are suddenly being killed by planes for nothing that they've done wrong."

Writing the seven short Twitter stories, Cole was reminded of the human predicament surrounding equality: what happens to one person in one corner of the world could be happening to someone else somewhere else.

"I think in these short stories I tell it's 80 per cent tragedy and 20 per cent comic shock. There's something funny about the idea of Mrs. Dalloway going out to buy the flowers herself and then never coming back because suddenly a bomb, you know, blew her head off."

The comic shock is meant to reveal a reality, he said. 

"The reality is that very many people have to have their lives become a kind of failed expectation simply because we've taken this absolutely bungling approach to fighting terrorists."

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