Muzayen Al-Youssef of Der Standard (in Austria) recently interviewed Laurie Calhoun about the use of lethal drones. Here is a link to the resultant article. A lively debate (auf Deutsch) ensues in the comments forum…
It’s probably about time for film makers to stop naming their critiques of drone warfare Drone. But that’s just a quibble—more a piece of practical advice than a substantive criticism. This latest installment in the “movies called Drone” series is directed by Jason Bourque and manages to offer some new twists on the many trenchant works created by thinking people appalled by the “lethal turn” in US foreign policy since September 11, 2001.
Assassination has been normalized as a standard operating procedure, a feat accomplished not by President Trump but by his predecessor, Barack Obama, whose administration mounted and implemented a complex bureaucratic institution of intentional, premeditated homicide of persons (usually of color) who are either suspected of complicity in terrorism, or suspected of association with persons suspected of complicity in terrorism. That’s right: the people being intentionally killed under the auspices of the US drone program outside areas of active hostilities fall into one of two categories: guilty until proven innocent, or guilty by association of being guilty until proven innocent.
Nearly all of the victims of drone strikes have been brown-skinned and of Muslim origin. It’s really quite astonishing that the first black US president could preside over such a flagrant program of racial profiling, which denies persons of color not only their right to life but also their rights to defend themselves against the charge that they deserve to die, without indictment much less trial, for hypothetical crimes to which only the killers are privy. One can only hope that future historians will be suitably shocked by the total discombobulation of Western administrators in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
In Drone (2017), a recent film version of the We Kill Because We Can story, many aspects of the US killing machine and how it has been used throughout much of the twenty-first century are highlighted, in the hope of provoking the viewer to reflect upon the significance of a paradigm of war which, despite being not only morally and legally, but also strategically dubious, has come to be accepted by Western politicians and their voting constituents alike.
Sure, the drone warriors have managed to incinerate thousands of persons, mostly of unknown identity, but what have they really accomplished, beyond mass homicide and the enrichment of war profiteers? The Middle East is in shambles, Al Qaeda franchises have spored and spread, and the United States is fighting wars in at least seven different lands, while threatening others in various ways. Any sober assessment of US foreign policy over the past seventeen years can only conclude that the Global War on Terror (GWOT) has been an unmitigated failure. The primary tool of GWOT has been none other than the weaponized drone, which helped to usher in an era of executive war (formerly known as monarchic depredation, or tyranny) by allowing leaders both to wage war and deny that they are engaged in war at the same time and in the same place (for more on this, see the Libya intervention of 2011—or the bombing of Syria in 2018).
The drone operators whom we have learned about in a variety of films, not only in documentaries such as National Bird (2015) and Drone (2014), but also in works of fiction based on reality, such as Good Kill (2015) and Drone Strike (2013), have for the most part been young people recruited right out of high school or in their early twenties. In Drone (2017), however, the central protagonist, Neil Wistin, is a middle-aged man with a teenage son who spends a good deal of time playing hunt-and-kill video games and would in fact be a prime candidate for recruitment into the military as a drone operator. Instead, it’s his dad who spends his days stalking and snuffing out “bad guys” located on the other side of the planet. Wistin, a civilian, works as a contract killer for the CIA. He is not a soldier; he is an assassin. He is paid to eliminate persons nominated to kill lists by other private contractors based on circumstantial evidence (aka SIGINT) and bribed hearsay (aka HUMINT). His family has believed for years that he works in IT for a nonexistent company, but they eventually come to learn that Wistin spends his days not programming but hunting down and killing human beings in Pakistan at the behest of the CIA.
Along with the intended targets, Wistin has killed some unintended targets, which he and his co-workers perfunctorily label “collateral damage”. But the notion of collateral damage, dubious enough as it is, cannot truly be said to apply to cases of assassination. And no, it does not matter in the least that the implement of homicide is a military weapon. For in genuine combat contexts, where the lives of soldiers on the ground are at stake, collateral damage is said to be permissible because it is unavoidable, given military exigencies. The use of the category of “collateral damage” to excuse the people being mistakenly killed by weaponized drones outside areas of active hostilities is tantamount to asserting the right to kill anyone, anywhere, at any time, for whatever reasons the killers themselves deem sufficient. It is also a categorical denial of human rights.
The utter lawlessness of this paradigm will become more and more apparent as lethal drones spread around the globe and are used by leaders according to their discretion and caprice after kill committee meetings conducted behind closed doors and with neither transparency nor due process, following the example of mentor governments Israel and the United States. The drone killers act with complete impunity, for they are physically protected by their geographic distance from the places they fire on, and the secrecy of the program ensures that they remain anonymous, not only to their victims, but also to their family members and friends, as in the case of private contractor Wistin, who essentially leads a double life like any regular spy.
But is it really true that there are private contractors serving as drone operators and firing missiles upon people? If there were, we would not be told, for the citizens paying for this institution of death know as little as possible about the facts on the ground and the inner workings of the killing machine. This carefully maintained state of ignorance among the very people paying for the drone program is rationalized under State Secrets Privilege.
In a series of carefully plotted scenes, Drone (2017), like other films produced on this controversial topic in recent years, illuminates some of the lesser known and morally unsavory aspects of what has been going on:
Wounded survivors of initial strikes are taken out in double tap strikes, what can only be a violation of the Geneva Conventions. Of course the “quaint” idea that unarmed persons may not be summarily executed is ignored in the first strikes as well.
Persons are being spied on as though they had no rights or dignity whatsoever—whether or not they are suspected of terrorism.
The persons left bereft after strikes mourn the loss of their loved ones, who were, in reality, fathers, brothers, sons and, in the case of collateral damage victims not even suspected of complicity in terrorism: altogether innocuous women and children.
The killers are themselves never at risk of death when they fire on targets thousands of miles away, rendering dubious the rationalization used by combat soldiers throughout the history of warfare: that they must kill or else be killed.
The rebranding of assassination as targeted killing in warfare (dismissing innocent victims as collateral damage) but not really warfare (when it comes to oversight and congressional mandate) makes it nearly impossible for the citizens paying for this institution of premeditated homicide to understand what is going on. They are told that this is all a matter of national defense, and naturally throw their support behind anything carrying that label.
The military-age men killed—whether intentionally or unintentionally—are assumed to be terrorists, while the cases of collateral damage killing of women and children are systematically denied as “unconfirmed”, when not outright dismissed as terrorist propaganda.
These features of the drone program are variously highlighted in the film when a Pakistani businessman, Imir Shaw, whose wife and daughter were destroyed by a drone strike, travels to the United States to confront their killer. The unsavory truths being conveyed in Drone (2017) are easily verified, but the specific scenario devised to press these points is highly implausible for a variety of reasons. First, the Trump administration immigration gatekeepers would be unlikely to admit through the golden arches a military-aged male from Pakistan. Second, the man manages to locate his wife and daughter’s killer through hacking into the drone intelligence network, which, while possible, would be very difficult. Third, the layers of secrecy used to protect the perpetrators, including the very use of private contractors, makes it not at all obvious how such a victim could identify the precise person who pushed the button in any given case. The use of private military companies in the real-life drone program—if not in the acts of killing, at least in the generation of kill lists—makes it improbable that the name of the killers of any given victim will ever be revealed, even if the system is hacked (which is far more likely to be done by a whistleblower within the system than an outsider), and information is shared via an outlet such as Wikileaks.
But Drone (2017) is a work of fiction, which admirably attempts to reveal what is invisible to people in the West: the reality of the drone program for the victims and their bereft survivors. The story explores what could happen if one of the grieving victims ever encountered the person physically responsible for his grief. Imir Shaw shows up at Neil Wistin’s home, feigning interest in the boat with a “for sale” sign in the driveway. He then proceeds to befriend the Wistin family, having been invited to stay for dinner, before explaining that his own family, a wife and daughter, were destroyed by a US drone. As the evening progresses, the conversation becomes strained when Shaw and Wistin begin to wrangle over the US drone program and the war on terror. Ultimately, the Pakistani dinner guest spills his guts, explaining that it was Wistin himself who killed Shaw’s wife and daughter.
Shaw also informs Wistin that his wife has been having an affair, which he has learned by spying on her prior to the visit, and that the wife and son have no idea what it is that Wistin does for a living. By pretending that his briefcase contains a bomb which he plans to detonate right there and then, Shaw ultimately drives Wistin to attempt to save his wife and son, which culminates in Shaw’s death.
In some ways, this is a disappointing turn in the story, for it follows the standard Hollywood template according to which the Americans always prevail. But the twist here is that Wistin finally undergoes a conversion to become a whistleblower and make public the true workings of the drone program, including the use of private contractors as assassins. Drone (2017) ably predicts what would in all likelihood be the administration’s response to such a “defection”, which is to denounce Wistin as a traitor, along the lines of the whistleblowers tried and convicted of crimes under the Espionage Act in recent years.
The first half of Drone (2017) runs very slowly and seems a bit meandering, but serves to set the stage for the second half, which becomes more and more suspenseful as the viewer is drawn into the tense conflict between the American drone operator and the grief-stricken Pakistani man. The admittedly heavy-handed points made as the rather contrived plot unfolds are nonetheless important and need to be stressed, which is why I would like to see more people watch this film, despite its cinematic flaws. For the creators of this film are absolutely right about this: Until US taxpayers come to understand the reality of what they are funding under the label of “national defense”, these sorts of abominable crimes will continue to be committed.
The fact that the drone program has been so thoroughly shrouded in secrecy is not, as its administrators claim, itself a matter of national defense, but a means by which to secure compliance when, if presented with the facts, many proponents of drone warfare would withdraw their support. In the case of the US government’s killing machine, the American people have been hoodwinked to the point of coercion, which has undermined the democratic basis for the government’s alleged authority to act on their behalf. The apparent support of a policy or practice which is garnered through the use of deception willfully intended to sow ignorance is devoid of any legitimacy whatsoever. Nearly everyone opposes murder and supports justice, so when people are told by government officials that acts of murder are not acts of murder but instead “just war”, they have been horribly duped, no less than the drone operators seduced to enlist in the military using mythic images of the “noble warrior”, when in fact they will be transformed into contract killers.
Having seen the 2014 remake before the original Robocop (1987), I was anxious to find out why some reviewers are so adamant that the earlier version is vastly superior. Of course, that is often the case for movie remakes, and I never cease to be amazed when directors take it upon themselves to attempt to improve upon already excellent films, given that they are essentially setting themselves up for critical failure. As for Robocop, I myself find that both the 1987 and the 2014 version are worth watching and have distinct virtues, offering as they do slightly different takes on the militarization and automation of policing currently underway in the real world.
What is remarkable about the original Robocop, directed by Paul Verhoeven, is that it portrays as science fiction what has largely come to pass in reality. The Drone Age was well underway by 2014, but in 1987, people weren’t even using the internet, much less signing up to become remote-control assassins under the aegis of the US military. In 2014, robotic technology, mass surveillance and the use of facial recognition programs to pinpoint the location of suspects were also a matter of common knowledge. At the time of the release of the first Robocop, in contrast, such capacities were known about only by those privy to the arcane activities of DARPA’s inner sanctum. And of course readers of science fiction, from which many of the latest and most lethal innovations may ultimately derive, given that there appear to be intelligence community analysts whose job it is to read everything that has ever been published (as in Three Days of the Condor).
The popular success of both versions of Robocop is most likely due to the fact that, on the most obvious level, they are clear-cut examples of the action genre, featuring easily identifiable heroes and villains, and showcasing the typical Manichean quest between good and evil, highly embellished with fighting and killing and bloodshed and car crashes all along the way. In the 1987 version, we are to sympathize with Alex Murphy, the good cop, and his spunky female sidekick, Anne Lewis, because they are obviously good people who want nothing more than to stop crime and track down the perpetrators of past transgressions so that they can be thrown into prison where they so clearly belong. But what makes both of these films much more than typical (and forgettable) action flicks is the presentation in each of a complex network of corruption, which includes not only the lawless lowlife scoundrels out in the streets but also the white collar establishment in cahoots with organized crime. For the philosophically inclined, these films also raise many questions about the moral status of human beings and the nature of personhood.
Thefts and homicides have spiraled out of control in old Detroit, and the city management has decided to privatize and revolutionize the police force, by replacing many human officers with robotic surrogates. Such an idea may have seemed farfetched throughout much of the twentieth century, but that this should eventually come to pass seems today rather predictable for some of the very same reasons that automation is causing the disappearance of many other professions. You can be replaced by a machine is no longer a humorous trope but a literal truth, at least insofar as vocations are concerned. In the relentless quest to cut costs in order to grow profit margins, the most expensive element in corporate networks remains the human factor. What company executive beholden to stockholders wants to foot the bill for health and retirement benefits, sick and maternity leave, and annual vacations, plus satisfy all of the other annoying demands made by human employees? More importantly, why do any of those things, if they can be altogether avoided? You can and will be replaced by a machine. It’s only a matter of time…
Somewhat ironically, developers of artificial intelligence have been working overtime to see to it that many if not most professions (theirs included!) can be better and more efficiently carried out by machines using automated processes. How the people formerly employed in those professions will be able to afford to live remains to be seen. Optimists maintain that with new technologies will come new industries, but it is becoming less and less clear how hordes of delivery persons and bus and taxi drivers (and Uber drivers who became the equivalent of taxi drivers for lack of better opportunities) will find gainful employment in the not-too-distant future, as automatic vehicles take over the streets and drones hover above in the sky. There’s also the poignant story of the employees of the already ailing brick-and-mortar retail sector, who were revealed to be next in line for unemployment by the recent Amazon-Go experiment. Yes, a handful of managers and administrators will always be needed, but where will all the workers go? These sorts of concerns appear to have reinvigorated the “universal basic income” movement, but that’s another story.
In Robocop, order will need somehow to be maintained in Delta City as it is constructed from the scrappy remains of destitute Detroit by a huge influx of workers. With these new residents on their way, the city administrators have turned crime management over to a private company, Omni Consumer Products (OCP), an Amazon-meets-Halliburton-meets-Blackwater–like entity, which will be supplementing the police force with robots. The plan is touted by its marketers as a stroke of genius, for robots, unlike human beings, never suffer fatigue, succumb to emotions, or waver from their mission (well, except in 2001: A Space Odyssey).
Unfortunately, the very first fully robotic police officer template, the ED-209 enforcement droid, malfunctions during its unveiling demonstration at a board meeting, brutally slaughtering one of the company employees. The CEO waves off the incident as a “glitch”, and one of his underlings avails himself of this propitious opportunity to pitch to the president a different sort of prototype, a cyborg, which he was enlisted to develop as a back-up plan because of the looming delivery deadline ahead.
The cyborg is created from the remains of Officer Murphy, whose body was mutilated beyond repair by a gang of thugs, though his brain was still salvageable. The brain of this human being is reprogrammed and enhanced as a synchable computer before being attached to a robotic body. This cyborg “officer” is conceived by its creators not as a person but as a product. Despite having Murphy’s brain, Robocop is regarded by company executives as a machine to do with as they please. (This point is underscored by the fact that the manager in charge, upon learning that one of Murphy’s arms was saved, orders that it be replaced by a prosthetic limb, so that all of Robocop’s body parts will be fully robotic.) Murphy was pronounced dead, so no one not involved in the project has any idea, at least not initially, that Robocop is anything but a machine.
Another glitch arises with this new prototype, however, for Murphy’s brain was not wiped clean of all memories. He awakens abruptly from a dream in which he has accessed images of the scoundrels who viciously attacked him and left him for dead. Murphy goes rogue and sets out for revenge, which is really a quest for justice in this Manichean tale, since he has been wronged and the scoundrels are indeed guilty of heinous crimes. Along the way, Robocop/Officer Murphy discovers that not all of the apparently “good guys” involved in law enforcement are good guys. Dick Jones, the CEO of OCP, is in fact protecting Murphy’s own murderer, Clarence Boddicker, who is the leader of a sprawling underworld criminal gang responsible for the deaths of many Detroit police officers.
The Drone Angle
There is no point in relaying the bloody details of this hyperviolent film, which includes all of the standard fare sought by amateurs of the action movie genre, including fight scenes, crash scenes, explosions, shoot-outs, etc. I would like, instead, to point out two features pertinent to the Drone Age which may not have seemed salient to most viewers, whether they watched the film upon its release (long before the dawning of the Drone Age) or more recently.
First off, the idea that criminals should be executed rather than captured and made to stand trial for their alleged infractions is simply assumed in scenes such as the bust up of a large illicit drug laboratory. Murphy is on a personal quest to hunt down Clarence Boddicker and his crew, but along the way, he slaughters countless individuals who happen to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. The assumption, of course, is that all of the people being executed by Murphy are “bad guys”. It is worth pointing out, however, that, because Robocop Murphy is not vulnerable to harm from any of the criminals wielding ordinary firearms, it is never an act of self-defense when he fires directly upon them with the express intention of killing them. These people cannot actually harm him, yet he executes them nonetheless.
This manifestation of what I call “lethal creep” is interesting to see in a film from 1987, for it presaged what is happening in the Drone Age on “battlefields” designated as such by those who run the drone program outside areas of active hostilities. People located thousands of miles away and who have no capacity whatsoever to harm the personnel targeting them are being slaughtered under the assumption that they are guilty of whatever a group of analysts have concluded through secretive deliberations that they may have done or, more preposterously, are possibly planning to do.
Thousands of other young, mostly Muslim, men outside areas of active hostilities have also been killed by the US government with absolute impunity for their apparent association with—or proximity to—persons suspected of complicity in terrorism. The danger of such an idea, that suspicious persons and their associates, all of whom are incapable of harming their eventual killers, should be annihilated nonetheless, because it is thought by someone somewhere that the world will be better without them, leaves the question of who may live and who deserves to die entirely to the discretion of those managing the remote-control killers. Under cover of State Secrets Privilege, all “nominations” to kill lists are carried out behind closed doors.
In Robocop, the viewer knows that Boddicker’s gang of degenerates have already murdered many people and can be expected to murder many more, if they are not stopped. But the assumption in killing, not only those gang members, but also everyone else present at the drug laboratory (many of whom are probably not murderers), is that homicide is a perfectly reasonable way to prevent future crime. The Robocop police officer is wiping out all of these suspects not because they pose any immediate danger to anyone, least of all to him—built as he is of Kevlar-coated titanium—but simply because he can. We Kill Because We Can.
The parallel to the drone strike case is worth making a bit more explicit. When hellfire missiles miss their intended targets, killing innocent civilians instead of the persons suspected of complicity in terrorism (sometimes past, but usually future), the deaths are written off as “collateral damage”. In regular combat warfare, the deaths of innocent people are said to be regrettable but unavoidable, given present military exigencies. In the case of drone warfare outside areas of active hostilities, where force protection is not at issue, the same logic is nonetheless assumed to hold: that this “collateral damage” is unavoidable. But just as Officer Murphy is not killing in literal self-defense adversaries armed only with regular guns, there is no analogous military necessity at the time of drone strike deaths outside areas of active hostilities, for there are no soldiers on the ground requiring protection by the drone. This slippery slope of redefining assassination as targeted killing in order to permit “collateral damage” outside areas of active hostilities has made the US killing machine far more lethal than it would have been, were the use of military force restricted to regular war contexts.
Remarkably, Robocop succeeds in conveying a second, and equally frightening danger inherent to the drone program. For the inevitable presence of corrupt elements in the establishment (given human nature) itself implies that these tools of summary execution, whether drones or droids, can be used to rout out not only persons likely to commit murder in the future, but also those who pose a very different kind of danger, and only to those in power. Whistleblowers working within these systems can be facilely eliminated using this technology, given its associated culture of secrecy and lack of transparency and due process, as can outsiders who dare to pose questions about what those in power are doing.
The lethal turn occasioned by the Drone Age, the quest to kill as many suspects as possible in order to prove to lawmakers and the populace that they are being kept safe, will eventually come back to haunt citizens, at least any who dare to pose uncomfortable questions or to expose graft within their own society’s government. None of this bodes well for the future of democracy, and Robocop (1987) is prophetic for having pointed out the potential for such abuses.
National Bird, a film directed by Sonia Kennebeck, received much less attention than Eye in the Sky, though both had US releases in 2016. One reason for this is that Eye in the Sky paints drone warfare as a positive development in human history, and its perpetrators as somehow noble, despite the risk of killing civilians which invariably attends this new practice. Another reason for the relative lack of attention received by National Bird is simply that documentary films, which tend to be more critical of their subject matter and far less entertaining, rarely get much coverage in the media, and those about drone warfare are no exception to the rule. Several films highly critical of the US drone program have been released, but unfortunately they have quickly fallen by the wayside and failed effectively to penetrate the collective consciousness of the citizens who fund the practice, new to the twenty-first century, of hunting down and killing persons suspected of complicity in terrorism, or of being in association with persons suspected of complicity in terrorism.
The administrators of the US drone program have succeeded resplendently in their promotion campaigns by persuading politicians and the populace to accept the official story, according to which assassinations carried out by uniformed soldiers stationed in trailers in the desert thousands of miles away from “the battlefield”, using remote-control launched missiles, are really “targeted killings” and legitimate acts of war. National Bird, like the documentaries which preceded it, calls into question this reigning dogma, and disputes some of the most basic “facts” being reported by the US administration. All of the documentaries produced to date on the topic of targeted killing examine some of the seldom-mentioned negative effects of the drone program upon not only the victims abroad, but also the young American recruits enlisted to serve as paid assassins under a guise of defending the homeland.
What is unique about National Bird is its deft illumination of three key aspects of the drone program, beginning with what is in effect the racial profiling of the unnamed persons being intentionally killed. The US administration has killed thousands of persons on suspicion of complicity in terrorism—or suspicion of association with persons suspected of complicity in terrorism—simply assuming all along the way that the military-age males killed are guilty until proven innocent. Such an inversion of the burden of proof is preposterous on its face, implying, among other things, that many of the journalists on the ground investigating these cases are themselves, by the same criterion, fair game for targeting.
National Bird homes in on some of the actual victims in Afghanistan, both mothers and fathers who have lost their children, and military-age males who have lost their limbs in US drone strikes. The men interviewed are obviously not terrorists, but if they had been killed rather than maimed, they would have been reported to the US populace as Enemy Killed in Action, or EKIA, along with the thousands of other unnamed persons killed by the drone “warriors” all over the Middle East.
The three former drone program analysts who share their experience in National Bird—Heather, Daniel, and Lisa—all insist that claims such as that by former President Barack Obama that strikes are not taken unless there is “near certainty” that no civilians will be killed, are in fact false. As they have worked within the program, they can confidently assert that this follows straightforwardly from the fact that the persons being killed are, in most cases, of unknown identity. When missiles are launched, the persons being targeted are thought by someone in the kill chain to be legitimate targets, but it is only in the aftermath of strikes that anyone can confirm who was or was not killed. In most cases, no effective confirmation is carried out at all.
Of course, demonstrating that an intended target was killed in a strike would not in any case establish the target’s guilt, only that the person suspected of being in complicity or in association with terrorists is now dead. The suggestion that state execution of a suspect suffices to demonstrate his guilt is a highly disturbing development in history, a huge step backwards in procedural justice to pre-Magna Carta times. But such concerns are ignored by the drone warriors, as they continually vaunt the success of their killing campaigns, even as the Global War on Terror (GWOT) expands like an amoeba to new and larger “battlefields”, a sure indication that terrorism is not in decline but on the rise. The angry survivors of drone attacks—fathers, sons, brothers, and friends of those killed—sometimes join forces with groups such as ISIS to fight back against the Westerners who continue to slaughter people throughout the Middle East with impunity.
Lisa Ling, one of the former analysts interviewed in National Bird, expresses concern that this new paradigm, which involves vacuuming up information from all possible sources in order to locate people to kill, implies that there are no limits to killing anyone anywhere at anytime, because there are no effective constraints on the killers.
Heather, a former image analyst, whose job involved distinguishing allegedly bad actors from obvious civilians such as women and children, laments that the push-button killers are trigger-happy, always seeking out opportunities to eliminate potential threats, even when concern has been aired that there might be civilians present. Heather explicitly articulates an extremely disturbing truth which drives the drone program forward: the killers are rewarded professionally for killing more, not fewer persons, because all of the dead are simply assumed to be dangerous terrorists until proven otherwise, which is rarely ever done.
Daniel, also a former analyst, points out that the lack of any sort of disciplinary consequences in the event of faulty strikes, when it later emerges that scores of civilians have died, makes it easier and easier for those in charge to approve the strikes. They are gambling with human lives, as happens in warfare more generally, but the difference in this case is that nothing will happen to the killers themselves when they make mistakes.
Ironically, the only persons in the kill chain who seem to be truly endangered by the drone program are the former operators and analysts who dare to speak out about what they have been lured into doing. They are investigated for possible violations of the Espionage Act, and even when they are not charged with crimes for boldly proclaiming that many civilians have died, and that claims by the administration about minimal collateral damage have in fact been lies, they are nonetheless quite effectively threatened by the specter of possible future prosecution.
Jesselyn Radack, an attorney with several whistleblowers numbering among her clients, points out that the persons pursued by the Department of Justice are often blacklisted from employment and ruined financially in the process of defending themselves from charges that they are spies, when, in fact, they have attempted only to expose what is wrong with the systems in which they were employed.
By looking at the plight of both bereft survivors on the ground and traumatized former drone program analysts, National Bird manages to highlight a third problem with the ongoing industry of remote-control killing. It is a matter of no small irony that both civilians on the ground and whistleblowers who attempt to speak out about what they believe to have been crimes are effectively terrorized by the very existence of the drone program, which was erected in order to fight terrorism. The threat of possible prosecution most likely has a chilling effect upon other former operators, who may decide not to talk for fear of the personal consequences of doing so.
At the same time, persons living under threat of death by lethal drones hovering above their heads have in some cases come to avoid public functions such as weddings and funerals, and they refrain from associating with people in other public places as well, for fear that they will somehow be pegged as “associates” of persons suspected of complicity in terrorism. It seems likely also that male journalists of military age may well avoid drone strike sites for fear that they might die next, while attempting to uncover the truth about previous drone strikes.
All of this shows that the targeted killing program is a gross affront to the very idea of democracy, causing people to fear for their life and well-being if they do what human beings have a right to do: to associate in groups, and to speak their mind and stand up for what they believe. These longer-term cultural effects of the drone program will play out only over decades, but they do not bode well for the future of civilization, and they certainly will not contribute to the democratization of lands where central government authorities are provided with the means to dispatch their political (and personal) enemies with the push of a button.
The moral turpitude of the drone program is so pervasive and so wide-ranging that it is difficult to know where to begin in criticizing it. But National Bird does a good job of highlighting some of the worst consequences of the highly regrettable normalization of assassination with impunity by persons with financial incentives to kill as many people as they can. In the process, young American soldiers are being transformed into assassins, having been lured into this profession in some cases only because they needed a job. Those who drop out of the program must suffer with their conscience for the rest of their lives. Those who stay in will rise in the ranks to become administrators who will follow the typical trajectory of lethal creep characteristic of corrupt actors more generally. The more they kill, the more they will seek out opportunities to kill, in order to prove to themselves that they were right to have done what they already did.
In this 31-minute interview, host Jeff Schechtman asks guest Laurie Calhoun to explain what she sees to be the connection between mass killings in the homeland (such as occurred in Las Vegas on October 1, 2017) and US foreign policy. Both the audio and a full transcript are available here.
In this 27-minute interview on Sputnik Radio International, host John Harrison, author Laurie Calhoun, and peace campaigner Russell Whiting discuss the recently proposed changes to the US drone program, including the request by the CIA to be given strike autonomy in Afghanistan, and modifications to the Obama administration’s Presidential Policy Guidance (PPG) in the forthcoming Trump administration’s Principles, Standards, and Procedures (PSP). What will the consequences of these changes be? Will people finally begin to consider the legal, moral, and strategic implications of the US government’s policy of targeted killing outside areas of active hostilities?
Made in France, a fictional film directed by Nicolas Boukhrie, attempts to illuminate a very real problem: the rise of jihadism in the West. The film was apparently finished in 2014, but its release was repeatedly postponed because of a series of terrorist attacks in France. First available from on-demand television, Made in France made a short and unprofitable appearance in the United States (according to IMDB.com). I saw it recently on Foxtel World Movies, in Australia. Whether or not you’ll ever have the opportunity to view this film, the issues it raises are important, as Western powers continue to slaughter people throughout the Middle East under the pretext of national self-defense in the Global War on Terror (GWOT).
The film looks at a jihadist cell infiltrated by a journalist, Sam (played by Malik Zidi). Once he reveals to the authorities what he has done, he finds himself trapped between the Charybdis of possible death (as the cell has recently been “activated”) and the Scylla of imprisonment. He is told by French authorities that he must either continue on with the group until he is able to ascertain who the higher-order leaders are, or else he will be indicted along with the rest of them as a terrorist. This may sound like an insane situation, but it’s not so different from some of the modes of “persuasion” used by the FBI to recruit informants and infiltrators in the United States, at least according to a very disturbing book by Trevor Aaronson on the topic of homegrown terrorism, Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism (2013). In the United States, prospective informants, some of whom have criminal records or lack legal immigrant status, may be threatened with prosecution, incarceration, or deportation if they refuse to cooperate with government authorities.
Carrots and sticks work best in concert, so dependable informants also receive a “bonus” when their work leads to the conviction of a target. This incentive structure has led to the emergence of a new vocation in the post-9/11 era: the professional informant, who quite naturally seeks out easy-to-convict prey. The primary focus of Aaronson’s book is the use of quasi-entrapment by informants to lure prospective recruits into participating in terrorist plots when, in fact, they would likely never have done so without the FBI’s elaborate schemes to draw them in. Most of the people in the United States convicted on terrorism charges in recent years turn out to have been disgruntled losers who, despite being angry, would never have had the capacity—whether mental or material—to carry out acts of terrorism, had they been left to their own devices.
Made in France poses two closely related questions: How are young men enticed to become members of jihadist cells, and why do they agree to carry out acts of terrorism? The case portrayed underscores how the foot soldiers have no contact with anyone but their local commander, who alone is said to receive orders from on high. The lower-level members are, as in the United States, young persons who have become disillusioned for one reason or another. Often their prospects for success in society are poor. They are united in being manifestly angry about the ongoing wars in the Middle East, perpetrated by Western powers, including France, a longstanding ally of the United States.
Some might consider the story to offer a merely hypothetical scenario, but it is based on documented changes in the structure of groups such as Al Qaeda since 2001. What once was a top-down, hierarchical structure was swiftly lateralized post-9/11, with individual groups forming independently of others for the simple tactical reason that it became too dangerous for the networks to communicate with one another. ISIS has now come to eclipse Al Qaeda as the bogey-man du jour, but the lateral structure of radical jihadist groups operating transnationally remains in place, which implies that there may be a general but vague culture of jihadism behind many individual acts of terrorism and potential plots without there ever having been an order handed down from any alleged #1 or #2 leader. The question, then, arises: who is giving the orders?
If the individual cells comprise only small numbers of foot soldiers along with their immediate superior, whose orders they are to obey without hesitation, then what prevents some random lunatic from creating a murderous cult à la Charles Manson and his family? That is precisely the scenario depicted in Made in France. The young men who have been persuaded to believe that they are doing Allah’s will in following the order of their leader, Hassan (played by Dimitri Storoge), have no idea that he is not taking orders from any other person, much less God. In reality, Hassan is just an angry, psychologically disturbed, violent punk who derives pleasure from calling the murderous shots.
Hassan has created a fantasy world in which he is the commander of this isolated group, and he lies to the others in rationalizing what he wants the group to do, saying that the spiritual leaders communicate only with him. One day he announces that the men must remain in France to destabilize Paris rather than travel to the Middle East to fight, as they had all believed that they were going to do. When a couple of the recruits express concern about what is to be an upcoming attack on the Champs-Elysées, Hassan perfunctorily intones that every war involves civilian casualties. The soldiers are acting on the will of Allah, whose decree makes even the deaths of women and children permissible when a larger objective is in sight. The goal is not to maim and slaughter children but to destabilize France!
What is fascinating about this logic is that it is essentially embodied in every call by any leader for young men (and now women as well) to go kill strangers on his behalf. Not only the leaders of groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS invoke this kind of reasoning, but also Western leaders who order their troops to travel thousands of miles away to kill people who never threatened them personally with harm. Why do young people agree to kill at the behest of political leaders whose rise to power shows only that they know how to win election campaigns? The short answer is: cultural habit. The concept of “legitimate authority” in waging war derives from “Just war theory”, a paradigm dating from ancient and medieval times. (See War and Delusion: A Critical Examination)
Under the assumption that God Almighty appointed leaders, it would make sense to believe that those leaders’ orders should followed, for they would seem to be doing God’s will. Of course, we know today that presidents such as Donald Trump and Barack Obama and George Bush and Bill Clinton, et al., were not appointed by God but elected by citizens at the culmination of lengthy election campaigns. Nonetheless, such leaders have retained the power to wage war where and when they deem fit, even though by doing so they are sure to destroy innocent people. The goal is not to maim and slaughter children but to eradicate evil!
The most extreme case of blind submission to authority in the Western military apparatus to date is arguably that of remote-control killing. Drone operators who follow orders to kill people outside areas of active hostilities—where there are no troops on the ground—have succumbed to a form of trickery. They are told that “This is war” and that they must fire missiles on areas inhabited by civilians in order to thwart another mass attack such as that of September 11, 2001. The goal is not to maim and slaughter children but to eliminate the terrorists!
Drone operators are simply expected to believe that their victims, usually poor tribesmen located in remote areas, are akin to Osama bin Laden. And some apparently do, those who continue on in the profession, even as the jihadists spore from one country to the next, as though the sharp increase in the number of active terrorists all over the world since the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 were somehow unprovoked. Is it a sheer coincidence that the more missiles that rain down on regions inhabited by potential future terrorists, the more recruits emerge both in the Middle East and in the West?
Had the attacks of September 11, 2001, been treated as crimes rather than acts of war, then there would have been no pretext for bombing entire countries. No one supposes that bombing Paris, Nice and Marseille is the answer to the series of homegrown terrorist acts perpetrated in France. Nor has anyone in the United States called for the bombing of Oklahoma City, Orlando, San Bernardino or Las Vegas. Yet the bombing of people in the Middle East continues mindlessly on, even as new plots in the West are undertaken by lone wolf perpetrators who have been taught—not only by murderous thugs who wave the banner of radical jihadism, but also by Western governments—that homicide is an appropriate, even noble, response to conflict. Incineration by Hellfire missile or beheading by knife? It’s a difference without any moral distinction.
The answer to the question what to do about the problem of terrorism depends ultimately upon one’s view of humanity. The young men who take up the radical jihadist cause have in effect been proselytized into a cult. Should recent recruits, many of whom are mere teenagers or young adolescents, be erased from existence when it is obvious that they have been duped? Anyone who values human life must wonder whether the thousands of such persons being slaughtered in the so far nugatory effort to stanch terrorism could not be de-programmed instead. If the dramatic rise in terrorism is a direct effect of killing, maiming, imprisoning, torturing, traumatizing and destroying the homes and families of entirely innocent people, then the only lasting way to solve the problem will be to remove the cause.
For more on the young people being killed in the Global War on Terror, see also: