Sin-eaters or Sociopaths? Thoughts on watching The Bourne Legacy again

 

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I believe that I have now watched The Bourne Legacy (dir. Tony Gilroy, 2012) four times. I have undoubtedly watched the other entries in the Jason Bourne series at least that many times as well, but the opening scenes of The Bourne Legacy, in particular, are rich in lethal drone content and invariably impel me to begin formulating the plan to compose an essay, though it usually gets shunted down my list of things to make and do for a later date. Not this time.

Last night I watched The Bourne Legacy again and recalled why the film seems so important to me. It depicts a very frightening world, not unlike that of You Can Leave, where the US government has grown several layers of shadow bureaucracies beyond the ability of any individual to attempt to penetrate and expose without paying the ultimate price–and in all likelihood for naught, given the fail-safe security mechanisms firmly in place.

DroneOperatorsBourneLegacyThe reason why this film is so important in the Drone Age is not merely the obvious fact that drones are used in the early part of the story to home in on and extrajudicially incinerate people in the US homeland. The eerily clinical demeanor of the drone operators depicted and the assiduousness with which they hunt down their human targets in not just double-tap but triple-tap strikes are certainly a cause for pause–wherever the victims happen to be located. But even granting that unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) have as much (or little) legitimacy as manned aerial combat vehicles, drones do seem to possess a peculiar potential for abuse, given that they can be deployed without implicating the killers–or those who hire them to kill.

It has already been established that persons in the position to nominate targets to US government “kill lists” (of which there are at least three) are fully prepared to include Americans among their quarry, denying them not only their right to life but all of their civil rights as well. Anwar al-Awlaki may or may not have deserved to die, but those on high who killed him believed that he did, and that alone sufficed for them to be able to take his life with little protest from the citizens who paid for the hit. We still do not know why his son, Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki, was also killed by a drone, for the story was effectively buried under a thick blanket of “State Secrets Privilege”.

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It is beyond dispute that the US government has covert doings underway, as evidenced by the very existence of the CIA and also the Black Budget, about which many US citizens appear to be ignorant. Generously funded covert programs, being conducted in near total secrecy, with participants apprised only of information on a “need to know” basis, effectively furnish a small group of zealous bureaucrats with the ability to commit murder and mayhem at their behest, and according to their caprice, eliminating anyone anywhere who strikes them as threatening–in any sense. The Bourne Legacy, along with all of the other Jason Bourne films, underscores how such programs can remain in the shadows, metastasizing in pernicious ways because they are not subject to oversight and are completely opaque, impenetrably protected by a pretext of national security.

Once established, such programs easily elude any possible control, because those who run the programs–invariably self-proclaimed “patriots”–regard themselves as defending the institution qua organ of the US government. They do not seem to recognize that, in fact, kill squads and assassinations painted as suicides, heart attacks, strokes, and accidents of various sorts have no place in any government which claims to be a constitutional republic with democratic underpinnings. Instead, these are the means and methods of autocrats, despots and degenerates, and they come to be wielded by banality of evil-types who appear actually to believe that “Everything is permitted,” for they are, as the Edward Norton character explains, self-styled “sin-eaters” and regard themselves as doing what is “morally indefensible” but “absolutely necessary”. Of course, they are deeply mired in self-delusion, but who in the world could convince them of that?
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Anyone who attempts to criticize such systems is painted as a traitor, which is precisely why the plight of whistleblowers in recent times has been dire. The inevitable corruption of such systems makes matters even worse, given the fallible nature of human beings, who are easily lured into complicity and then forever shackled to the crimes of their past, which the perpetrators will commit further crimes in order to cover up. When “Everything is permitted,” in the mind of a person empowered to act in secrecy and with absolute impunity, there are no limits to what can and will be done, all on the taxpayer’s dime. It’s really quite remarkable.

All of the Jason Bourne movies offer trenchant criticisms of the CIA and the types of persons who rise to lead such an organization (torturers, pathological liars, and despicable human beings more generally), but The Bourne Legacy presents an especially unsettling scenario because the people being eliminated have not in fact posed any threat to the system of which they are a part. They have given no indication whatsoever of any potential for whistleblowing or other forms of what may be regarded as “treachery” but are considered dangerous in virtue of their knowledge alone, despite its compartmentalized nature. Even when there seems little likelihood that they would divulge any of what they do know to anyone, they are determined by the powers that be to require “elimination” in order to preclude that possibility in the future.

This approach, the preemptive thwarting of potential future threats is highly relevant to the Drone Age. In the US drone program, thousands of suspects have been killed preemptively in order to fend off the very possibility that they might perpetrate terrorist acts in the future. Meanwhile, all of the bereft and maimed survivors–millions of persons living under lethal drones–have been terrorized not potentially but actually, in reality, by the US killing machine.

In The Bourne Legacy, the corrupt administrators, like those in all of the earlier Jason Bourne films, view themselves as “tying off” programs with the potential for implicating themselves in  malfeasance. They opt to whack everyone involved rather than take the chance that any one of the participants might decide to testify before Congress about the latest executive branch overreach. As shocking as such an idea may seem, in fact, combat soldiers are regularly sacrificed in similar ways for wars which never needed to be waged.

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A terrifying array of crimes are committed under the aegis of the US government in The Bourne Legacy: the distribution of lethal “supplements” to operatives who suddenly and “inexplicably” die shortly thereafter; the planting of stories in the mainstream media to discredit possible future whistleblowers; the attempted “suiciding” of a research scientist who has worked in an innocuous capacity, measuring operatives’ bodily changes as they are “redesigned” using drugs and viral modifications of DNA; the commandeering of one member of the research group to “go postal” and kill all of the rest of the members of the group (himself included) in what is made to seem to be some sort of equally “inexplicable” psychotic break from reality (though it was obviously drug-induced or otherwise provoked). All of these crimes are made possible by the government’s techniques of mass surveillance.

The Bourne Legacy is a work of fiction, but all of these appalling ploys are available options to persons in high places with access to covert means and a black budget, and who are, in virtue of the fact that they agree to run such programs, apparently of the opinion that they occupy a space “beyond the pale” of morality. As more and more persons of conscience and integrity decline to participate in such morally unsavory institutions, we should expect the percentage of sociopaths at the highest levels of government to continue on its ascendant path, making the world not more but less safe for everyone else.

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Der Standard (Austria) interview: Are lethal drones tools of ¨smart war¨?

predatorMuzayen 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…

https://derstandard.at/2000073001821/Drohnen-Kriegsfuehrung-vom-anderen-Ende-der-Welt#forumstart

Interview: The Moral Horror of Our Times. A discussion of issues raised in You Can Leave

Jeff Schechtman of Who.What.Why recently interviewed Laurie Calhoun about You Can Leave. An array of topics were covered, ranging from chemical warfare to drones to citizens’ complacency, government bureaucrats’ desire to hold onto and expand their power, and the mysterious disappearance of effective dissidents. Click here to listen to the 33-minute conversation.

 

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Obedience to Authority: The Relevance of the Milgram Experiments in the Drone Age

Why do people ever agree to torture? A propos of the Gina Haspel nomination, you should watch this film.

We Kill Because We Can

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I recently watched Experimenter (2015), a film directed by Michael Almereyda, which relays the story of social psychologist Stanley Milgram and his quest to understand how human beings could be brought to do things which they would never have thought to do, left to their own devices. Being Jewish, Milgram was keen to comprehend what happened in the 1930s and 1940s in Germany. What was it that made possible the establishment of concentration camps under the Third Reich, and the slaughter of millions of human beings?

The rationalization that “I did as I was told” was given all along the chain of command, or what would be called the “kill chain” in the Drone Age. Even high-level Nazi officials such as Adolf Eichmann claimed that they were doing their duty in facilitating the extermination of millions of people. Ordinary Germans from all walks of life helped to build the camps…

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You Can Leave audiobook now available

The audiobook for You Can Leave is now live and available for sampling and purchase. Be among the first to listen to this harrowing tale of struggle and survival in a world gone morally mad and bureaucratically bad.

You Can Listen to a 5 minute sample or download the entire recording free with a trial membership to Audible:

https://mobile.audible.co.uk/pd/Crime-Thrillers/You-Can-Leave-Audiobook/B07BLJL4BW?ref=a_search_c3_lProduct_1_1&pf_rd_p=c6e316b8-14da-418d-8f91-b3cad83c5183&pf_rd_r=D87S21BRZJTFTPT2Y26T&

National Bird: A Cautionary Tale

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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.

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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.MilitaryAgeMale2

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.

MilitaryAgeMaleVictimThe 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.

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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 HeatherNationalBirdobvious 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.

DanielNationalBirdDaniel, 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.

JesselynRadackNationalBirdJesselyn 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.

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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.

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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.

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War and Delusion on sale at Palgrave Macmillan…

At this time in history, people are understandably more worried about the spectre of nuclear war than about drone assassination. Palgrave Macmillan is having a sale, so the ebook of War and Delusion: A Critical Examination, can be purchased through August 30, 2017, for 40% off. (use promo code PB2S17).

In War and Delusion, first published in 2013 and reissued  as a paperback in 2016, I consider questions such as whether wars abroad can be construed as acts of self-defense and what we can infer from the treatment of veterans in the United States. The primary thesis of the book is that, in the modern world, just war theory has served primarily as a tool of pro-war propaganda.

http://www.palgrave.com/br/book/9781137294623#