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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Morality & Misery: The Meaning of Drone Operator PTSD

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Artwork created by Rose, a former Canadian drone operator. Photo credit: Buzzfeed.

For years, drone killing has been successfully marketed as “smart war”: the ability to defeat enemies without risking harm to allied soldiers. Given the chaos throughout the Middle East, however, it seems safe to say that rather than keeping terrorists in check, drones have inspired more and more young people to undertake jihad in response. The ever-augmenting ranks of ISIS—their spread from Iraq to Syria to Libya—and the attacks in Paris, San Bernardino, and Brussels should cause thinkers everywhere to question the talking points of the drone warriors, who preposterously persist in pretending that terrorists have been sporing spontaneously throughout the Global War on Terror.

Further evidence that something is seriously awry includes the discovery that drone operators suffer from PTSD just as much as their combat soldier analogues do, despite the fact that they do not risk their own lives. Far from the bloody fray, operators hunt down and kill targets designated as worthy of death by committees comprising military officers, privately contracted analysts, and civilian administrators. What is the problem? Why in the world have drone operators found themselves so troubled by what they have done?

A recent report revealed that it’s not just US drone operators who have been suffering from PTSD. Canadian drone operators, too, have had a tough time dealing with their post-targeting lives. In fact, a significantly higher proportion of Canadian drone operators have been found to suffer from PTSD. While regular uniformed soldiers in Canada suffer from PTSD at a rate of about 10%, conservative estimates of the incidence among former drone operators begin at 30%. The number may be considerably higher because many operators never seek out and receive institutional help with their psychological troubles.

Along with the obvious inefficacy of drone warfare as a means of contending with terrorism, the incidence of PTSD among drone operators themselves should be considered in assessments of the wisdom of remote-control killing. And yet it never is. Politicians and pundits occasionally argue over whether the collateral damage of the drone campaigns has been “acceptably low” or not, but nearly no one ever asks whether the tearing away at the moral and psychological fabric of the persons who carry out targeted killing is a reason to reconsider the practice.

Needless to say, the refusal to take seriously the concerns articulated by apostate drone operators fits right in with the dismissal and discreditation of disgruntled soldiers more generally. Rather than asking how and why suicide has become an epidemic among veterans, with shocking reports of 22 former or current US soldiers opting to end their lives each day, the VA clings to its insane policy of plying these young men and women with drugs. Or is the policy insane? Perhaps the goal all along has been to muffle the voices of military critics. Drugged soldiers are discredited, and dead soldiers tell no tales.

The drone operators are not in any danger of physical harm, so the reason why they are suffering can only be that they find it psychologically distressing to be asked to play the role of the Grim Reaper or God Almighty. Based on their testimony, a few different kinds of scenarios have plagued operators. One is having to “make the call” in the moment using only sketchy evidence that a target deserves to die. For Canadian operators surveilling occupied territories in Afghanistan, the problem was whether to kill possibly dangerous locals or to risk finding out later that Canadian soldiers on the ground died as a result of the operators’ hesitation to kill.

A far more common scenario, and the cause of many drone operators’ compunction and strife, is to have carried out an execution on the basis of someone else’s call, with which the soldier has disagreed. Did he or she just wipe out the head of a family for no good reason? The person who pushed the button, not the analysts who made the call, has to live with what he has done. Former operators have revealed that during the period of their service, they often indulged in drinking binges after work, as a way of making what they were doing more bearable.

After their service, some of them have been diagnosed with PTSD and doled out psychotropic drugs. But given the source of drone operators’ PTSD, the long-term solution to their agony can hardly be to mask over the reality using pharmaceutical means. Why not? Because eventually they will find themselves unmedicated, in a compete state of lucidity, and forced once again to reckon with what they have done.

In view of the staggering suicide toll, the twenty-first-century practice (coincident with the dawning of the Drone Age) of drugging veterans with multi-med cocktails has failed to render them less bothered by what they have done in the name of the state. A much better solution would be to not ask them to do it in the first place. Young people should never be lured into a profession which may weigh heavily on their conscience for the rest of lives. They should not be placed in the position of needing to kill more people as a way of demonstrating that they deserve to be paid. They should not be placed in the position of being ridiculed for expressing skepticism about the wisdom of annihilating unarmed human beings who pose no direct threat to anyone at the time when they are killed.

 

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To see how heinous this arrangement truly is, it may be useful to consider the plight of many child soldiers in post-colonial Africa. How were so many young boys and girls transformed into assassins by ruthless war lords? In many cases, they have been jacked up on drugs and then tricked into killing people. But having once committed their first homicide, it becomes easier and easier for them to do it again. If necessary, child soldiers can be repeatedly drugged, making it easier and easier for them to kill.

At some point, child soldiers become full-fledged assassins. They may no longer regard what they do as regrettable, because they have done it so many times. Most child soldiers die young, killed in combat. Some among the survivors go on to become warlords and use the very same strategies of corruption on new recruits as their mentors did.

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The transformation of the psyche of young people into career assassins is necessary for the continuation of the drone program. The recent drone operator recruitment crisis led the Pentagon to renounce the requirement that enlistees be commissioned officers. As less astute young men and women are wheeled into the drone program, being less reflective, they will no doubt experience less compunction about what they are doing. A makeshift filtering process is already in place, since readily available YouTube videos allow prospective recruits to consider the reality of what they will be doing, should they enlist. Anyone with moral scruples against the summary execution without trial of brown-skinned persons located in remote tribal regions and pegged for death by analysts who have financial incentives for creating kill lists will seek an alternative career path.

Looking into the future, the question which thinking people everywhere need to ponder is whether this is what they want the moral fabric of the military leaders of the future to be: paid assassins who lure more and more people into targeted killing because they have already done it and deem it perfectly acceptable. At this decisive moment in history for Canada and the many other nations moving toward the acquisition and eventual use of lethal drones, the testimony of former drone operators who have abandoned their profession could not be more important. Their concerns have a firm legal and moral basis, whether current military administrators care to acknowledge them or not.

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There have never been any international norms governing the use of lethal drones, beyond the protocols covering assassination and already enshrined in the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions. These documents have been reinterpreted creatively by the US government so as to rationalize the practice of targeted killing even in lands where there are no US soldiers on the ground to protect.

The legality of targeted killing of unarmed suspects in unoccupied lands who are not actively engaged in combat has been scrupulously examined and called into question by a number of scholars, including two successive UN Special Rapporteurs on Extrajudicial Execution, Philip Alston and Christof Heyns. Among other problems, if the persons being killed were truly “soldiers”, then they would need to be provided with the opportunity to surrender in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. If, on the other hand, they are truly suspects, then they are protected by Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the “innocent until proven guilty” clause.

US government officials and other drone program supporters maintain that the targeted suspects are unlawful combatants, who are therefore not protected by military protocols and international law. In 2010, the US government issued a White Paper asserting that the targeted killing even of US citizens was permitted under some circumstances by both domestic and international law. The argument rests on a contentious redefinition of “imminent threat” as not requiring immediacy. It also trades on the drone warriors’ flexible and contestable concept of “infeasibility of capture”.

A sober look at the data makes clear that the capture of drone strike targets has essentially been defined as “infeasible”. “Infeasibility of capture” does not denote the physical inability of a team of Navy SEALS to descend from the sky and encircle a suspect. Rather, “infeasibility of capture” connotes an unwillingness to expend resources and risk US lives. The political difficulty of housing a suspect, should he in fact be captured rather than killed, has also figured into the drone warriors’ calculus.

Lethal drone killing is new in history, but it is worth remembering that even the most atrocious of practices have always been legal until they were made illegal through the concerted effort of legislators. The first drone operators were tricked into participating in a morally objectionable practice, the premeditated and intentional execution without trial of human beings on the basis of hearsay and circumstantial evidence. Military and civilian authorities have told new enlistees that what they are doing is right and is saving American lives, just as in the case of Jason Bourne. These soldiers, too, have been duped, and some of them have awakened to the truth. Continuing to coopt more and more young enlistees will not alter the wrongness of what they are being asked to do.