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


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, and also staffed them, participating directly in the mass murder of unarmed persons.

The Milgram experiments, conducted in 1961 on the East Coast of the United States, involved subjects lured into participating in studies ostensibly about furthering scientific knowledge of learning theory. The subjects were paired with one of the study staff persons, who was said to be the “learner”, to whom the “teacher”, the person actually being studied, would apply electric shocks when the “learner” gave wrong answers in a quiz about paired words.


The “teacher” had no idea that he was the true object of the study and that the “learner” was not being shocked at all. The two people were separated by a wall, and the “teacher” sat before a switchboard with levers to flip each time he heard a wrong answer given by the “learner”. After each wrong answer, the level of shock was to be increased a notch, by moving up to the next lever.

As the “learner” began to express discomfort or even pain at the shocks, the “teacher” sometimes questioned what he (or she) was doing, but in most cases continued on, having been told by the man in the lab coat that the experiment needed to be completed. The “teacher” was instructed by the authority figure that, if the “learner” did not respond, then that should be regarded as an incorrect answer, necessitating the application of the next level of shock.


Milgram was quite troubled to discover that his subjects, the “teachers”, were for the most part willing to administer painful electric shocks to the “learner” even when the latter begged them to stop, and even when the “learner” went silent, suggesting that he may have fallen unconscious or had a heart attack, or perhaps even died. This was not the outcome which Milgram had hoped for, but it did shed a great deal of light on what happened under the Third Reich.

Some critics protested that Milgram was a hypocrite for exacting a form of psychological torture on his subjects, many of whom expressed regret and shame at what they had done. The experiments conducted by Milgram were considered controversial because he was placing ordinary people in the position of doing what they would not ordinarily do: they were asked and agreed to harm a fellow human being.

The subjects were told by the man in the lab coat that the shocks would not cause tissue damage, but during the experiment, the “learner” would beg the “teacher” to stop, claiming that he was in unbearable pain—and strongly suggesting that he was in fact being harmed. The question became: why did the “teacher” believe the man in the lab coat, rather than the “learner”, who was protesting the application of shock?


While watching this reenactment of what people will do in their endeavor to comply with the orders of a person designated an authority, it occurred to me that the current US drone program is a real-life variation of the Milgram “obedience to authority” experiment. Young operators are being asked not to harm human beings through applying electric shocks to them, but to annihilate them. What is the basis for their willingness to kill people whom they never met, and who certainly never threatened them with death?

The operators have been told that they must protect the United States by executing these people. They are told that they have no choice, that they must act to prevent another 9/11. In the process of annihilating named targets, the operators also eliminate unnamed targets, who are then written into history as “Enemy Killed in Action” or EKIA. The understanding is that men of military age in territories deemed “hostile” are guilty until proven innocent.

What grounds does an operator have for believing that unnamed targets deserved to die because of their proximity to an intended target? Again, it’s the voice of authority decreeing that the intelligence is good and that anyone who consorts with the named target is obviously up to no good. While killing named targets and unnamed “associates”, drone operators also kill civilians: women and children and infants and old men who are not in cahoots with any terrorist group. Some of the victims may be family members of suspects, but they themselves are not deemed dangerous. Operators are told that this is the “collateral damage” of war.

Let us imagine that the drone program is but an elaborate experiment. We could interview a drone operator who just dispatched someone by remote control, asking a few questions and considering his answers:


Question 1: Why did you fire the missile?

Answer: Because I was ordered to.


Question 2: Why did you feel the need to follow the order?

Answer: Because I made a solemn oath to defend the United States of America.


Question 3: Did the person you killed pose a threat to the United States?

Answer: Yes, of course.


Question 4: How do you know that the person you killed posed a threat to the United States?

Answer: Because my commanding officer said that he did.


Question 5: Would you kill anyone your commanding officer told you to kill? In any country?

Answer: Yes.


Question 6: Why is your commanding officer telling you to kill these people?

Answer: Because the intelligence has determined that they are dangerous.


Question 7: Have you seen the intelligence?

Answer: No, but that’s not my job. My job is to fire when ordered to fire.





American Exceptionalism and False Dichotomy: Analysis of Robocop (2014), part II

part 1, the Robocop (2014) Story


Lethal Drone issues broached in Robocop (2014)

The anti-drone perspective of Robocop is palpable and perhaps a bit too heavy-handed in message delivery. The style of the film is undeniably didactic and the tone similar to a story one might see on Lifetime television. I happen to agree with the main criticisms of the film but believe that the important points would have been more persuasive to viewers if they had been approached with a bit more subtlety.

The film is highly critical of the military-industrial-congressional-media-academic-pharmaceutical-logistics complex and pokes fun at the mainstream media in addition to the greed of global corporations involved in the weapons industry. Even the use of drugs (in this case to modify dopamine levels) is treated briefly. But does the film effectively address the most fundamental problem with lethal robotic technology?

The real problem underlying all of the catastrophe to which cyborgs could give rise is that all robots are ultimately programmed by human-all-too-human beings, some of whom will invariably be corrupt. Robocop suggests as much by mentioning the corruption among the police force and also politicians, but it does not press the point. The blanket assumption underlying the use of the cyborgs is that threats can be facilely distinguished from non-threats. It’s a longstanding George W. Bush false dichotomy: “You’re either with us, or you’re with them.” Nowhere is the simplistic quality of such an assumption better illustrated than in the current war raging in Syria.

The drone wars have been carried out under the false assumption in “The World According to George W. Bush”, that “the friend of my enemy is my enemy.” Associates become defined in this way as fair game for slaughter, when in fact they may be completely devoid of any intention to harm any other human being. If nothing else positive arises from the quagmire in Syria, perhaps people will finally come to see that the enemy of my enemy is not my friend. The friend of my enemy is not my enemy. The enemy of my friend may or may not be my enemy. It’s not black and white at all.

When people are scanned by the cyborg-man to determine whether they are threatening or nonthreatening, the decision is binary: there is no gray area. People holding weapons are deemed threatening. People with criminal records are deemed threatening. The problem with assuming that every person with a weapon is a threat is seen in the decision by US administrators to label all military-age males in “hostile” areas combatants and fair targets for Hellfire missiles launched by lethal drones. Many people have been destroyed in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of northwestern Pakistan for the “crime” of bearing weapons, in other words, of being potentially threatening, even when no US national is anywhere near them. This is a wholesale license to kill people on the basis of demographics and a recipe for genocide.

Decisions such as these, how to define rules of engagement (ROE), whom to kill and whom to let live, are made by human beings. When the decision makers are rewarded for their dead-terrorist tallies, they may loosen the criteria for what constitutes a legitimate target. If there are no “high-value” named targets available, then they may cast about for other people to kill. That appears to have been the origin of the practice of “crowd killing” and also “signature strikes”, where groups of people whose identities are unknown are dispatched for their “suspicious” behavior patterns, said to match those of a disposition matrix of known terrorists.

The problems become even worse when the government is killing its own people using lethal drones, as has already occurred now in both Pakistan and Nigeria. Robotic technologies can be used to suppress dissent and to oppress people by forcing them to conform. They can also be used to kill at the caprice of whoever is in charge of the robotic systems. These are powers already presumed by political leaders in their use of military weapons abroad. What would society be like, were the drone warriors provided with the same power to kill with impunity at home as they wield overseas?

We have already witnessed some of what can happen in the Drone Age. Terrorists are said to have associates, who are claimed by drone program administrators to be fair game for slaughter, despite the evident fact that some of the associates turn out to be people who are more demographically than morally similar to terrorists.

Most of the people annihilated by Predator drone under the authorization of President Obama and his administration (usually the decisions are delegated to others, such as CIA director John Brennan) have been very unlike the clever mastermind of the attacks of September 11, 2001. They may share Osama bin Laden’s skin color. They may dress similarly, and they may even despise the US government, given its endless incursions into other nations and its blanket assertion of the right to kill anyone anywhere at any time and for any reason. Do all people who oppose the hovering over their head of lethal drones or the occupation of their country by foreign invaders deserve to be razed from the face of the earth? Presumably US citizens do not believe that they themselves deserve to die for holding such a view!

This point about double standards is made effectively in Robocop (2014). What’s good for the goose (Iran) is good for the gander (USA). Or maybe it’s just as wrong to subject Iranians to scanning by cyborgs as it would be to do to Americans. This is a more general critique of “American Exceptionalism”—better known as “hypocrisy” to people living far from US shores. We have reached a disturbing turning point in history, where death is being sought as an end in itself in places where there are not even any soldiers on the ground to protect. The specter of this sort of lethal obsession being applied in the homeland is too awful to contemplate.

Yet precisely this nightmare is imposed on the people of other countries by the US government and is paid for by its citizens. The official story told of what is being done is packaged in anodyne terms and used as rhetorical fodder by politicians, who paint themselves as strong for “defending” the country through supporting the use of drones abroad, oblivious as they are to the fact that the people of other countries are no different in moral essence than are the people of the United States. If we oppose the use of lethal drones in our own civil society, then we should oppose their use in civil societies abroad as well.


For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, Chapter 8: From Conscience to Oblivion; Chapter 10: Death and Politics; Chapter 11: Death and Taxes; and Chapter 12: Tyrants are as Tyrants Do

Robocop (2014): The Drone Angle, part I


I recently watched Robocop, a 2014 film directed by José Padilha which treats cyborgs and the ascendance of robots in contemporary culture. An earlier film named Robocop was directed by Paul Verhoeven in 1987. I have not seen that version, which many reviewers at IMDB.com find vastly superior. Fortunately, I won’t be distracted in my analysis of Robocop (2014) by the earlier version, although I must say that I am now anxious to watch it—better late than never!

On the surface, Robocop (2014) may seem to be just another action flick with a touch of science fiction thrown in for good measure. Cyborgs were depicted in other movies (aside from the original Robocop) such as the Terminator series (starring Arnold Schwarzenegger) long before they were anything close to being a reality. By 2014, the science treated was no longer fiction at all. Drones are here and being used to spy on and kill people all over the planet. Other types of robots have been used to check areas for land mines and IEDs, and also for other military applications. This film raises a number of important questions about the use of unmanned systems.


The Story

The primary plot dispute is whether cyborgs should be used in the US homeland to save the lives of policemen, just as drones are being used abroad to avoid having to put “boots on the ground” and to obviate the need for manned bombers. The manufacturer of cyborgs in Robocop (2014) is a company called “OmniCorp”, based in China. This is a diaphanous jab at China’s recent economic ascendance in reality, but also the growing trend of private military companies  (PMCs) setting up shop abroad to avoid paying US taxes. Omnicorp is enthusiastically supported by a Fox News Network-type pundit, Pat Novac (played by Samuel Jackson in a hairstyle reminiscent of James Brown). Novac argues à la Sean Hannity in an obvious effort to convince viewers that their lawmakers should rescind a reigning prohibition on the use of cyborgs in the homeland.

Senator Hubert Dreyfus, the author of the Dreyfus amendment, is the arch opponent of the use of cyborgs on US soil, and up until now his position has been supported by the populace, who follow his lead in insisting that “the human factor” must remain in tact whenever lethal weapons are in play. If a cyborg mistakenly kills a child, it will feel nothing, and that is the fundamental problem, according to supporters of the Dreyfus amendment. How can delicate matters of life and death be delegated to a machine?

The head of OmniCorp, Raymond Sellars (played by Michael Keaton), naturally wants to change public opinion so that his company will become even wealthier and more powerful than it already is. The firm commands enormous contracts for cyborgs used in many other places around the world, including Iran, where the robots are shown scanning Iranians to locate threats in a manner reminiscent of Nazi roundups under the Third Reich—or US round ups during the occupation of Iraq. The procedures are broadcast back home to share with the citizens paying for the practice the “good” their government is doing on the other side of the globe. When mistakes are made, the channel switches abruptly to more palatable topics, just as in reality, where US military interventions abroad are sanitized by the mainstream media.

Heeding the poll data, Sellars sets out with his trusty company scientist, Dr. Dennett Norton (played by Gary Oldman), to create a cyborg-human amalgam, using a man, Alex Murphy (played by Joel Kinnaman), who has been nearly destroyed by a car bomb. All that remains of Murphy is his brain, one arm, and his lungs. He is the perfect guinea pig for the creation of a cyborg-human amalgam, which will function as effectively and be as lethal as a robot, but still retain the sentience of a human being and therefore not be illegal under the terms of the Dreyfus amendment.

All seems to be going well until details of all of the crimes which Cyborg-man Murphy will be sent out to solve are uploaded to his brain. He becomes emotionally overwhelmed by the ugliness and evil of the mountain of crimes, and his doctors find the need to sedate him by modifying his dopamine levels. Under medication, he becomes emotionally numb to the point where he no longer feels anger or any human emotions and looks more like a zombie than a man as he goes out to find the people on his list of wanted suspects. He walks right past his wife and son as though they do not exist, for he is focused singlemindedly on fighting crime and cannot be bothered with anything else.

The doctors soon recognize that they cannot allow the human element of Murphy to be functional when he is on duty, because his judgment may be clouded by strong emotions. They ingeniously devise a means by which to make him fully robotic during the times when he is out fighting crime, while laboring under the belief that he is making all decisions about his actions by himself. In truth, everything has been programmed into him. He only believes that he has free will, which is an illusion.

The cyborg-human amalgam turns out to be a failure, but it succeeds in serving as a perfect marketing tool, swaying public opinion to the point where congress agrees to overturn the Dreyfus amendment and permit fully robotic cyborgs to operate on US soil, the argument having been made that if only Murphy had not become obsessed with avenging his own murder, then chaos would not have ensued.


part 2: Lethal Drone Issues in Robocop (2014)