Eye in the Sky: Where Nihilism and Hegemony Coincide

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Eye in the Sky (2015) is the first feature-length film about drone warfare to have received a decent amount of mainstream attention. This no doubt has something to do with the high-caliber cast, including lead roles by Helen Mirren as Colonel Katherine Powell, and Alan Rickman as Lieutenant General Frank Benson. Big names imply big budgets. But there’s another reason why this movie, directed by Gavin Hood, has been discussed more than National Bird (2016), Good Kill (2015), Drone (2014), Drones (2013), Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars (2013), or Dirty Wars (2013).

None of these films is entertaining. Eye in the Sky, like some of the others in this growing genre, presents itself as a work of historical fiction, grounded in what is supposed to be a realistic portrayal of the contemporary practice of drone warfare against persons suspected of association with radical jihadist groups. But rather than condemning the remote-control killers, as the other films unequivocally do, Eye in the Sky portrays the protagonists wrestling with the complexities of morality before launching missiles and then congratulating one another on their success.

The “evil enemy” here, in Nairobi, Kenya, is Al Shabaab, and the fate of one of their cells is the subject of lengthy and sophistic “just war” debate among the drone warriors. A contingent of US and British military and civilian officials communicate with one another from different parts of the world over Skype-like video feed, and after arguing over the course of the workday, they ultimately decide to execute the suspects, who appear to be preparing to carry out a suicide attack in the proximate future or, as the drone warriors would say, “imminently”.

One of the suspects is a US citizen, recently recruited from Minnesota, and two are British nationals. The white woman, Susan Danford—nom de guerre Ayesha Al Hady—has been tracked by Colonel Powell for a remarkable six years. Powell is keen to kill Danford, even after having summarized her life’s story as that of a person who came from a troubled household, married a terrorist, and was converted to the jihadist cause as a result of her vulnerability.

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The mission is supposed to culminate in capture, not killing, but when the group of suspects convenes at a house where a suicide vest is being assembled and a video message filmed, the military officials immediately call for a missile strike, to the initial protests of the civilian political officials in attendance, who insist that they are there to witness a capture, not a targeted assassination.

The rest of the film is essentially an extended consideration of a version of what professional analytic philosophers call “The Trolley Problem,” a thought experiment wherein people are persuaded that they must kill some people in order to save others. Such hypothetical scenarios—like the proverbial ticking bomb, which is said by some to illustrate the necessity of torture under certain circumstances—involve an eerie desire on the part of some thinkers to persuade others to condone what, left to their own devices, they would never have agreed to do. As David Swanson has correctly observed, there is no known case in reality of drone warriors who kill a person and his entourage as they strap a suicide vest onto the martyr’s chest. That is why singling out this wildly implausible and entirely hypothetical scenario as representative of drone warfare in general is a consummate expression of pro-military propaganda.

eyeintheskydroneoperatorsEye in the Sky attempts to portray the dilemmas involved in drone warfare but ultimately serves to promote the drone warriors’ all-too-sophistic modes of reasoning. Rather than ask deep and important questions such as how Al-Shabaab became such a powerful force in, first, Somalia and, later, places such as Kenya, the film allows the viewer steeped in New York Times headlines touting “Six Suspected Militants Slain” to float along blissfully in his or her state of ignorance regarding what precisely the US and British governments have been doing in the Middle East for the past sixteen years.

No indication is made of the fact—and frankly I’d be surprised if Director Hood himself were aware—that the US-backed 2006 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia led directly to a massive increase in local support for Al-Shabaab. It’s all-too-easy and comforting to swallow the official line that the members of local militias being targeted by drone strikes are “bad guys” who need to be extirpated from the face of the earth, even when it is likely that many of the people intentionally destroyed have been dissidents (or their “associates”) seeking to challenge the central government authority. (See Yemen for another example.)

It is abundantly clear from the very fact that new recruits from the United States and Britain—indeed, the very targets of the mission in this story—have been primarily either troubled youths or persons outraged at the Western devastation of the Middle East, and now Africa. Yet the film blithely allows the viewer to persist in puzzlement over the perennial question: Why do they hate us?

eyeintheskyhouseColonel Powell wants to kill people, as is obvious by her calling for a missile strike even before explosives are seen at the meeting place. (Do the director and screenwriter win points from feminists for making the most ruthless military killer and her radical jihadist quarry both women? Or from progressives for making them white?)

Both Colonel Powell and General Benson consider Susan Danford’s allegiance with Al-Shabaab to be, essentially, a capital offense. They don’t bother with niceties such as the fact that capital punishment has been outlawed in the United Kingdom. Instead, the military personnel seek refuge in and parrot the simpleminded terms of just war theory which they learned in first-year ethics class at the military academy.

The missile strike is said to be a military necessity, proportional, and a last resort. It has furthermore been authorized by the legitimate authority, aka the US president, to whom the British continue to defer, even after the scathing Chilcot report in which Prime Minister Tony Blair was taken to task for embroiling Britain in the ill-fated 2003 invasion of Iraq. As though none of that ever happened, when President Barack Obama normalized the targeted assassination of anyone in any place on the planet where radical jihadist terrorists are said by some anonymous analyst to reside, Prime Minister David Cameron, too, followed suit. In August 2015, he authorized missile strikes from drones against British nationals in Syria, despite the Parliament’s having voted down his call for war in 2013.

Perhaps Cameron was impressed by Barack Obama and drone killing czar John Brennan’s oft-flaunted fluency in just war rhetoric. Unfortunately, in Eye in the Sky, the sophomoric facility of the assassins with the terms of just war theory may, too, be taken as evidence to ignorant viewers that these people in uniform know what they are talking about and should be trusted with the delicate decision of where, when, and why to summarily execute human beings who have not been charged with crimes, much less permitted to stand trial.

The question how a missile strike in a country not at war can be conceived of as a military necessity is altogether ignored in this film, as though it were already a settled matter. Someone in the US government (President Obama under the advisement of John Brennan, former president and CEO of The Analysis Corporation, the business of which is terrorist targeting analysis) decreed that the entire world was a battlefield, and this opened up every place and other governments to the delusive casuistry of just war theorists, including their most strident advocates for war, the self-styled “humanitarian hawks”.

eyeintheskylocalNo matter that in this case there are no military soldiers from either the United States or Britain on the ground to be harmed. No matter that their collaborators are local spies who do in fact commit acts of treachery against their compatriots and are indeed brutally executed when this is discovered. Despite the complete absence of any of the aspects of a war which might warrant a missile strike as a military necessity—above all, that soldiers on the ground will otherwise die—the itchy trigger drone warriors point to their version of the dreaded Trolley Problem and a false and misleading application of utilitarianism to convince the naysayers that they must approve the launch of a missile in order to avert an even worse tragedy.

The military personnel are more persuasive than the sole civilian dissenter, and no one seems to be bothered in the least by questions of strategy. The word ‘blowback’ is never even mentioned in this film. But judging by the growth of ISIS and Al-Shabaab over the past decade, and the testimony of suicide bombers such as Humam Al-Balawi (the Jordanian doctor who blew up a group of CIA personnel at Camp Chapman in 2009—in direct retaliation to US missile strikes on Pakistan), the tactic of drone assassination can reasonably be expected to cause the ranks of jihadists to continue to swell. No one denies that during the occupation of Iraq, an effective recruiting tactic of factional groups was to point to the civilians harmed by the Western infidels as confirmation that they were indeed the evil enemy. Knowing all of this, it does not seem unfair to ask: Is “military necessity” now conceived by the remote-control killers as whatever will ensure the continuation of a war?

eyeintheskybreadIn Eye in the Sky, the drone warriors are more than willing to risk the life of a little girl who has set up a table where she is selling loaves of bread because, they say, if they do not act immediately then perhaps eighty little children just like her will be killed instead. No mention is made of the psychological trauma suffered by the people who do not die in drone strikes, but witness what has transpired. (When was the last time one of your neighbors’ houses was cratered by a Hellfire missile?) Instead, the collateral damage estimate (CDE) so conscientiously calculated by a hapless soldier pressured by Colonel Powell to produce an estimated likelihood of the girl’s death at less than 50% altogether ignores the 100% probability that she and everyone in the neighborhood will be terrorized.

But even focusing solely on the likely lethality of the strike, the drone warriors in Eye in the Sky display what is in reality a lethal lack of imagination, an utter failure to conceive of counter measures such as warning the people in nearby markets and public places of the impending danger. That is because, in the minds of the drone warriors, if one terrorist attack is thwarted, then another will surely be carried out later on down the line. By this mode of reasoning, they have arrived at the depressing and nihilistic conclusion that they must kill all of the suspects. What would be the point of doing anything else?

Recruits from Western societies, young people such as Junaid Hussain, Reyaad Khan, and Ruhul Amin, are assumed to be beyond the reach of reason, despite the glaring fact that their recent conversion to the jihadist cause itself reveals that they have changed their view before and could, in principle, change it again. Nonetheless, the drone warriors persist in their worship of death as the be-all and end-all of foreign policy. They are literally trapped in the lethality box, because they cannot conceive of any other way of dealing with factional terrorism than by killing people. When obviously innocent persons are destroyed, maimed, terrorized and left bereft by Western missiles, these acts of so-called military necessity end by galvanizing support for the Anti-Western jihadist cause, both near the strike site and in lands far away.

Realistically, what self-respecting father would not wish to avenge the death of his young child at the hands of the murderous drone warriors who are so despicable as to kill without risking any danger to themselves? Instead of thinking through the likely implications of what they are doing, the drone warriors persist in invoking delusive just war rhetoric to promote what they want to do: kill the evil enemy. But the use of lethal drones in what has been successfully marketed to taxpayers as “smart war”, eliminates soldierly risk only by transferring it to civilians on the ground. No matter that new recruits continue to flock to the jihadist cause, seems to be the thinking of our great military minds, missiles are in ample supply.

It is a depressing view of humanity indeed which sees homicide as the solution to conflict when in fact it is its primary cause. But the delusion of the drone assassins is even worse than the corruption of criminal contract killers because they emetically congratulate each other, as in this film, for pushing buttons to eliminate their fellow human beings from the face of the earth, as though this were some kind of accomplishment, rather than the worst of all possible crimes.

New recruits such as Susan Danford will never stop arising from the ashes of drone strike sites until the drone strikes have come to a halt. Indulging in a false and Manichean division of people into black and white categories of good and evil, the killers corrupt more and more young people to collaborate with them, both informants and drone operators. Those who perform well in their jobs rise in the ranks to become the commanders of future killers, until at last the entire society is filled with people who upon watching a film such as Eye in the Sky end by sympathizing not with the victims but with those who destroyed them.

eyeintheskybeetledroneFocused as they will be upon this simpleminded “Trolley Problem” portrayal of drone warfare, Western viewers will likely miss altogether the obscene hegemonic presumptions of the killers who use beetle- and bird-sized drones to penetrate the private homes of people in order to stop them from wreaking havoc in countries where there are no US or British soldiers on the ground to harm. To pretend that all of this killing is for the benefit of the locals is delusional to the point of insanity.

If serial Western military interventions had not destroyed country after country across the Middle East, beginning with Iraq in 1991, then there would be no “evil enemy” to confront in the first place. To continue to ignore the words of jihadists themselves when they rail against the savage butchery of millions of Muslim people by the US military and its poodles is but the most flagrant expression of this smug hegemony. No, I am afraid, they do not hate us for our freedom.

In Eye in the Sky, anyone who opposes the use of military weapons against people living in their own civil society thousands of miles away is painted as a coward and a fool, as though there were some sort of moral obligation to launch missiles to save a hypothetical group of eighty people. The very same killers do not feel any obligation whatsoever to provide food, shelter, and potable water to the people living in such societies, even when the $70K cost of a single missile could be repurposed to save many more than eighty lives, in addition to winning over “hearts and minds”.

Here is the ugly truth shining through the willingness to kill but not to save lives in nonhomicidal ways: Peace does not pay. The drone killing machine is the latest and most lucrative instantiation of the military-industrial-congressional-media-academic-pharmaceutical-logistics complex. That Westerners continue to be taken in by this hoax is tragic for the people of Africa and the Middle East mercilessly terrorized (when they are not maimed or incinerated) while the killers gloat over what they take to be their moral courage.

eyeintheskybensonNear the end of the film, Lieutenant Colonel Benson sanctimoniously admonishes the sole remaining dissenter among the witnesses to the mission, which she has denounced as “disgraceful”. He smugly retorts to her suggestion that he is a coward: “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.” But the cost of the remote-control elimination of persons suspected of complicity in terrorism is not merely the tragic loss of human life. It is the destruction of such killers’ souls and the concomitant creation of even more killers who feel the need to retaliate in turn. It is the fact that they have rolled back all of the moral progress in procedural justice made by human societies since the 1215 Magna Carta. It is the fact that their dogged insistence on perpetuating and spreading this practice to the darkest and least democratic corners of the planet represents a categorical denial of human rights.

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US Drone Killing Machine Now on Autopilot

For years now I have been pointing out that Obama’s lasting legacy would be his ill-advised decision back in 2009 to normalize assassination, which his administration successfully rebranded as “targeted killing”. This was supposed to be the latest and greatest form of “smart war”: the use of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), or lethal drones, to go after and eliminate evil terrorists without risking US soldiers’ lives.

It all sounds so slick and, well, Obama cool. The problem is that any sober consideration of Obama’s foreign policy over the course of his eight years as president reveals that the reality is altogether different. Judging by the murder and mayhem being perpetrated all across the Middle East, “smart war” was not so smart after all.

It’s not easy to tease out how much of the mess in the Middle East is specifically due to Obama’s accelerated use of lethal drones in “signature strikes” to kill thousands of military-age men in seven different lands. For he also implemented other, equally dubious initiatives. Planks of Obama’s bloody “smart power” approach included deposing Libya’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, and massively arming (from 2012 to 2013) a group of little-understood “appropriately vetted moderate rebels” in Syria.

Adding fuel to the fire, Obama oversaw the largest exportation of homicidal weapons to the Middle East ever undertaken by a single US president. Saudi Arabia wasted no time in using its US (and also UK) military provisions to lay Yemen to waste. Conjoined with Obama’s use of drones in that land, the result has been a horrific civil war in which many civilians have been killed and many civilian structures destroyed.

As if all of this were not bad enough, Obama also managed to drop more than 26K bombs in 2016, after having dropped more than 23K in 2015. Given all of this very warlike behavior in undeclared wars, no one can truly say precisely how much drones are to blame for the ongoing carnage throughout the Middle East. What is beyond dispute is that together these measures culminated in a huge expansion and spread of ISIS and other radical jihadist groups.

At the same time, given the tonnage of bombs dropped by Obama in seven different countries, the use of drones does seem to have led directly to a willingness of the president to use also manned combat aerial vehicles, notably in countries with which the United States was not at war when Obama assumed his office. While his predecessor, George W. Bush, can be properly credited with the destruction of Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama managed to contribute heartily to the destruction of Libya, Yemen, and Syria, while attacking the people of Somalia as well.

Enter Donald J. Trump, who became the new US president on January 21, 2017. On that same day, two drone strikes in Yemen killed a slew of people, three of whom were said to be “suspected Al Qaeda leaders”. The US government has not confirmed that it launched the strikes. It is the policy of the CIA, put in charge by Obama of the drone program “outside areas of active hostilities” (in countries such as Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, et al.), not to share the details of its covert operations. This would seem to imply that the drone strikes on January 21, 2017, were not the doings of the Pentagon, now under the direction of General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, who was sworn in on the same day as the new president.

Trump’s choice for CIA director, Mike Pompeo, has not yet been sworn in, as his confirmation process is still underway. In other words, the drone strikes carried out under the auspices of the CIA this past weekend were done so without a director in place. Obama therefore succeeded not only in normalizing assassination as “targeted killing” when the implements of homicide used are missiles, and they are launched under the direction of the CIA, but he also left the killing machine on autopilot. Note that the former CIA director, John Brennan, who first served as Obama’s drone killing czar, before being promoted to director, has spent his time in recent days bashing the new president, not serving as Trump’s interim adviser.

The incineration of military-age men using missiles launched from drones has become so frequent and commonplace that US citizens, including legislators, did not blink an eye at the fact that the killing machine set in motion by President Obama is now effectively on autopilot. It’s worth remembering that, once upon a time, acts of war were to be approved by the congress. Now even acephalic agencies such as the directorless CIA are permitted to use weapons of war to kill anyone whom they deem to be worthy of death. All of this came about because Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Barack “no boots on the ground” Obama wanted to be able to prosecute wars without appearing to prosecute wars. Fait accompli.

Note: above photo credit mikechurch.com

ROAR Magazine “State of Control” issue in the mail…

UPDATE: Full text now available here.

Happy 2017!

My essay, “The Drone [Assassination] Assault on Democracy,” appears with several other provocative pieces in issue #4, “State of Control”, of ROAR magazine:

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This new publication is produced, edited and mailed from the Netherlands. Hoping one day to see the drone assassins standing trial for crimes against humanity at The Hague.

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https://roarmag.org/2016/12/06/subscribe-now-roar-issue-4/

ROAR Magazine “State of Control” issue coming soon…

Very happy to be a contributor to ROAR magazine. My essay, “The Drone Assassination Assault on Democracy,” appears in issue #4, “State of Control”, of this exciting new publication.

Check it out, and subscribe if you can:

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https://roarmag.org/2016/12/06/subscribe-now-roar-issue-4/

All Smoke, No Mirrors: Appearance vs Reality in Drone Strikes

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In 2009, a reported 27,000 people were employed in the public relations wing of the Pentagon (AP). I presume that there are even more today. Their job, as is true of every state-funded Ministry of Propaganda, is to win over “hearts and minds”, while the rest of the institution focuses on homicide.

Only the extraordinary number of persons working in the capacity of propagandists for the US government can explain odd news reports such as the recent announcement that the Department of Defense attempted to kill Somalian Abdullahi Haji Da’ud, said to be a senior member of Al-Shabaab. The Washington Post’s Pentagon-parroting report then proceeds to clarify that the killers do not actually know whom they killed:

The United States carried out a drone strike last week in Somalia, targeting Abdullahi Haji Da’ud, a senior leader in the al-Shabab militant group, the Pentagon announced Wednesday.

The Defense Department is still assessing whether the May 27 strike killed Da’ud.

Remarkably, the report continues on to tout the drone strike as a victory, under the provisional hypothesis that the strike did in fact kill the intended target:

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said in a statement that, if confirmed, his [Abdullahi Haji Da’ud’s] death “will disrupt near-term attack planning, potentially saving many innocent lives.”

The reason why this is remarkable is because, as Reprieve has documented, in strikes aimed at 41 named targets, 1,147 people were killed. Given the shocking findings of that study, it seems safe to conclude that it’s easier said than done to eliminate named terrorist suspects (who, as a reminder, are suspects).

Most of the victims of US drone strikes—both intended and unintended—have likely been military-age males, whom the US government defines as guilty until proven innocent. This is how the myth among the populace that targeted killing using drones is “smart war” continues to prevail. The categorization as “evil terrorists” of all military-age males in the remote tribal regions where missiles are fired (the “suspect” part appears to be elided by most people’s minds), is blithely accepted by everyone who praises the drone program. The only true requirement for conviction of “guilt” by the drone warriors is that a man be located in a zone where drone strikes are targeting suspected terrorists, whether named or unnamed. More often than not, the victims are brown-skinned Muslims.

Needless to say, there is no discussion in the article about the consequence of the drone strike intended for Abdullahi Haji Da’ud, if in fact it killed someone else altogether. What if it killed a child, who has a father? What if it killed a male adolescent’s teenage brother? What would be the consequences then?

As though the consequences of collateral damage had no strategic relevance whatsoever, the US government proceeds to kill suspects as fast as they can “finger” them in at least seven different countries, denying all of the inhabitants of those lands any rights, in a flagrant violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It’s hard for most Westerners to grasp exactly how scandalous this situation is for people on the ground, but we can begin to understand the ever-more vexing quagmire in the Middle East by taking a look at this short video of a protest in Pakistan, where many “military-age males” have gathered to vow to fight back against the United States if they do not cease killing Pakistanis using lethal drones:

It’s not as though this sort of reaction to US military aggression is somehow new or unexpected. What is amazing is that no lessons appear to have been learned by the warriors from the fiascoes in Afghanistan and Iraq. Instead, the drone campaigns have expanded, spreading across several different lands, terrorizing countless innocent people and inspiring the very same kind of outrage which was witnessed during the occupations when innocent persons were slain by US military personnel and private contractors.

Is it supposed to be wrong for a person to be incensed by the slaughter of his child or neighbors’ children because some analyst at the Pentagon has concluded on the basis of cellphone data that someone in their neighborhood was in cahoots with a radical Islamic group? Are all of the people depicted in the above video now on the US government’s hit list?

What is beyond doubt is that the direct connection between cause and effect in drone strikes—a catalyst to radicalization—continues to be ignored, as though the failure of the killing machine to secure Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya and Syria somehow implies that it needs only to be cranked into high gear to kill even more.

The above sort of report, exulting over a victory where there is none, when in fact the strike may have galvanized even more men to join forces with radical extremist groups to fight back, demonstrates that the Pentagon needs to halt the public relations machine, which serves only to deceive Americans into believing that they are being kept safe, and start engaging in some serious strategic analysis. (Better late than never!)

Drone strikes are a tactic which has failed to solve the problem for which UCAVs are allegedly being deployed. Even worse, they have exacerbated the problem of factional terrorism. Witness the proliferation of Al Qaeda franchises throughout the Middle East.

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Note to Obama, Sisyphean American Assassin: Dead No. 1 Taliban Leader Replaced by Somebody Else

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As President Obama’s term in office draws to a close, he has been scurrying about in a diaphanous attempt to convey the impression that he has accomplished a lot. Will he leave any significant legacy beyond having served as the country’s first Assassin-in-Chief, who normalized targeted killing—the Hannibal Lectoresque stalking and hunting of human beings—through the use of drones?

Despite shedding tears for gun violence victims in the United States, Obama managed to spread deadly weapons all over the world and provoked renewed militarism in Eastern Europe and the Far East by presiding over untold numbers of covert actions and military exercises. Remarkably, Obama even convinced Japan to renounce its anti-militarist stance spanning the decades since World War II. How about that trillion-dollar, thirty-year-plan nuclear weapons program upgrade in violation of the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty? (I have to ask: has Obama himself been replaced by a machine?) In a bizarre and ironic twist, Obama plans also to be the first sitting US president to pay a visit to Hiroshima, the city entirely razed by the first atomic bomb to be deployed in history, by the United States, on August 6, 1945. Three days later, on August 9, 1945, Nagasaki suffered the same fate.

In recent weeks, Obama has been busy issuing executive actions—from public school bathroom initiatives for transgender students (was this a problem?), to extensions of overtime pay, to opening up arms trade with Vietnam (motivated by concerns about China and the TPP?). At the same time, Obama has stepped up his efforts to demonstrate that he has the terrorism situation under control. It wasn’t that surprising when two days ago he made a big show of the fact that he had authorized the execution without trial by lethal drone of Mullah Akhtar Mansur in Pakistan.

Once again, as in the case of the operation in which Osama bin Laden was slain by a group of Navy SEALS, the Pakistani authorities were not informed about the mission until after the fact. Obama claimed that the authority to assassinate Mansur derived from the tried-and-true “legitimate self-defense” pretext. The “evil” Taliban leader was said to be responsible for planning attacks on US forces in Kabul, Afghanistan.

“Today marks an important milestone in our longstanding effort to bring peace and prosperity to Afghanistan. With the death of the Taliban leader Akhtar Mohammed Mansur, we have removed the leader of an organization that has continued to plot against and unleash attacks on American and Coalition forces, to wage war against the Afghan people and align itself with extremist groups like al Qa’ida.”

What Obama omitted was that the US force presence in Afghanistan had been increased at his behest in order to provide support for killing operations in Yemen back in 2015, when President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi was overthrown by a Houthi coup, and US personnel were evacuated from that country. In other words, it was Obama’s own insistence on continuing his drone campaign in Yemen which led him to send more soldiers to Afghanistan, where they met with the ire of the Taliban, the members of which naturally sought to eject the invaders from their land.

We’ve seen this all before. In fact, it has been going on since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. But rather than heeding the lessons of history—or even the dictates of common sense—the US government persists in its killing campaigns, as though they were accomplishing something. So now Mullah Akhtar Mansur, said to be an obstacle to the peace process between the Taliban and Afghan authorities, is dead. Does it matter in the least? This morning the Taliban announced that Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada has been named the new No. 1 leader.

A variation on this theme has played like a broken record throughout the absurdist Global War on Terror, during which most of the people killed are said to threaten “our interests” on the other side of the world. Other victims just happen to be located in the same neighborhood. US citizens have become so accustomed to the narrative according to which our good leaders are saving us from people just like Osama bin Laden, that they have lost all ability to consider the reality of what they are paying for.

I recently watched the film American Sniper (2014), directed by Clint Eastwood, which offers a perfect illustration of the foggy lens through which most Americans, including politicians and government bureaucrats, view military intervention abroad. US Navy SEAL Chris Kyle is depicted as a hero for killing more than 200 “enemy forces”, 160 of which were confirmed by the Department of Defense. In reality, Kyle was killing people attempting to kill the invaders of their own land, Iraq.

Does anyone seriously believe that if hordes of armed warriors made their way to US shores that residents would stand by and let them round up “suspects” and torture them, or assassinate them point blank, along with anyone who happened to be with them at the time? Is it at all plausible that no one in the United States would retaliate? Would anyone accept the “self-defense” pretext of the invaders for killing US residents in their own homeland?

The US invasions and occupations of both Afghanistan and Iraq, the removal of Muammar Gaddafi from power in Libya, and the drone campaigns in Yemen and Somalia have all proven to be disastrous, as evidenced by the predictably surging ranks of the Taliban and Al Qaeda and AQAP and Al-Shabaab and ISIS and Daesh in direct response to US counterterrorism initiatives. Even setting aside the gross moral and legal violations inherent to the US drone program, it simply does not work. It never worked, and it will not work when Obama hands over the drone warrior holster to the successor of his throne.

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What’s worse than the Department of PreCrime? The US Drone Program

MinorityReport

I have seen Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film Minority Report mentioned in the writings of a few different people, so when the opportunity presented itself to me recently, I decided to find out why it is still being talked about 14 years after its release. Not being much for science fiction, it’s not surprising that I did not see the film back when it first came out. Added to that, some fairly dramatic events took place in 2002. Most obviously, a concerted propaganda campaign was launched by the US government in the run-up to its 2003 invasion of Iraq. Remarkably, some people, in a post-9/11 cognitive fog, were persuaded to believe that Saddam Hussein not only possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD), but was poised to transfer them to Osama bin Laden and his buddies in Al Qaeda.

Around that same time, on November 3, 2002, the Drone Age effectively began with the CIA’s extrajudicial execution of six men driving down a road in Yemen using a Hellfire missile launched from a Predator drone. The act went virtually unquestioned and was praised by nearly everyone who heard about it, having been told that the US government was working hard to keep all of us safe.

Since 2002, the line between science fiction and reality has become thinner and thinner with the rapid proliferation and refinement of automated systems in an inexorable quest to produce more and more lethal weapons ever faster—and to export them all over the world. The fact that lethality has not worked to stop terrorism is matter-of-factly accepted by most lawmakers as evidence that we need to kill even more. Meanwhile, the morass of moral questions raised by the remote-control assassination of persons suspected of possibly conspiring to carry out future terrorist attacks continues to be ignored. Now homicide is being committed in apparently good conscience all over the Middle East and in Africa, too, by many different parties, under bogus pretexts of national defense, and in spite of the fact that the world has grown more, not less, dangerous since the Global War on Terror (GWOT) began.

The story of Minority Report is set in 2054 and involves a police officer who works in the PreCrime Department, the mission of which is to determine who is going to commit a murder in the near future, so that they can be arrested and incarcerated before they do. The primary philosophical question raised by the film is free will versus determinism. Do human beings choose to do what they do? Can they alter their choices, by sheer act of will, so as to follow a different trajectory than what might have seemed to be the path dictated by fate?

In Minority Report, the persons who are being arrested and locked up on suspicion for future crimes are said to be known to be future murderers. If the police did not intervene, then the suspects would indeed commit murder–or so the program executors claim. People believe the administrators—touted as heroes—because the pilot PreCrime program has proven to be a resounding success. In six years, murder in the Washington, DC, area has come to a lurching halt.

Precog

The details of how the murders will be carried out—if nothing is done to stop the would-be perpetrators—are derived from mental images conjured by PreCogs, which are akin to humanoid psychics of sorts, with the notable distinction that they are said to be infallible. If the three PreCogs identify a person as a future murderer, then he is. The PreCogs do not make mistakes. They have never been wrong!  is the PreCrime company line. Given the undeniable success of the pilot program, a new campaign is underway to expand the initiative so that murder can be eradicated from all cities everywhere.

Whatever may be one’s feelings on the question of free will versus determinism, which philosophers have been arguing about for millennia, there are a number of complicating epistemological factors to the story—as there always are in reality. Once Police Chief John Anderton (the Tom Cruise character) appears to be framed for a future murder, he begins to investigate the “scientific” basis of the program and discovers that the simple success story fed to the public is a pleasing fiction used to garner support for the PreCrime initiative.

Anderton, who is a true believer and enthusiastic program advocate up until his own liberty is jeopardized, discovers that the program administrators have carefully hidden a key feature of the process by which the PreCog unanimity is achieved: whenever one of the three PreCogs (the most “gifted” of the three, Agatha), disagrees with the interpretation of the images shared by the other two PreCogs, her “Minority Report” is destroyed. The PreCogs appear to agree on the final verdict of the future criminal’s guilt because the dissenting opinion has been erased!

PrecogAgatha

Given how the apparent “unanimity” is in fact achieved, there is a very real chance that some of the people who have been arrested and incarcerated for future murders were not really going to commit the murder after all. It seemed as though they were going to, but a closer look, a different perspective on the visual data, would reveal that in fact they would never have committed the murder, had they been permitted to carry on with their lives uninterrupted by the police. As a result, some of the people locked up are in fact innocent. The program administrators who know the truth may be of a utilitarian bent, believing that the sacrifice of a few souls is perfectly acceptable in the quest to defend everybody else. Or perhaps they are simply amoral agents who seek success in society as their highest goal and will do any- and everything to protect their own reputation.

I do not want to go into too much more detail about Minority Report, because the film is long and labyrinthine, with many characters and subplots, and I am not prepared to recommend that anyone watch it for any reason other than the philosophical questions which it raises. What I would like to do instead is to consider how the US Drone Program, which exists in reality, differs from the Department of PreCrime, a science fiction creation based on a short story by Philip K. Dick.

  1. In the Drone Program, as opposed to the PreCrime Program, the persons thought by analysts to be planning to commit possible future terrorist acts are not arrested and incarcerated but incinerated.
  2. In the Drone Program, as opposed to the Department of PreCrime, the evidence is not subject to review by anyone but the people who decide whom to kill.
  3. In the Drone Program, as opposed to the Department of PreCrime, the persons targeted for elimination do not usually have known identities. In many cases, they have no names associated with them.
  4. In the Drone Program, as opposed to PreCrime Program, targets are identified by behaviors said to match a “disposition matrix” of known terrorist behaviors. It is not that they have been witnessed perpetrating a crime, but that they “walk the terrorist walk”. They turn out nearly always to be brown-skinned Muslims.
  5. In the Drone Program, as opposed to the PreCrime Program, hearsay and circumstantial evidence are used exhaustively as the basis for ending not only suspects’ lives, but also the lives of people associated with them, including family and community members.
  6. In the Drone Program, the evidence used to “convict” the suspects is both generated and assessed by the same analysts. In the PreCrime Program, the PreCogs provide an independent source of evidence, which, while fallible, is not subject to mercenary corruption. In stark contrast, HUMINT or human intelligence is derived from paid informants, and the analysts who compile kill lists are rewarded financially for finding people to kill. “Successful strikes” are confirmed on the ground by the very locals who provided the HUMINT leading up to the strikes.
  7. In the Drone Program, when missiles are fired from drones, all of the inhabitants of the area under fire are simultaneously terrorized because they do not know who or why individuals have been singled out for death. In the PreCrime Program, when suspects are apprehended, it is a standard police operation. The persons sought are not being executed on the spot, which means that persons who happen to be located nearby are not inadvertently threatened with death at the same time.
  8. The PreCrime Program has eliminated the problem of murder at the price of the wrongful incarceration of some of the suspects. The Drone Program, in stark contrast, has only caused the problem of terrorism to expand over ever vaster expanses of land. ISIS, once a minor force in Iraq, has spread to Syria and Libya. Drones were fired on Yemen for many years, culminating in civil war, and now the US government has sent combat soldiers to that land as well, proof positive that lethal drones made the problem worse rather than better.
  9. In May 2013, President Barack Obama announced that missiles were fired on targets only when there was “near certainty” that no civilians would be killed. In early 2016, the Pentagon announced that the magnitude of acceptable “collateral damage” had been increased for strikes aiming at ISIS members. Innocent people are being knowingly sacrificed in the process of targeting persons believed to be guilty but who in some cases are militants with no international aspirations whatsoever.
  10. In the PreCrime Program, the persons apprehended falsely, being alive, retain the possibility of exoneration once the truth about the fallibility of the PreCogs is revealed. No such possibility exists for the victims of the US Drone Program.

Technology has come to dictate policy like never before in history thanks to the effusive enthusiasm of leaders such as President Barack Obama, the first self-styled “Drone Warrior”. Unfortunately, the blind worship of technology has led to the mass homicide of thousands of human beings who would not have been killed in centuries past. But rather than being “smart war”, the Drone Program has proven to be quite dumb. It has failed to stabilize any of the countries in which it has been deployed: Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, Libya and Syria all lie in shambles. “No Boots” Obama has now forsaken even his promise not to send combat troops into many of these places. But rather than draw the logical conclusion, that the Drone Program is an abject failure, the killing machine has cranked into high gear, slaughtering dozens of persons at a time, using both manned and unmanned bombers.

There is no available moral defense of the Drone Program, for it violates human rights across the board. It furthermore represents a flagrant assault on the foundations of Western democratic societies, including due process and transparency. The Drone warriors have instituted a program which rolls formerly republican governments back to pre-Magna Carta times, transforming the president into a monarch with the authority to decree “off with their heads!” with impunity. It is not only “suspicious-looking characters” (some of whom are innocent) who are being harmed. Just as surely terrorized by the Drone Program are entirely innocent children, some of whom vow to seek revenge on the craven remote-control killers, as did Junaid Hussain, Reyaad Khan, and Ruhul Amin, among many other, mostly nameless, young Muslim people.

The only possible practical defense of the ongoing slaughter of lists of human beings generated by paid analysts would have to be utilitarian in nature: that despite the occasional “blunder”, lethal drones have made the world a safer place. But anyone with a modicum of critical thinking skills must recognize that it has not, given the quagmire throughout the Middle East, and the attacks on Paris and San Bernardino in 2015, and Brussels in 2016.

The Drone Program is both morally outrageous and criminally inept, leading as it does to the reckless endangerment of those who pay for it, along with the obviously innocent people destroyed, traumatized, and /or maimed. Many young people are being corrupted along the way, persuaded either to become professional assassins or to seek revenge by linking up with radical Islamist extremist groups.