one nation under drones

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

15.2 (Spring 2015)


The Polis vs. Progress



One Nation, Under Drones: An Idea That Must Be Shot Down

This commentary is not intended as a news story, or even as an editorial based upon current events. One formidable obstacle to the “breaking news” approach would be the extreme paucity of reliable information about the use of drone-delivered missiles in combat zones. The State Department stubbornly preserves a very hush-hush attitude about relevant data, while like the Huffington Post and are not noted for impartiality. Yet beyond wreathes of ideological haze, no sensible person would challenge a few basic facts. One of these is that the current U.S. chief executive has stepped up drone strikes dramatically over the rate of his predecessor. Often-cited numbers attribute 51 strikes to Bush over four years and nearly 400 to Obama as his fifth year in office ended. Drone “take-downs”, it may safely be said, are growing in popularity with those who push the buttons.

Defining their success is another matter. A recent report by the advocacy group Reprieve claims that an average of 28 untargeted persons die for every one identified desperado in drone attacks. The study’s author admits that official sources insist upon classifying as secret so much information that much of her work was inferential. Even more controversial are figures published about the number of non-combatant civilian casualties (the notorious “collateral damage”), and of slain children, in particular. By some estimates, this latter total may be pushing 1,000. Perhaps conveniently for proponents of drone warfare, innocent under-aged victims are rendered almost impossible to tabulate by the Pentagon’s definition of “combatant”—a category bluntly determined by physical proximity to the target rather than by ability to load a gun or understand the meaning of death.

Defenders of the drone program (who, in a rich irony, tend to identify themselves as right-wingers, and hence none too kindly disposed to this administration on other issues) would point to successes like the vaporization of six militants in Peshawar on December 20, 2014—a few days after the inhuman massacre of 132 schoolchildren. They would say that animals in clothes who would commit such atrocities will only slaughter more babies if afforded the luxury of playing hide and seek with conventional forces.* Civilized rules, the argument goes, apply to civilized people in civilized circumstances. When a mad dog is loose on a playground, the ASPCA is not consulted.

All of this is quite muddled enough without the stirring in of more statistics or the introduction of more battlefield contingencies. The purpose of this piece, rather, is to take a long step back and view the issue both abstractly and futuristically. This perspective was suggested to this writer by a course he taught last fall that touched upon the interplay of industrialization and culture in America’s nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The group remarked over and over during classroom exchanges that people cannot see the technological forest because of the trees. No one foresaw that televised entertainments would produce a passive, desensitized mass of jaded observers. No one foresaw that the radical independence of the automobile would eventually seal suburban America in tight little corridors of existence. No one foresaw that hand-held, highly portable telephones would in fact stifle face-to-face communication to the point that young people today can scarcely speak in a casual encounter. Right now, many foreign-policy “hawks”—mostly the advocates of the U.S. as world policeman who go by the refractive sobriquet of neo-conservatives—see only that various “bad guys” holed up around the globe can be easily neutralized by drone technology; and their not-so-adversarial adversaries, the progressives of the left wing, see only that clean, remote executions of undesirables minimize the need to step upon cultural toes with military incursions. No one, at least within these elite circles (which cling to a majority of power in the U.S., though their claim to majority representation seems very dubious), appears to foresee that the drone represents nothing less than the capacity to annihilate anybody upon a whim.

Western culture, in what may turn out to be one of its last hurrahs, almost universally closed ranks against human cloning a few years ago. One presumes that we are still fairly united against the infanticide of newborns: the ban against partial-birth abortion in the U.S. is of recent provenance, though the time consumed in producing it remains a national disgrace. A challenge more on a par with that posed by the drone will arise very soon when technology allows state operatives to enter minds, to read them, and even to sustain a controlling presence in them. All of the arguments used to justify drone killings will apply a fortiori to mind-control, since no explicit loss of life—even of guilty life—will throw up an impulsive stop sign. If an asset in the field could save a bus-load of children by vaporizing a terrorist with a laser, why would that asset’s handlers balk at covertly implanting a chip in the terrorist’s brother and releasing him to mingle with the remnant of the cell? But once that pair of eyes belongs to the CIA or the NSA or the resuscitated KGB (the differences are already beginning to blur), why would the same faceless engineers not want to transplant their successes to mere terrorist-suspects? And once the suspects have been successfully rigged for information-gathering and disinformation-dispersal, why not target political activists whose “patriotism” hangs in doubt (according to some high-ranking Nameless One)? And as the technology grows both less expensive and more refined, why not infuse it into every ordinary citizen’s veins with the obligatory annual flu shot?

The typical reaction is dismissive. One hears something on the order of, “That’s just paranoia—that could never happen here!” or, “Sci-fi is lots of fun—but we’re talking terrorism. Innocent lives need to be saved, and saved now!” People who utter such inanities are either not speaking in good faith or are genuinely inane. Tomorrow is always today with technology, and today is always yesterday. No impending development can be stopped unless it still impends; for once systems are wired (so to speak) to perform a new operation, we humans find ourselves—and have found ourselves, over and over—immersed in the irresistible like a fly struggling in a spider’s web. The history of technology shows us that what can be done will be done unless a deliberate and sustained effort is made to seal certain portals of entry.

Both government and private entities have registered a degree of concern about the ascent of the drone, but the alarm is usually raised from the wrong directions. Aviation officials worry about congestion in flight lanes, while private citizens dislike the notion of Big Brother’s eye in the sky monitoring their every move. By no means are these trivial misgivings—but neither are they fully alert to the nature of the threat. The restrictions imposed thus far or actively contemplated by government, first of all, seem to have as their objective the enforcement of an uncluttered sky wherein more air traffic can steadily be infused. Amazon’s much-publicized plans to deliver by airlift have been somewhat compromised by a flustered FAA that frets over skyway slow-go’s and collisions. Present laws (as I understand them) permit drones of under 55 pounds in weight to flit about unmolested. Perhaps Amazon anticipates the return of multiple-book orders as the nation resumes its pre-Sixties reading habit.

As for ordinary citizens, almost half of the American public remains averse (claims one poll) to opening up our skies as we have our other borders; but it is difficult to say how much of this angst belongs to fear of further government intrusion in the aftermath of the Snowden scandal’s revelations about NSA activity. When a six-pack of beer was lately lowered out of the sky by a distributor as a stunt, the general response fell short of the enthusiastic; so perhaps our common citizenry, as well as dreading the nanny state’s long nose, also simply doesn’t want to see the equivalent of billboards competing with the clouds.

Uses that satisfy the qualification of “public service”, whatever their tax status, garner the most support on the current domestic scene. Drones have already been privately deployed on mapping projects, at excavation sites, and in other private-sector undertakings whose objectives are not overtly, coarsely commercial. One can well imagine a dutiful drone rushing medicine to remote corners of the Australian outback or surveying forested areas for wildfires or marihuana plantations: missions that would surely receive at least some public funding yet not violate any legitimate expectation of privacy. With some healthy push and shove, contemporary society might at last demarcate a proper place for these small whirlybirds in the twenty-first century, just as the twentieth eventually learned to curb air pollution (though, as that “triumph” also teaches, not everyone will be satisfied with the final parameters of drone activity).

But the real message of air pollution, perhaps, was the defining narrative of modernity: the one-way consumption of resources, both natural and human, in an industrialized gambit that would sever our ties to the land while yoking us to the necessity of the “buy, use up, throw away, and buy more” cycle. The industrialized world lost its spiritual vitality and economic self-control on the assembly-line. It became dependent on the market’s health for bare survival; and, when the market encountered stress, the urban workers discovered that the cycle further included new “labor-saving” technology that cut large numbers of them adrift. The toxin-belching smokestack was merely a kind of signal-fire. The true threat was not the air we were now forced to breathe: it was the life of ever-intensifying mechanization and dependency we were forced to lead.

So with the drone. The warning in the sky isn’t that freedom-loving citizens must soon watch their rear-view mirror in three dimensions or that environmentalists may need to consider some ordinances against flying billboards. It is that the world’s entire population is about to enter a zone without exit where every innocent error and stupid mistake, as well as every violent crime and evil plot, will forever threaten us from an additional direction. We can legislate against government eavesdropping; but private, freelancing eavesdroppers, including mere busy-bodies possessed of a modicum of wealth and leisure, will proliferate even in the unlikely event that government agencies honor the law and abstain from snooping. We can legislate against the Jovian thunderbolt that His Supremacy, the President, is pleased to hurl down upon selected terrorists, and certainly against the thunderbolt’s use against a garden-variety Bonnie and Clyde pair of desperadoes fleeing along the interstate; but who will save us from the incendiary grenade dropped down our chimney—by an angry neighbor, a militant racist, a pranking teen, or a bungling bureaucrat? SWAT teams are already breaking down doors at an alarming rate of misidentification. What kind of life awaits us when our security forces start to apply similar levels of incompetency to zooming in on our patios and bedrooms?

For one might here enunciate a universal law of advanced technology: the more prolific and cutting-edge the gadget, the more probable a high incidence of human error in employing it.

Drone technology is flying by the wrong coordinates, and it needs to be called back. Specifically, the use of drones to vaporize suspected terrorists must cease and desist. The collateral damage is far too high and the possibility of errant targeting far too great; but quite beyond that, the notion of removing a “bad guy” from this world almost with a mere thought, and without any formal declaration of war or offered opportunity to surrender, amounts to playing God.** No human being can be allowed to play God: to remove lives from the earth whimsically like pawns from a chessboard. Spokesmen for the Right constantly upbraid partisans of the Left for lacking pride in their country, for indeed being ashamed of her. The true conservative—the person who insists that we cling to the value of the human person in the face of so many inhuman “easy fixes”—must take the initiative in denouncing the thunder-hurlers.

Outlawing the drone as a combat weapon in undeclared wars and outside of war zones is only a start. The use of the drone in strictly defined projects with narrow spatial and temporal parameters—to map a wilderness, to scout for drug smugglers, to deliver medicine to a distant island—could be a blessing to decent, law-abiding citizens. Daily, vaguely motivated, all-but-random police surveillance over metropolitan areas, however, can no more be countenanced than regular pizza-delivery service. The appearance of a drone in the sky must be an exceptional event, less rare than a comet’s passage but less frequent than a planet’s. If we should ever become accustomed to having unidentified robots buzzing routinely back and forth over our heads like postal buggies or motorcycle-cops, the opportunities for error and abuse will so have multiplied as to add several levels to our high-tech urban hell.

* Interesting, is it not, that the current administration would grant these child-butchers all the legal rights of U.S. citizens if captured by our forces—yet would not recognize the basic rights of U.S. citizens, on the other hand, if they were to “enlist” with foreign terrorists and enter the drone’s crosshairs?

** The self-styled “realist” will once again be tempted to sneer at my ivory-tower naiveté. But why, I ask, do we need to seek and destroy foot-bound fugitives in the Hindu Kush in order to safeguard our civilian jetliners? Why may we not apply our technological sophistication, rather, to screening better the flow of aliens into our nation? In fact, the relatively low-tech solution of allowing pilots to travel armed was suggested immediately after 9/11—and just as immediately rejected. A drone-administered seek-and-destroy series of missions is a smarter way to stop the next Mohammed Atta, it seems, than letting the co-pilot plant one bullet in his chest!

“Pancratistes”–the Ancient Greek term designating a competitor in the decathlon (and hence a versatile opponent) is the pseudonym of a college professor of many years who would consider his career at risk if some of his published views bore his true name.

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