Written by Michael Kulla
A year ago, 8-year-old Nabeela ventured outside while her 68-year old grandmother picked vegetables in their family garden. Moments later this beloved grandmother was blasted to pieces by not one but two U.S. drone missiles apparently aimed directly at her. Nabeela and other nearby grandchildren were injured when the exploding missile lodged shrapnel in their bodies.
No one is alleging the grandmother did anything wrong. Her fatal “mistake” was living in North Waziristan, a region in Pakistan pummeled by U.S. drone strikes (Amnesty International 23 October 2013).
The goal of the highly financed drone promoters is to have a startling 30,000 of them zipping through the skies by 2020. Our nation’s entire fleet of passenger and cargo planes number only about 7,000. As of last June The Pentagon alone already had 64 drone bases throughout our country with more in the works. What are we doing? Much we don’t know. But it’s time to ask.
Unmanned aerial missiles have been a weapon of choice in Afghanistan where opposition from within a largely tribal society and difficult terrain have made conventional warfare extremely difficult. Secret drone strikes, however, have also been conducted in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia with limited knowledge as to who is targeted, how many and with what consequences.
The New York Times reported in May 2012 a Pentagon-run “kill list” of suspected members of al-qaeda-affiliated groups. But a New America Foundation report found that just 2% of drone attack deaths in Pakistan are “militant leaders.”
A signature strike is one in which targeting occurs without having the precise identity of the individual targeted. Instead, individuals match a pre-identified “signature” of conditions that the U.S. links to militant activity or association. Being male of fighting age and carrying a gun (which is the norm in Pakistan) can make someone a target.
Cheap, small, noiseless and practically invisible, drones take snooping to a new level. Equipped with super-high-powered lenses, infrared and ultraviolet imaging, radar that can see through walls, video analyzers and “swarm” technologies that use a group of drones that operate in concert to allow surveillers to watch an entire city — these devices are made to be intrusive. And, of course, they can be “weaponized” to let military agents advance from intrusion to repression.
No, this is not about a dazzling new technology. We are on a fast track to becoming a society under routine pervasive surveillance. As the ACLU put it, on the UAV threat, such a development “would profoundly change the character of public life in the United States.” The threat of course is a physical one. But it is difficult to understand the real moral implications without focusing on the psychological aspects.
Whenever we consider how “precise” the weapons are, we are asking the wrong question. Taken to an extreme, if we could have ultimate precision, i.e., press a button and have anyone in the world who we perceived as an enemy of the U.S., and have that person automatically blown to bits, would we want such a dangerous tool? I think not. The ability to kill a particular human, and only that human, without a fair and public trial is the issue.
For many would-be U.S. critics, drones take on a psychological response of less terror, not more, because they do remove our soldiers from danger. And they are likely intended to be less terrifying to their operators, making them more likely to kill. From so many angles, the existence of drones is about muting a sense of terror — and yet, that is exactly why we should be terrified of them. We cannot morally accept technological steps that make war easier to wage, and killing easier to conduct.
There is nothing normal about the American people meekly living in a watched society perpetually monitored by flying cameras that also are weaponized with tasers, tear gas, rubber bullets and what-have-you, including real bullets and explosives.
For the citizens of sovereign countries over which drone’s fly, they produce a justifiable sense of violation, horror and disgust.
The Division of Peace Psychology of the American Psychological Association has recently created a Drone Task Force. The hope is that the task force will delve into a variety of issues from legal and moral ones to psychological research on deindividuation, anonymity, obedience, salience and other laws of social impact. The task force should ask whether “targeted” killing is anything but a euphemism for assassination, and whether our common use of drones in anything but a form of terrorism, and whether drone warfare will feed anything more than additional retaliatory terrorism.
Most of all I would like to hear about the possible influence of drone warfare on stifling “protest”, and how might that be the most dangerous aspect of all.