|The Reaper drone. Photo credits: Public Domain.|
In A Brief History of Drones at The Nation, John Sifton points out the frightening linguistics associated with America’s unmanned aircraft:
The weapons’ names suggest ruthless and inhumane characteristics. The first drone aircraft deployed by the CIA and Air Force after 2001 was the Predator, a rather coarse name even for a weapons system, suggestive that the enemy was not human but merely prey, that military operations were not combat subject to the laws of war but a hunt. (Some of the computer software used by the military and the CIA to calculate expected civilian casualties during airstrikes is known in government circles as Bug Splat.) The Predator’s manufacturer, General Atomics, later developed the larger Reaper, a moniker implying that the United States was fate itself, cutting down enemies who were destined to die. That the drones’ payloads were called Hellfire missiles, invoking the punishment of the afterlife, added to a sense of righteousness.
But the real issue is the context of how drones kill. The curious characteristic of drones—and the names reinforce this—is that they are used primarily to target individual humans, not places or military forces as such. Yet they simultaneously obscure the human role in perpetrating the violence. Unlike a missile strike, in which a physical or geographic target is chosen beforehand, drones linger, looking precisely for a target—a human target. And yet, at the same time, the perpetrator of the violence is not physically present. Observers are drawn toward thinking that it is the Predator that kills Anwar al-Awlaki, or its Hellfire missiles, not the CIA officers who order the weapons’ engagement. On the one hand, we have the most intimate form of violence—the targeted killing of a specific person, which in some contexts is called assassination—while on the other hand, the least intimate of weapons.
This characteristic, the distance between targets and CIA executive officers at Langley, is the defining characteristic of drones. They are the zenith of the technological quest that runs back to the invention of slings and arrows thousands of years ago, efforts of the earliest perpetrators of violence to get away from their victims. That process, which brought catapults and later artillery, reached its first peak with the development of intercontinental nuclear missiles; but those are weapons of limited tactical use and have never been used. Drones allow all the alienation of long-range missions but with much more flexibility and capacity for everyday use. The net result is everyday violence with all the distance and alienation of ICBMs. This is disturbing perhaps because alienation is disturbing.
The issue is not that armed drones are more terrible or deadly than other weapons systems. On the contrary, the violence of drones today is more selective than many forms of military violence, and human rights groups recognize that drones, in comparison with less precise weapons, have the potential to minimize civilian casualties during legitimate military strikes.
Nor is the issue the remote delivery of weapons: alienation from the effects of violence reached a high-water mark in World War I. What makes drones disturbing is an unusual combination of characteristics: the distance between killer and killed, the asymmetry, the prospect of automation and, most of all, the minimization of pilot risk and political risk. It is the merging of these characteristics that draws the attention of journalists, military analysts, human rights researchers and Al Qaeda propagandists, suggesting something disturbing about what human violence may become. The unique technology allows the mundane and regular violence of military force to be separated further from human emotion. Drones foreshadow the idea that brutality could become detached from humanity—and yield violence that is, as it were, unconscious.
In this sense, drones foretell a future that is very dark indeed.