My Article on OpenDemocracy – The Doublespeak of Drones

Last month OpenDemocracy were kind enough to publish a short essay of mine – under my human name – on the media’s portrayal of civilian and military drones. Here is the link. Enjoy.

https://www.opendemocracy.net/sam-mutter/doublespeak-of-drones

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Airspace & Autonomy: The Geographical-Legal Discrimination of Drones

Drones are a technology seemingly defined by their particular ability to reside, almost exclusively, in air-space. Unlike conventional planes, they apparently do not rely on the ground, that domain of human life, for anything apart from their first breath. Just like satellites, once launched drones can float indefinitely. This is no-longer flight. Flying is what planes and birds do; flying is defined in relation to the ground. What drones do is more akin to an orbit of the skies, a low orbit, but even orbit does not have the same level of freedom as this. Orbit is held in a trajectory restricted, even if not entirely determined, by the cosmic body about which it occurs. Though of course affected by gravity, the drone resists it with lasting success. It may very well soon be the case that drones need never come down. Even birds must return to feed their young; drones are not weighed down by the mortal necessity of reproduction, and can feed off the near-immortal energy of the sun. And satellites, though they do not require fuel to remain, do require guidance to function. The ambition for drones is to transcend even this minimal level of dependence: to become ‘autonomous’, not only in a physical but also a mental sense; to develop the capacity to make decisions based on their own perceptions. It is even proposed, by the scientist Ronald Arkin among others, that these decisions could be not only logical, but ethical, thoughtful, calculations[i].

True, robotic autonomy was predicted in many-a-sci-fi dystopia, but what was not foreseen, as far as I know, is the significance of airspace autonomy; the combination of a highly-autonomous machine and a highly-independent space. We, the corporeal human, cannot directly approach the sky without the use of another technology – a plane or a jetpack – as we might approach the land by walking, or the sea by swimming. The independence, the privacy which the sky attains from this has a clear impact upon the ability for human legal control of these environments. Thus, since the sea is comparatively unapproachable, uninhabitable, maritime law has always been more difficult to enforce than the law of the land. Similarly, the law of the skies is found to be vulnerable because, although we can enter it, we cannot inhabit it – but even more so than the seas as, whereas we can swim for minutes; hours, we can only jump for a fraction of a second.

Yet we must ask, as always, what does this idea permit or encourage? What are the effects of believing that at some point, if not already, we will not be able to control the drone or its corresponding space?

I would argue that it is a belief laced with peril. It is perilous because it leads us to the false conclusion that a certain force, a geographical-legal principle, has entirely dissolved. This principle can be most simply expressed as that narrow-minded view of the world held by maps, and demonstrated by the colonial despots who, during the era of Empire, drew arbitrary lines on them to separate one’s land from another’s. The point is that this principle has not at all dissolved, and in fact resides at the heart of the very functionality of drone warfare itself.

Geographical-Legal Exceptionality: The ‘Double Standards’ of Drone Warfare

Recently, Carol Anne Grayson has drawn attention, on her blog, to the ‘double standards’ of drone strikes with regard to the Pakistani capital Karachi:

“While [s]till NO meaningful action has been taken to tackle the US on the continued use of drones on the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA)…

…It’s an entirely different attitude with drones over Karachi. The hypocrisy is beyond belief. Dawn is now reporting that security agencies want action for a complete ban on heli-cams (drone cameras) over Karachi for fear of surveillance operations by undesirables and turning small drones into explosive devices”.

To the extent that drones are regarded as autonomous and free, their movement is apparently indiscriminate, they do not care for our earthly geographies, or the legal divisions – sovereignty being the most obvious – that accompany them. There seems to be a careless equality to the drone. Particularly as the smaller quadcopters and micro-drones become cheaper and more accessible to the general public, they express a liberal individualist sense of freedom.

But this naivety leads us to pay scant attendance to the continuing inequalities of power through space. In terms of geographical-legal discriminations in the waging of drone warfare, we are usually given the bare minimum of analysis: that simple binary of a Western nation regulating drones in its own skies whilst raining down Hellfire from another’s. And even this, it is reckoned, might disappear with the proliferation of drones into the hands of ‘lone wolf’ insurgents. But of course the governments realise their hypocrisy, and they will not let its principle of discrimination dissolve so easily. As we have already seen, the threat of equality that drones pose will be countered, quashed with ever-stricter regulation: Geographical-legal regulation, like the ‘no-fly zones’ proposed in Washington after a small unarmed drone landed on the White House lawn late last month, and now, as Grayson observes, in Karachi[ii]. The response to a so-called democratising technology will, as we are gradually seeing with the internet, be an increasing proliferation of more authoritarian divisions and blockades.

The ‘double standards’ to which Grayson refers are thus geographical-legal by nature, and the case of FATA draws attention to the regional or urban/rural order by which this hypocrisy often functions. The Federally Administrated Tribal Areas are, as Shaw and Akhter have explained in detail, an exceptional space. They have, since their status as a frontier region of the British Raj in the 19th century, and in particular the imposition of the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) in 1901, been constructed as a territory outside the normal legal order, a by-turn formal and discursive tradition upheld to this day by Karachi and Islamabad[iii]. It is with this concept of geographical-legal exception in mind that we should in fact regard all grants of ‘consent’ given by governments in those countries affected by US drone strikes. Because, whether a formal legal exceptionality exists as in FATA, it is nevertheless always the case that those geographies being targeted are isolated from those that give the go-ahead. In arguments that portray the whole state as victim, there is a failure to take into account the fact that, though the government may be under pressure from Washington or London, it is in turn the pressurising force in an inequitable relation of power with its own (rural) population.

I propose that a vital precursor to appreciating these continuing geographical-legal orders of dominance and exception is to banish the notion that the drone and its airspace is autonomous or free in any true sense of that word.

The False Freedom of the Liberated Being

Regardless of the potential ability of the drone to act with reference to its own ‘intelligence’, what must be remembered is that the decisions that it makes are only required because we demand them. For any of you familiar with John Rawls’s Theory of Justice[iv], it may be helpful to reflect on one of the criticisms aimed at that work. In short, Rawls argued that his theory of justice, the theory of ‘justice as fairness’, was moral, and – until he was forced to clarify his error in Political Liberalism[v] – potentially universal, because it is the system which would be chosen by a group of citizens in what he called the ‘original position’. This is a situation in which the individuals choosing the system of justice are stripped of the knowledge of their own status in the society they are deciding upon, placed behind of a ‘veil of ignorance’ as to their vested interests, so that their choice could not be unfairly influenced. However, the problem is that these beings-without-interests are not really individuals at all, and that, as empty vessels deprived of their humanity, they would have no sense of morality whatsoever. Their care-less equality is a paradox, and the only way it can be solved, the only way they would come to a decision, is if they were made to choose by whoever put them in the position in the first place: that is, none other than Rawls himself. From what Rawls envisioned as ultimate freedom, we have suddenly moved into the epitome of dictatorship, of being forced to be free.

In the same way, the drone is merely forced to be autonomous. It not only remains sutured to its dictator – the human that requires it; it also, returning to the geographical-legal principle, remains dependent upon the ground for its life. Not, you understand, for its source of energy, of survival, but for its sense of purpose. Just because the drone does not touch the ground, its bombs do. They are not faecal matter, waste simply dropped; they are limbs extended, umbilical cords like those extracting nutrients from the blood of the human race in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. And just like those fiery tendrils, the drone’s source of life; its dependence on the ground, is precisely death. Even if its gaze no-longer needs to tell the human operator what it sees, this intelligence leads ultimately – via the network of targeting – to the enforced choice of who to kill.

Though it finds it so easy to survive, the only reason that the drone exists at all is that we are so intent on our own impossible immortality – an immortality achieved, according to the foolish minds of men, out of the death of others. We have indeed invented this thing in our own image, yet not only so that it can materialise our dream of immortality in itself, but also so it may bring about, accelerate the mortality of others, ‘our enemies’, on our behalf.

Whatever the relative freedom of the drone, and the relative lawlessness of the skies, the people killed are killed on the ground, (un)certain people fell victim to the evacuation of law from (un)certain spaces; killed at the will of certain people in certain – protected, regulated, powerful – geographies. We must not let our heads escape up into the sky while our drones continue to pummel the earth.

[i] Arkin, R. ‘Ethical Robots in Warfare’. Technology Research News. 09.12.2005.

[ii] In a separate post, Grayson also discusses the White House episode.

[iii] Shaw, I. & Akhter, M. (2012). ‘The Unbearable Humanness of Drone Warfare in FATA, Pakistan. Antipode. 44(4), p.1498.

[iv] Rawls, J. (1971). A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[v] Rawls, J. (1993). Political Liberalism. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Anxious Mo(ve)ments: Precision Guided Munitions and the Spatio-Temporal Delusions of Targeting

“[T]he desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is as taut as a drum and as purple as a beet”

(Watts, 2011 [1951]: Loc. 818-820)

The logic of contemporary warfare has many different strands, but all, it seems, are characterised in some way by illusions of control: control over certain objects, over the future, over language. What’s more, this control is brazenly understood as being potentially absolute. There is no room for relativity in the discourse of the warring nation.

Therefore, where terms such as ‘clean’ and ‘precise’ are mobilised, it is with ignorance to their inherent relations to dirt and imprecision. In her discussion of Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs) for example, Maja Zehfuss (2011) explains in detail the multiple ways by which the associated meanings of that word – ‘precision’ – diverge in one direction from its use as a technical classification, and in the other from the reality of the weapons to which it is attached.

Traditionally, Zehfuss tells us, bombing from the air was an imprecise practice. A bomb might fall anywhere within 1000 metres of its target. The contemporary methods, the PGMs, by contrast, are said to be ‘precise’ because their guidance – either by GPS or laser systems – allows the likely radius of the target to be reduced from 1000 to between 3 and 13 metres. However, the difference between the traditional and the modern is not quite as great as it first seems. The military’s technical classification of precision is expressed in Circular Error Probable (CEP), a measurement of range which accounts for only 50% of the bombs that fall. The other 50%, Zehfuss notes, are granted no recognition: they simply fall elsewhere.

Through this ostracism, the use of the word ‘precision’ belies the continuation of an approach which assesses itself primarily from the perspective of the intended target. Either the target is hit, or it is missed. Correspondingly, risk is primarily interpreted not as the possibility of killing civilians, but as the possibility of not killing potential threats. And, if the risk is ‘not killing’, then the task of reducing it becomes a question of how to kill more thoroughly.

A strategy of insurance against imprecision – a strategy undifferentiated from ‘precision’ itself – is achieved by increasing the quantity of destruction delivered. In World War II – the blitz or the firebombing of Dresden – this involved many bombs of a small payload; now, it means fewer bombs which produce a considerably larger ‘lethal radius’. As in preparation for the hammering of a nail, a precise mark is drawn upon the surface of the proposed target. Yet, when the hammer falls, the point of the nail does not connect quite so accurately as the crosshairs suggest, perhaps slips, and then opens up a large, ungraceful hole as the tip enters and widens to its full beam.

Tracking Movements: The Denial of the Future

Already it is clear that a considerable gap exists between the usual cultural meaning of ‘precision’, and its realities in the context of PGMs. Furthermore though, since this rift is both vital to, and depends upon, the blotting out of the indiscriminate and chaotic moment of destruction, the military discourse has sought to distance itself even further by giving precision a more extreme, absolutist, definition.  The new definition aims to deny the chaotic moment by claiming to exercise control over it in advance, extending the notion of precision out into the future, thus refusing the possibilities of its inherent relativity. Imprecision, the very reason for precision to exist – as its counter, its sparring partner – is exorcised, thrown from the ring in this new absolutism.

By proxy to this refusal of imprecision, what the new meaning of precision also refuses is the realm in which imprecision resides: the future; or rather, the fundamental difference between the present and the future, the fact that the future does not (yet) exist. It is possible to argue that the present is a moment over which we have some degree of control. We might say, for instance, that when crosshairs are placed upon a target, they are done so according to the best, most up-to-date intelligence which the military possesses. However, to have control of this moment alone is no-longer good enough. In the face of mobile threats whose shadows are cast by politicians, and thrown long by media, the disjointedness of moments between a relatively assured present and an uncertain future breeds a deep feeling of anxiety.

In response to the unfortunate fact that the enemy moves, the military have sought to replace the two distinct moments of ‘taking aim’ and ‘firing’, the reactive moments of old-fashioned fighter pilots, with a smooth and uninterrupted process of ‘targeting’. The target moves in two vital senses: First, from non-threatening to threatening, or from potentiality to actuality, potentiality being the present state of an anticipated future. This notion has been covered well by James Der Derian among others: the body which is targeted is not the actualised ‘terrorist’ but the ‘terrorist’ coming into being, which is at present the body planning, plotting, or – since we may not be able to identify the plotting body with any certainty – the body meeting, talking, gathering with groups of other suspicious bodies in suspicious spaces, spaces previously deemed threatening in themselves, whether places of worship, or military ‘compounds’, or even an entire region or ‘rogue state’. In fact, it is increasingly the case that the term terrorist is conflated, via another term, militant, with the body of the not-yet-terrorist.

The process of targeting is an attempt therefore to cope with the movement of present into future, and the other, second kind of movement, geographical movement, which comes part and parcel with it. The problem with this transition, with claiming the “capability for total monitoring of any significant element moving on the surface of the earth”, is that it is in denial: it is in denial of the fact of the future as a realm that is ultimately beyond control (Virilio, 2007 [2000]: 19). It throws a rope into the future by claiming that there are no moments – along the path between the present moment and the moment when the target is destroyed – at which the objects, the missile and its target, are not under the subject’s control. As a result of the apparent cyborg state of the contemporary military subject – the drone pilot in particular – not only surrounded by but at one with, made up of the full input of ‘real-time’ intelligence, this control over movement amounts to ‘precision’ as it is fantasised by the tsars of technology.

Final Mo(ve)ments: The Ultimate Impossibility of Control

The fantasy of control exposes itself I think in its last resort assurance: the claim that, should the worst kind of movement, the movement of the target to within range of an unacceptable amount of civilian presence, occur, the PGM can simply ‘duck out’. Taking a simple everyday example, we can understand both the ultimate futility of this claim, and the true logic of the discourse as a whole. If you live in an urban area like me, you have, perhaps a thousand times, had the experience of walking towards a stranger coming at you on the same side of the pavement. Regardless of our grand experience, when it happens just once more, we are again faced by the same blank impossibility of knowledge. We spot them from a fair distance – our civilian target, as it were, whom we wish to avoid – so we have plenty of time; plenty of time between now, the present, and then, the future in which we imagine, with anxiety, smashing heads with the other person, or, with relief, passing smoothly by them. But despite the time we tell ourselves we have, we do not really have it at all, just as we do not have the other person. All that matters is that, from one moment to the next, as we approach, we twist and turn our body from one side of the path to the other, and it is purely a matter of chance as to whether the other will do the same. Really, it makes no difference whether we move or not, or at what moment(s), but we do it anyway because we wish to delude ourselves in the face of anxiety; because we believe that the self-deception will appease our psychological state.

“…at some point the weapon will be out of control. It will be beyond our intentions, in the realm of the future”

(Zehfuss, 2011)

Technology throws a rope, but the future cannot be lassoed. It is not something which may be tamed, reeled back in to our present moment. Nonetheless, political and military officials, large swathes of the media, and much of the Western public comfort themselves with the belief that it can. Like two strangers approaching one-another on the same side of the street, we combat our fears, though not our realities, with our own twists and turns, repeated technological innovations each one more ‘ethical’ and ‘precise’ than the last.

In this delusional state, it is not only precision which has mutated to suit our beliefs; the meaning of pre-emption too, has been blurred into that much more vague and distant concept of prevention. Despite the stated allegiance to the former policy, action is taken in advance not because the movement of the other can be pre-empted, but precisely because it can’t.

The point beyond control, though it may be postponed, can never be obliterated. As Zehfuss notes, this point may even occur after the weapon has struck. It may, for example, fail to detonate. According to Carl Conetta (2004: 24), 5-10% of guided cluster bomb munitions malfunction in this way, leaving ordinance buried in the earth, to be discovered in an ungoverned future by whosoever happens to have the misfortune of coming across it. In another sense, the weapon, or the conflict in general, can have a plethora of long-term effects. With NATO’s 1999 bombing of Serbian electricity generators in mind, Paul Virilio alerts us to the fact that an infrastructural form of violence, inflicted unfortunately, but not unintentionally, upon the civilian population, is increasingly relied upon for the fighting of modern wars. In spite of their low payload, the graphite bombs used in the offensive were ‘soft’ only in appearance, for it was known that the explosion of graphite in a high-voltage environment “would act like an electric arc…produc[ing] a serious fire and a terrible detonation (Virilio, 2007 [2000]: 27).

Make it Look Like an Accident: Death, Anxiety, and the Ignorance of the Present

The bomb’s explosion contains both the loud, quick blast of a past moment and this slow present participle of debilitating violence: “It exploded; we are suffering”. The misconception that we can track, and thus exercise control over, future mo(ve)ments leads us to foreclose considerations of what might occur beyond our intentions. Rather than being open to the future possibilities deriving from present actions – therefore taking some form of responsibility for them – everything that we did not intend is thrown outside, classed as an accident, some strange event without cause.

Here we have two seemingly contradictory tactics unified into a single strategy: on the one side, a tactic of pre-emption that feigns the ability to predict the future in order to justify taking action in advance; on the other, a “militarization of the accident” that feigns the inability to foresee a range of possible unfortunate futures in order to justify that same action retroactively, thus eluding criminal accountability (Virilio, 2007 [2000]: 55).

The taming of chance, as Ian Hacking (1990) once called it, is really a taming of anxiety, that present moment of not knowing with regards to the future. This not knowing is, of course, the condition of life itself. As Zehfuss (2011) states with precision, “[l]ife always interferes”. The tragic irony is that those twists and turns, those innovations employed to soothe our anxiety, serve only to work us up into an even more frenzied state. When they are so obsessively and thoughtlessly devised, securitising innovations can so easily become the root of the anxiety itself.

For Alan Watts (2011 [1951]), we fail to recognise the law of reversed effort: that sometimes, the more one tries to stay on the surface of the water, the more one sinks, but when one tries to sink, one floats. By the same token, our obsession with the anxious fiction of the future leads us to ignore the present moment, an ignorance which amounts to nothing less than the negation of life, that is, a self-inflicted death. Whereas we often refer to the act of suicide as the negation of the future, a future life, Watts turns the notion on its head, begging the question of whether that physical self-destruction which we call suicide is really only the post-factum of a life which has already been ended, or at least suspended, by anxiety. The tragedy of suicide is thus not that “they had so much to live for”, but that they were forced to consider this potentiality, this target of opportunity, to such an extent that they found themselves unable to live life itself.

The West accuses suicide bombers of cowardly tactics, of refusing to take responsibility for the violence they inflict by removing themselves from the scene, yet when their own forces militarize the accident, they also employ suicide as a strategy of warfare. In the same way, they absent themselves from the consequences of their actions; they too search for certainty, security; an end to anxiety, only to realise that they must escape responsibility for life – both their life and the lives of others – in order to find it.

References

Conetta, C. (2004). ‘Disappearing the Dead: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Idea of a “New Warfare”’. Project on Defense Alternatives. Research Monograph No. 9, 18/02/2004. Available at: http://www.comw.org/pda/fulltext/0402rm9.pdf

Hacking, I. (1990). The Taming of Chance. Cambridge University Press.

Virilio, P. (2007 [2000]). Strategy of Deception (Trans. C. Turner). London & New York: Verso.

Watts, A. (2011 [1951]). The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety. New York: Vintage Books [Kindle Version].

Zehfuss, M. (2011). ‘Targeting: Precision and the Production of Ethics’. European Journal of International Relations. 17(3), 543-556.