We don’t need to imagine the future anymore. In the dystopian reality of 2012, the drone can ruin your life in ways you never imagined.
The scene is easy enough to picture: In a dark, quiet room at Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nev., a CIA “pilot” leans back in his leather chair, sips coffee, and watches a computer screen. He manipulates the joystick of his video console as the camera provides a grainy image of a man with a beard who may just have noticed an angry-sounding buzz overhead. The bearded man—7,000 miles away, in a mountainous village of Waziristan—runs for shelter. This apparently indicates his guilt, and the pilot labels him a “squirter.” The pilot locks a $60,000 Hellfire missile onto his target and fires. Boom: the “squirter” becomes a “bugsplat.”
Earlier that morning, the pilot kissed his children goodbye, then drove to his job killing people the other side of the world. His fellow intelligence officers, all a safe distance from any physical peril, talk bravely about “killer apps” that are designed to put “warheads on foreheads.”
As the pilot leaves Creech at the end of his shift, he drives past a large road sign: “Drive Carefully! This Is the Most Dangerous Part of Your Day!”
If we have lived in the nuclear age for nearly seven decades—an era into which we were forced, without discussion, on Aug. 6, 1945—we are now entering the drone age, and nobody seems to be giving it a second thought.
Drone machismo is not confined to soldiers and special agents. President Obama recently joked that he’d use a Predator drone on anyone who messed with his daughters. In real life, he’s already approved the missiles that have killed more than one American—without trial, of course.
In the dystopian films of the 1980s, much of humanity had been displaced by robots, and privacy had dissolved into constant monitoring by Big Brother. But we don’t need to imagine the future anymore, because it is here. In the dystopian reality of 2012, the drone, or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), has the potential to ruin your life in ways you never imagined.
My own experience confirms the arbitrary nature of the drone killing. Last October I met a 16-year-old kid from Waziristan named Tariq Aziz. He wanted to know what he could do to stop the Americans from raining death on his family. Three days later the CIA announced that it had eliminated “four militants.” In truth, Tariq had been driving his 12-year-old cousin to their aunt’s house when they were both blown into very small pieces. This was just 24 hours after the CIA boasted that six other militants had been killed—it turned out that they were four chromite workers who had been minding their own business until a local informant apparently tagged their car with a GPS monitor and lied about who they were to earn his fee.
The CIA insists that it has not killed an innocent civilian in Pakistan for well over a year while eliminating hundreds of terrorists. People who know better sneer at this, including Jeffrey Addicott, a former special adviser to the U.S. Army special forces. At best, Addicott wrote, we should expect three innocent deaths for every two “bad guys. In the trade, this is called the ‘Oops’ factor.”
But that was then, and this is now. Only eight years later, Tenet’s successor, Leon Panetta, described the drones as “the only game in town.” In 2001 the Pentagon had 50 weaponized drones; today it has more than 19,000. Assassination remains illegal under U.S. law for the time being, so it’s called “targeted killing” instead.
This article originally appeared in The Daily Beast, 28/04/2012