Sometimes the future sneaks up on us, and we only notice once our world has changed almost beyond recognition.
On August 6th, 1945, the nuclear age sprang, fully formed, upon Hiroshima and the world. None of us had a vote; we were not even consulted. The US had been developing its weapons in the top secret Manhattan Project, and the explosion took place before anyone knew what a nuclear weapon was. Then the Pentagon’s focus on military superiority combined with Soviet paranoia to give us decades of a Cold War, with its insane acronyms: MAD meant Mutually Assured Destruction, where the whole world would be obliterated in the name of someone’s national security. We continue to struggle today with this new world order as the club of nuclear countries insist on non-proliferation, but refuse to disarm themselves.
We have lived in the nuclear age for sixty-seven years; we are now entering the Drone Age.
In the dystopian films of the 1980s, sometimes the world suffered a nuclear holocaust. Sometimes humanity was in the process of being elbowed aside by artificial life forms, and privacy had been replaced by Big Brother. In the dystopian reality of 2012, the drone – the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) – threatens to change our world more profoundly than the nuclear bomb.
What little attention we do pay to drones is generally focused on the Pakistan border region with Afghanistan, where Predator drones circle over the villages of Waziristan. Somewhere several thousand miles away in Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, a ‘pilot’ leans back in his leather chair, sipping coffee and watching a computer screen. He manipulates the joystick of the video console as the camera provides a grainy image of a local man with a beard who may just have noticed the angry buzz of the drone overhead. The man then runs for shelter (the CIA pilot labels him a “squirter”, apparently because he is doubtless wetting his pants). The pilot then locks on a Hellfire missile, whereupon the “squirter” becomes a “bugsplat” – another victim of President Barack Obama’s “kill list”.
My own experience confirms the arbitrary nature of the drone killing: last October, I met with a sixteen year old Waziri kid, Tariq Aziz, at a conference in Islamabad on drones, convened by Reprieve. He wanted to know what he could do to stop the CIA from raining death on his family. Three days later, the CIA announced that they had eliminated “four militants”. In truth, there were only two victims: Tariq had been driving his twelve year old cousin to their auntie’s house when the CIA killed them. A local informant apparently tagged the car with a GPS monitor, and lied about who they were to earn his bounty payment.
The drone disease is spreading rapidly. In 2001, the Pentagon had 50 weaponised drones; today, more than 10,000. The New York Times recently ran an ‘exposé’ of President Obama’s weekly meetings where he and John Brennan – dubbed his “Assassination Tsar” – discuss who to kill next. Pakistan, purportedly an ally of the U.S., vigorously opposes the drone strikes, since they inflame extremism. They are also a violation of international law. It is hard to distinguish raining Hellfire missiles down on Waziristan, across the border from an unwise but arguably legal war in Afghanistan, from the bombing of Cambodia in 1969, across the border from Vietnam.
When the bombing of Cambodia came to light, Congress debated whether to include it among President Richard Nixon’s articles of impeachment. Beyond the illegality of Obama’s programme lies a deeper question: what does it tell us about the United States electorate if Obama thought this obvious leak of his “kill list” was in his political interests? More troubling still, it appears his judgement was correct: 83% of Americans currently support his aggressive use of drones to kill people around the globe.
For Europeans, this is not a spectator sport – sadly, as with torture and rendition, various European governments are complicit, passing intelligence to the CIA, often assisting in the assassination of our own citizens in Pakistan. British official complicity is an established fact, and we have already sued them; the involvement of German intelligence remains far more likely than not. Our security services, ever keen to please their powerful ally, continue to place real politik over ethics and law.
Dystopia will take various forms, and killing women and children in Waziristan is only one. Just as nuclear power came to haunt Chernobyl and Fukushima, so the Drone age will soon hover over our civilian world. British police are using drones to chase purported criminals; a Texas police force has already bought weaponised drones to attack suspects with stun guns from the sky. Come to the London Olympics, and we can promise to keep an eye on you with surveillance drones.
The future is right in front of us: we’d better pay attention to it.
This originally appeared in Berliner Zeitung, 20/06/2012.