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September 4, 2016 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

Drones: Who Decides Who Dies

The emergence of virtual warfare and the concerns surrounding it, has seen an increased consideration of the practices in real life, in representations on our screens, and throughout popular culture. The 2015 movie Eye in the Sky, directed by Gavin Hood, brings with it discussions of morality in real life and the inaccuracies and accuracies we are faced with on our screens. It, like many films, acts as a symptomatic text of its time by reflecting current anxieties and issues.

A drone is a weapon used by contemporary militaries; it is an unmanned aerial vehicle that is operated from afar and seen by very few. The first type of unmanned vehicle was used in the Kosovo War in Yugoslavia in 1998, which was history’s first “virtual or postmodern war.” Drones were later employed in the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and have since been used in many bombings and as a means to assassinate people in several countries. In places like Afghanistan and Pakistan drones appear daily in the skies, and despite being launched from Afghanistan, they are largely flown by joystick pilots who are safely positioned at air force bases within the US. A majority of the drones are equipped with hellfire missiles or smart bombs and once the pilots have located the target on their screens, they can fire the weapons by simply pushing a button.

Eye in the Sky acts as a springboard for conversation and engagement in thinking towards such issues. While some see drones as an effective form to counter the threat posed by terrorists, others see them as death machines, which prey on people and reap death. Eye in the Sky also exposes America’s increased reliance on drone warfare. America has come to rely on the use of drones to counter the threat posed by terrorists. As such, America is often placed in a pro-drone position, under which the drones are believed to operate in a surgically precise manner, with minimal downsides and collateral impacts. Much of the ethical debate surrounding drone use, however, is the horrific manner in which innocent lives are lumped with the targets of such strikes, and the manner of such killings creates a cognitive and emotional distance. Following the Second World War the US and UK made an agreement regarding intelligence sharing; an agreement that applies to drone strikes and underlies Europe’s participation in this type of warfare. Today, this agreement involves an assemblage of countries that collect and share military intelligence with one another. The ability to collect, share, and analyse a large amount of data has meant a new way of war has been established; one that revolves around the tracking and killing of individuals worldwide.

Eye in the Sky’s plot is driven by the decision to use a drone to kill and remove an extremist group who are preparing for a suicide bombing in Nairobi, Kenya. What ensues is a moral battle between various political members as to whether they should strike now, wait, or not strike at all. In the end the strike is authorized and while the extremists are killed, so is an innocent civilian child. Eye in the Sky uses the interplay of psychology and the personal ethics of surveillance to explore politics and legality of whether or not to strike. For example, the man operating the drone, who is the one who would fire the weapon, shows a more emotional response than the general in charge, who wants the threats eliminated despite the potential collateral damage. These collateral damage issues have become one of the biggest ethical considerations surrounding drones, as they have been blamed for a significant number of deaths on the ground. What drones also tend to do is distance the operator from the target by reducing bodies into data or pure information. In the process of constructing these identities, human beings are reduced to what data reveals about them. As argued by Wall and Monahan, this also reduces any “variation, difference and noise that may impede action or introduce moral ambiguity.”

It is important for us to remember all surveillance and dataveillance systems are susceptible to errors, and drone-based surveillance systems are of no exception—as demonstrated by verified cases of ‘collateral damage’ caused by drone strikes. Eye in the Sky reminds us that we need to recognise the costs and implications of drone warfare, opposed to accepting it as an accurate and necessary part of modern warfare and surveillance.


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