For decades Presidents of the United States have used a machine to sign ‘personal’ letters. According to reports, Obama used the ‘autopen’ to sign an extension to the Patriot Act when he was at a G8 summit in France and out of reach (more examples here).
But others are never out of reach of Obama’s signature. The ‘signature strikes’ carried out by Predators and Reapers also disclose a disconcerting entanglement of the ‘personal’ (these are not robotic: a network of human agents is actively involved and they have access to high-resolution full-motion video feeds) with the machinic (not least because the President doesn’t personally ‘sign off’ on them). I’ve discussed them in detail here, and the Brave New Foundation has released an important video about them and the Dhatta Khel incident in March 2011 in particular.
“Before any strike is taken,” he declared, “there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured — the highest standard we can set.”
Though signature strikes were not mentioned, some assumed language like “near certainty” and “highest standard” meant they were no longer going to be used. That assumption was proven wrong as just days later an administration official told the New York Times that signature strikes will continue in Pakistan, a statement the Times’ Andrew Rosenthal wrote“seem[ed] to contradict the entire tenor of Mr. Obama’s speech.”
Two weeks later, on June 9, a drone struck a vehicle in Yemen, killing not only several supposed militants, but also a boy named Abdulaziz. He was 10 years old. “Near certainty” and those new “clear guidelines” apparently weren’t enough for Abdulaziz. The administration refused to comment on the boy’s death, or the strike itself. So much for accountability and transparency. And just last week, a strike in Waziristan killed 16 people and wounded five others.
I’m left thinking of those famous lines from Edward Fiztgerald‘s translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam:
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.