Fifty shades of grey: drones and the theatre of secrecy

Over the weekend I worked my way through New Inquiry‘s special issue, Game of drones – Pete Adey‘s recommendation.  For me, the stand-out essay is Madiha Tahir‘s “Louder than bombs”

A graduate of Barnard College, NYU and the Columbia School of Journalism, Madiha is currently an independent multimedia/print journalist reporting on conflict, culture and politics in Pakistan; somehow she has also found the time to co-edit Dispatches from Pakistan (LeftWord Books, 2012) with the indefatigable Vijay Prashad and Qalander Bux Memom: more about Madiha here.

“Louder than bombs” begins with harrowing and matter-of-fact (all the more harrowing because matter-of-fact) testimony from Sadaullah Wazir, a teenage boy who lost both his legs and an eye after a US drone attack in North Waziristan in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas; he was just 13, and three other members of his family were killed in the attack.

Madiha’s root objection is to the way in which what she calls the Obama administration’s ‘theatrical performance of faux secrecy’ over its drone war in the FATA (and elsewhere) – a repugnantly teasing dance in which the veil of secrecy is let slip once, twice, three times – functions to draw its audience’s entranced eye towards the American body politic and away from the Pakistani bodies on the ground.  The story is always in Washington and never in Waziristan.  It’s a hideously effective sideshow, in which Obama and an army of barkers and hucksters – unnamed spokesmen ‘speaking on condition of anonymity’ because they are ‘not authorised to speak on the record’,  and front-of-house spielers like Harold Koh and John Brennan – induce not only a faux secrecy but its obverse, a faux intimacy in which public debate is focused on transparency and accountability as the only ‘games’ worth playing.

But when you ask people like Sadaullah what they want, Madiha writes,

‘they do not say “transparency and accountability”.  They say they want the killing to stop. They want to stop dying.  They want to stop going to funerals – and being bombed even as they mourn.  Transparency and accountability, for them, are abstract problems that have little to do with the concrete fact of regular, systematic death.’

So we have  analysts, activists and reporters falling over themselves to determine whether targeted killings outside a war zone like Afghanistan are legal; fighting to disclose the protocols that are followed to provide legal scrutiny of the targeting process; finally reassuring us, in a peculiarly American Story of O, that Obama is fully sensible of the enormous weight that rests on his shoulders.  But all of this distracts our collective gaze from the enormous weight that has been brought to bear on Sadaullah’s shiny new prostheses.  “I had a dream to be a doctor,” he tells a reporter. “Now I can’t even walk to school.”

Any discussion of the ways in which the kill-chain has been ‘lawyered up’ needs to acknowledge that – as the very formulation implies – the law is not apart from military violence: it has become part of military violence.  In Foucault’s ringing phrase, ‘the law was born in burning towns and ravaged fields’, and in the intervening centuries it has become ever more closely entwined with military (and paramilitary) violence.   Legality now substitutes for legitimacy, silencing any questions about politics or ethics.  As Madiha says, speaking of the calibration between the deaths of militants and the deaths of civilians, it is as though ‘if we could just get the calculus right, there would be no further ethical or political questions’.  Similarly, referring to the computer programs used by the US military (and seemingly, the CIA) to predict collateral damage, and so to adjudicate between the legal principles of necessity and proportionality,  Eyal Weizman notes that ‘it is the very act of calculation – the very fact that calculation took place – that justifies their action.’   But this is never a neutral appeal to algorithms or attorneys: not for nothing do those involved refer to the ‘prosecution’ of the target,  and as Anne Orford emphasises, the relevant body of international law ‘immerses its addressees in a world of military calculations’ and ensures that proportionality will always be weighed on the military’s (or the CIA’s) own scales.  In Weizman’s words, ‘violence legislates.’

Madiha again:

Even as we debate the legal machinations, official leaks and governmental manipulations by which they are killed, the daily, material, precarious existence of the people living under the disquieting hum of american drones in Pakistan’s tribal areas rarely sits at the center of discussion.

But what if it did? if, instead of the public secret, one begins with a prosthetic limb, a glass eye, and a funeral photo, the nightmare takes form, solidifies. 

None of this means that the law does not matter; its matter-iality ought to be obvious.  But it is to say that we need to be alert to what appeals to ‘the law’ do – and what they seek to foreclose. Legal questions do matter – but their answers must not be allowed to silence other political and ethical questions.  Neither should they close our eyes to the contrapuntal geographies that are staged far beyond the peep-shows of the Washington beltway.


Note: For more on drone wars, see Remote witnessing and, in detail, ‘From a view to a kill’ and ‘Lines of descent’ (DOWNLOADS tab).  I’ve also provided a preliminary reading/screening list that notes some of the same emphases and omissions that trouble Madiha here.