The New York Review of Books has a characteristically thoughtful response by David Cole to Gavin Hood‘s newly released Eye in the Sky: ‘Killing from the Conference Room‘.
The film traces the arc of a joint US/UK drone strike in Nairobi, told from the viewpoints of those charged with authorising and executing the kill. The nominal target is a safehouse, and the two al-Shabab leaders inside (conveniently one American citizen and one British citizen); less conveniently, after the strike has been authorised a young girl sets up a bread stand in front of the house.
It’s a more complicated scenario than the serial drone strikes dramatized in Andrew Niccol‘s Good Kill – because here the politicians are brought into the frame too – and David sees it as a twenty-first century version of the ‘trolley-problem’:
In the classic version of the problem, a runaway train is hurtling down a track on which five people are tied; they will die if the train is not diverted. By pulling a lever, you can switch the train to an alternate track, but doing so will kill one person on that track. Should you pull the switch and be responsible for taking a human life, or do nothing and let five people die?
In Eye in the Sky, the question is whether to [use a drone to] strike the compound, thereby preventing an apparent terrorist attack and potentially saving many lives, though the strike itself might kill the young girl as well as the suspected terrorists. If the operation is delayed to try to avoid endangering the girl, the terrorists may leave the compound, and it may become impossible to prevent the suicide mission. But it’s also possible that the girl will finish selling her bread and leave the danger zone before the suspects depart. If the terrorists leave the compound, an opportunity to capture or kill them without harming others may arise. And of course, the suicide mission itself might fail. As a Danish proverb holds, predictions are hazardous, especially about the future. But a decision must nonetheless be made, and the clock is ticking.
As he points out, there’s no right, neat answer:
There are only competing intuitions, based on utilitarian calculations, the difference, or lack thereof, between act and omission, and the like. In Eye in the Sky, and all the more so in the real world, the choices are never as clearly delineated as in the “trolley problem”; decisions must be made in the face of multiple unknowns. The girl may die and the terrorists may get away and kill many more. But what the film makes clear is that, notwithstanding today’s most sophisticated technology, which allows us to see inside a compound in Africa from half a world away, to confirm positive identifications with facial imaging technology, to make joint real-time decision about life and death across several continents, and then to pinpoint a strike to reduce significantly the danger to innocent bystanders, the dilemmas remain. Technology cannot solve the moral and ethical issues; it only casts them into sharper relief.
Consider, for example, the implications of the purported accuracy of armed drones. The fact that it is possible to conduct “surgical” strikes and to maintain distance surveillance for extended periods of time increases the moral and legal obligation to avoid killing innocents. When the only way to counter an imminent threat was with more blunt explosives or by sending in ground forces, attacks entailing substantial harm to civilians were nonetheless sometimes warranted. As technology makes it increasingly feasible to strike with precision, risks to civilian lives that were once inescapable can now be avoided. And if they can be avoided, mustn’t they be? Thus, when President Barack Obama in May 2013 announced a standard for targeted killings away from traditional battlefields, he said he would authorize such strikes only when there was a “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured—the highest standard we can set.” Precisely because they are so discriminating, drones may demand such a standard. Yet as the film shows, that standard can be very difficult to uphold, even under the best of circumstances.
Given my own interest in the film, I’ll share my thoughts as soon as I’ve seen it.
Note: In the most recent US strike against al-Shabab on 5 March, in which drones and conventional strike aircraft were used to kill perhaps 150 people (or perhaps not) at a training camp 120 miles north of Mogadishu, it seems clear that few doubts were entertained (but see Glenn Greenwald here).