Hiding in the pixels


For more on the role of forensic architecture in the analysis of drone strikes, which I discussed earlier this week, see Rebecca Chao‘s report – including an interview with Eyal Weizman – at TechPresident here.  The report includes an interesting qualification about the limitations of satellite imagery:

The drone analysis videos are not only evidential, however. They are also instructional. “These videos,” says Weizman, “do three things. We undertake the investigation while telling viewers how we do what we do and in the end we also reflect on how confident we are about the results.”

The purpose is to teach human rights activists or journalists how to conduct their own forensic architectural investigations. For example, the highest resolution satellite imagery comes from private American companies that cost $1,000 per image, which Weizman says is relatively affordable since an analysis would usually require just two: one right before the strike and one after.

There are certainly limitations to the data they obtain, however. With satellite imagery, for example, even the highest resolution images degrade to a pixel that translates to 50 cm by 50 cm of actual terrain. This means that a drone could easily hide undetected in one of those pixels, says Weizman…. [It] also hides the damage caused by drone strikes. When asked if this an uncanny coincidence, Weizman explains, that while there is prerogative for states and militaries to maintain an advantage, that pixel is also proportioned to hide a human and the private companies issuing such data are cognizant of privacy issues. Even so, this allows countries to deny drone strikes, says Weizman, because drones are beyond the threshold of detectability in the available satellite imagery.

And while I’m on the subject of architecture, the Guardian reports that on 19 March the Royal Institute of British Architects called for the suspension of the Israeli Association of United Architects from the International Union of Architects for its complicity in the construction of illegal settlements in occupied Palestine: what Israel consistently calls ‘the facts on the ground‘.  And those dismal ‘facts‘ aren’t hiding in the pixels.

The scene of the crime: customary law and forensic architecture

I returned from a wonderful visit to Glasgow last week – thanks so much to Jo Sharp, who ensured I had a criminally good time – and I’ve spent this week trying to catch up.  It rained most of the time I was there, and in fact my first impression of the University was of a quadrangle turned into a quagmire: a case of mire in the flood, you might say.  But nothing could dampen my spirits, and in the gaps between marvellous restaurants, coffee shops that would make anyone in Vancouver (or Seattle) green with envy, the best lunch ever, and truly excellent conversation, I gave two talks: one on my skeletal ideas about my new project on Medical-military machines and casualties of war, 1914-2014, and the other a more formal affair on ‘Dirty dancing: drone strikes, spaces of exception and the everywhere war.’ The purpose of the first talk was to explore, largely for graduate students, how I work; it generated a lively discussion, so I thought I would try to do the same in this post but in relation to the second presentation.  And in doing so, I’ll also have more to say about the scene of a real crime.

I’d prepared my formal presentation before I left Vancouver, and as I’ve explained before I now never read from a written text: I design the slides carefully (see my ‘Rules’ here) and talk to them, so that I retain as much flexibility as possible.  It’s a sort of semi-scripted improv, I suppose, and it also means that the argument can develop from one presentation to the next.

On the train up from London I started to think some more about the air strikes on the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (see also herehere and here).  Part of my purpose was to trace a narrative of air attack that, for those now ‘living under drones’, stretched back (at least in memory) to British air control and counterinsurgency on the North West Frontier in the 1920s and the 1930s.

Waziristan bombing 1920s and 30s PNG

War of Terror inside Pakistan PNGI’d made this point before, and sharpened it during an earlier version of the presentation in Beirut, but I’d since realised that the narrative was resumed by the Soviet and Afghan Air Forces striking mujaheddin bases in Pakistan during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.  I hadn’t paid much attention to this in The colonial present, where my focus was on the aid provided by the CIA to mujaheddin striking across the border in the opposite direction, but these air raids were described by the Washington Post on 13 March 1988 as part of the USSR’s “war of terror” (really).  They are an important moment in the genealogy of air strikes and counterinsurgency in the FATA, and I’d managed to unearth some estimates of the number of cross-border violations of Pakistani air space and the number skilled and injured in the strikes:

Afghan:Soviet cross-border air strikes 1980-88

Then, in one of the ironic twists of our post 9/11 world, the (il)logic of air war was revived and ramped up by the CIA-directed drone strikes that have convulsed the borderlands since 2004.

I wanted to show, as I’ve argued in previous posts, that this narrative was more than a cross-border affair and that the Pakistan Air Force has been also actively involved in a series of domestic air campaigns: since 2008 it has carried out thousands of air strikes against what it describes as militants, insurgents and terrorists in the FATA.  In fact, the offensive was resumed earlier this year, when F-16 aircraft and helicopter gunships attacked targets in North Waziristan, driving thousands of people from their homes.

the-frontier-crimes-regulationIn some measure, all of these air campaigns raise the spectre of colonial power, but so too does the legal status of the FATA and its exceptional relation to the rest of Pakistan.  This is usually traced back to Lord Curzon’s Frontier Crimes Regulations (1901), which were retained by Pakistan after independence in 1947.  They were minimally revised in 2011, but the FATA are still under the direct executive control of the President through his appointed Political Agents who have absolute authority to decide civil and criminal matters. The exceptional status of the FATA was confirmed by the Actions (in Aid of Civil Power) Regulations in 2011 which exclude the high court from jurisdiction on fundamental rights issues in any area where the Pakistan armed forces have been deployed ‘in aid of the civil power’.

All of this indicates that the FATA constitute a ‘space of exception’ in something like Giorgio Agamben‘s sense of the term: a space in which particular people are knowingly exposed to death through the juridical or quasi-juridical removal of legal protections from them.  This was, in part, my argument, but I was also concerned to show that this was not a matter of a legal void: rather, military and paramilitary violence was orchestrated, as it almost always is, through the law.

But there is quite another sense in which the FATA is not a legal void, despite all the rhetoric about them being ‘lawless’ lands.  So I started to think through the intersections between these formal legal geographies (and the state violence they sanction) and the system of customary law known as Pashtunwali (loosely, “the way of the Pashtuns”).  The system is far from static, but it still governs many areas of life among Pashtuns on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border whose cultures and communities were bisected when the Durand Line was drawn in 1893.  I’d been reading as much as I could by anthropologists and others to help me understand its contemporary relevance: for recent surveys, see Tom Ginsburg‘s ‘An economic interpretation of the Pashtunwali’ from the University of Chicago Legal Forum (2011) here,  Lutz Rzehak‘s ‘Doing Pashto’ here, and Thomas Ruttig‘s qualifications in relation to the Taliban here.  For a sense of how the US military understands Pashtunwali, as part of its ‘cultural turn’, see Robert Ross‘s thesis here.

Pashtunwali is more than a legal system, of course, but I was particularly interested in its legal force and how this is put into practice.  Many commentators have shown that Pashtunwali is precisely the sort of ‘mobile’ legal system that you would expect to find among (originally) nomadic peoples, for whom the fixed statutes of a centralised state had neither appeal nor purchase.  It includes obligations of hospitality and protection, asylum and refuge, and revenge and restitution, and provides for a system of resolution through a council (or Jirga).  Within its patriarchal and masculinist framework, the system is resolutely non-hierarchical: the men who compose the Jirga sit in a circle and each, as a symbol of authority and equality, carries a gun.

Sitting in a circle, the Jirga has no speaker, no president, no secretary or convener. There are no hierarchical positions and required status of the participants. All are equal and everyone has the right to speak and argue, although, regard for the elders is always there without any authoritarianism or privileged rights attached to it. The Jirga system ensures maximum participation of the people in administering justice and makes sure that justice is manifestly done.

On my way over to the UK I’d read an extremely interesting essay in the International Review of Law and Economics 37 (2014) 108-20 – stored on Good Reader on my iPad – in which Bruce Benson and Zafar Siddiqui argued that the system works not only to provide a decentralised, local and regional system of order and regulation – so Hobbes was wrong: without the state people do not automatically revert to a ‘state of nature’ (Tom Ginsburg is very good on this) – but also to defend the Pashtun from the incursions of the central state.  Indeed, the Frontier Crimes Regulations specifically recognised the validity and autonomy of the Jirga: much more here.  The message from all this was clear: ‘The Pashtun tribes who inhabit the rugged mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan are neither lawless nor defenceless.’

The Pakistan Taliban know this very well, not surprisingly, and in many instances work with Pashtunwali to mediate disputes in the FATA.  In fact, as the train curved around the Lake District I remembered reading about a Jirga being convened in Datta Khel in March 2011 to resolve a dispute over a chromite mine.  It’s odd how some things stick in your mind, like burrs on your jeans, but this incident had stayed with me because the Jirga had been targeted by the CIA and two Hellfire missiles were launched from a drone, killing more than 40 people.  In itself, that probably wouldn’t have been enough for me to remember it in any detail since it was all too common – but the usual faceless and anonymous US official, speaking off the record because he was not authorised to comment in his official capacity, had offered a series of ever more bizarre justifications for the strike: and I remembered those (as you’ll see in a moment, you could hardly forget them).


So I started to dig some more – WiFi on the train – and discovered that Eyal Weizman and his brilliant colleagues at Goldsmith’s Forensic Architecture had reconstructed this very strike (the image above is from their work):

‘In the absence of on-the-ground photographic or video documentation, and with no visible impact on buildings, this investigation unfolded by cross-referencing witness testimonies with satellite imagery. An examination of before and after satellite imagery indicated two areas with surface disturbance consistent with the reported missile strikes, thus allowing us to confirm the location of the strike. From the testimonies of survivors and eye-witnesses, we harvested spatial information that helped us to generate a 3D model of the site of the drone strike on the Jirga.’

Then all (!) I had to do was go back in to my e-files (each morning I work my way through the press, copying and pasting reports and commentaries into a series of files so that I have my own searchable archive), recover the glosses provided by that anonymous official, and put them together with the reconstruction.  Here’s the result:

Dhatta Khel 1 PNGDhatta Khel 2 PNGDhatta Khel 3 PNG

Dhatta Khel 4 PNGDhatta Khel 5 PNGDhatta Khel 6 PNGDhatta Khel 7 PNGDhatta Khel 8 PNG

You can read more about these reconstructions here (‘The forensics of a lethal drone attack’).  This strike is one of several investigated by the UN’s Special Rapporteur Ben Emmerson, and you can find much more information at the interactive website produced in collaboration with Forensic Architecture and SITU Research that accompanies his written report to the United Nations (28 February 2014) (the Datta Khel incident is summarised in paragraph 50, but the website provides a far richer understanding).  You can also download hi-res versions of Forensic Architecture’s stills and videos here.


What I find so significant is that the anonymous official provided a series of different and, as I’ve said, bizarre (even offensive) descriptions of what the assembly in Datta Khel was not: but he was clearly incapable of recognising what it was.  This was certainly another performance of the space of exception, but it was plainly not a legal ‘black hole’, as some commentators gloss Agamben.  The only ‘black holes’ were the craters in the ground and the conspicuous failure to recognise the operative presence of customary law.

Cracks in the Wall?

Keep-Your-Eye-on-the-WallThere’s a fine series of reflections by Andrew Ryder at Warscapes on a new book of photographs and essays on the Wall that Israel has built deep inside the occupied West Bank, Keep your eye on the Wall: Palestinian landscapes.  As Andrew notes,

‘The wall is a nuisance and eyesore; it is a scar in the natural landscape and the social body. It is congealed theft, and an act of violence.’

Eyal Weizman‘s Hollow Land tells us much about the way in which Israel’s neo-colonial project is inscribed through a series of visual practices – a scopic regime of extraordinary, ever-present and brooding violence – but Andrew’s commentary reminds us of another, no less artful politics of looking.  He engages in a wonderfully suggestive, deeply critical way with the aesthetics of dispossession and oppression:

While I found many of the photos in this book upsetting, I think that a traditionally aesthetic standpoint toward the wall, a disinterested interest, is particularly horrifying because it occludes something that was always obvious to me every time I looked at the wall, which was its manifest injustice.

Throughout the book, there are moments that the wall appears too static, imposing and impermeable. I found a lack of witness to the gaps and even the fragility of the structure. There seems little evidence of soldiers, checkpoints, settlements, refugee camps or the other evidence of dynamism or vulnerability in the territorial apparatus that the Israeli state has constructed.

The gaps I understand, but fragility?  vulnerability?  If only.  As Shakespeare put in in A Midsummer Night’s Dream,

O wicked Wall through whom I see no bliss!
Cursed be thy stones for thus deceiving me!
Others have travelled this route before, of course: I’ve already noted other critical reflections on the political and ethical snares set by any attempt to photograph the monstrosity.  And yet the collection that Andrew discusses is well-titled.  As Edward Said reminded his readers:
Observer and observed
For a different take on the political aesthetics of the occupied landscape – though not on the Wall – see Daniel Bertrand Monk’s An aesthetic occupation: the immediacy of architecture and the Palestine conflict (2002).

Another brick in the wall

When I was writing the Israel/Palestine chapters in The Colonial Present the vast, wretched landscape of occupation and repression was numbingly new to me (though it shouldn’t have been). I found little help from mainstream geography, with some honourable exceptions, and I vividly remember my first visit to the West Bank with Steve Graham, Eyal Weizman and others.  You would think I would have been prepared: I’d certainly read everything I could lay my hands on.


But nothing prepares you for the enormity of the occupation, its monstrous violence and everyday humiliations, and the sight of the wall snaking across the landscape – what Ariella Azoulay and Adi Ophir call ‘the Monster’s Tail’ – remains one of the most appalling impositions I have ever seen.  Neither was I ready for the iron-clad violence of the Qalandiyya checkpoint, whose enclosures, grills and bars that would not have been out of place in an abbatoir could barely contain the brooding militarised violence of those who constructed it: but of course they weren’t supposed to.


Since then, much of this has become all too familiar – which is part of the problem – but there are now many more geographers doing vitally important work on occupied Palestine.  Visualizing Palestine has recently added this new infographic about the wall to its excellent portfolio:

VP Where Law stands on the Wall

The focus adds yet another dimension to contemporary discussions about international law and what Michael Smith calls ‘geo-legalities’.  I’m keenly interested in those arguments, but today I’m led down this path by a new essay –part prose, part photography – composed by China Miéville for the Palestinian Literature Festival and performed by him at Nablus.

MIEVILLE Beyond equal rightsMiéville is best known as a novelist (and one with an intriguing geographical sensibility at that), but he’s no stranger to international law either: his Between Equal Rights: a Marxist theory of international law (2006) has been widely acclaimed. Yet this morning I’m seized by his photo-literary apprehension of the familiar unreality of the landscape of occupation:

Yes, we know the holy land is now a land of holes, and lines, a freakshow of topography gone utterly and hideously mad, that the war against Palestinians is also a war against everyday life, against human space, a war waged with all expected hardware, with violent weaponized absurdism, with tons and tons of concrete and girders.  This is truism, and/but true.

His experience of crossing the line reminds me of my own, though he captures its Kafka-esque horror far more vividly:

And in its wedge of shadow the long stupid zigzag of the checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem is indicated with a sign, there on the Bethlehem side. Entrance, it says, white on green, and points to the cattle run. Inside are all the ranks of places to wait, the revolving grinder doors, green lights that may or may not mean a thing, the conveyor belts and metal detectors and soldiers and more doors, more metal striae, more gates.

Finally, for those who emerge on the city side, who come out in the sun and go on, there is a sign they, you, we have seen before. White on green, pointing back the way just come.

Entrance, it says. Just like its counterpart on the other side of a line of division, a non-place.

No exit is marked.

The arrows both point in. Straight towards each other. The logic of the worst dream. They beckon. They are for those who will always be outside, and they point the way to go. Enter to discover you’ve gone the only way, exactly the wrong way.

Entrance: a serious injunction. A demand. Their pointing is the pull of a black hole. Their directions meet at a horizon. Was it ever a gateway between? A checkpoint become its own end.

This is the plan. The arrows point force at each other like the walls of a trash compactor. Obey them and people will slowly approach each other and edge closer and closer from each side and meet at last, head on like women and men walking into their own reflections, but mashed instead into each other, crushed into a mass.

Entrance, entrance. These directions are peremptory, their signwriters voracious, insisting on obedience everywhere, impatient for the whole of Palestine to take its turn, the turn demanded, until every woman and man and child is waiting on one side or the other in long long lines, snaking across their land like the wall, shuffling into Israel’s eternal and undivided capital, CheckPointVille, at which all compasses point, towards which winds go, and there at the end of the metal run the huge, docile, cow-like crowds will in this fond, politicidal, necrocidal, psyche-cidal fantasy, meet and keep taking tiny steps forward held up by the narrowness of the walls until they press into each others’ substance and their skins breach and their bones mix and they fall into gravity one with the next. Palestine as plasma. Amorphous. Amoebal. Condensed. Women and men at point zero. Shrunken by weight, eaten and not digested. An infinite mass, in an infinitely small space.

If you can bear to read more about this ‘non-place’, as Mieville calls it, try Helga Tawil-Souri, ‘Qalandia checkpoint as space and nonplace’, Space and culture 14 (1) (2011) 4-26; Irus Braverman, ‘Civilized borders: a study of Israel’s new crossing administration’, Antipode 43 (2) (2011) 264-95; Hagar Kotef and Merav Amir, ‘Between imaginary lines: violence and its justifications at the military checkpoints in occupied Palestine’, Theory, culture and society 28 (1) (2011) 55-50; and Merav Amir, ‘The making of a void sovereignty: political implications of the military checkpoints in the West Bank’. Environment and Planning D: Society & Space 31 (2013) 227-44.


These are all behind paywalls, and if you can’t pass through those walls – and even if you can – I also recommend an open access essay by Helga Tawil-Souri, ‘Qalandia: an autopsy’, Jerusalem Quarterly 45 (2011) available here.  It’s a brilliant essay, and apart from what it has to tell us about the checkpoint (or ‘terminal’, as the Israelis prefer), like Miéville’s it also has much to teach us about the power of prose and the material politics of representation:

 Qalandia is dead because this time I find it impossible to photograph. I am paralyzed. Where do I stand? What do I document? Why am I even bothering? What am I supposed to do with a string of images? How will I put them back together to tell a story when there is no story to be told anymore? Photographing it, filming it, trying to write about it, only contradicts its very nature: a time-space of interruption, of suspension.  The checkpoint disjoints, tears the limbs off of my body; to want to tell its ‘story’ is a form of re-con-joining. I cannot. It has taken that right away from us.

The two security-state solution

So Mitt Romney insists that ‘the Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace‘…. Given the scale of illegal Israeli settlement in the West Bank (see the meticulous reports from the Foundation for Middle East Peace), the brutality of the Israeli occupation, and the chokehold Israel maintains on Gaza, Palestinians have no interest in peace??

The contours of the Israeli security state’s impress on the Palestinian people ought to be well known – though evidently they aren’t – but hard on the tawdry heels of Romney’s offensive assertion comes a brilliant essay at Jadailiyya from Lisa Bhungalia that details the operation of the American security state in Palestine.

Invoking Laleh Khalili‘s work on occupied Palestine’s position within global counterinsurgency – I’ve drawn attention to this before – Lisa examines ‘the ways in which practices of colonial subjugation and management are being mobilized through the less sensational, seemingly mundane spaces and practices of aid governance’: to be precise, through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).  She shows how its elaborate certification of NGOs and private agencies works not just to channel financial assistance but also to channel information back to the US and Israeli governments. Like collateral damage estimation in military targeting, this civilian regime works through an extended chain of calculation-calibration-certification. This is Eyal Weizman‘s ‘humanitarian present’ with a vengeance: ‘If a decision to accept USAID funds is undertaken, one must fundamentally operate within a framework that affords little flexibility in terms of negotiating the security priorities set out by Washington and Tel Aviv.’

It is also part of the tightening development-security nexus:

‘What we are seeing, in effect, is a proliferation of sites and diversity of means through which US political and economic power is being articulated. Alongside its military and diplomatic interventions, the US is simultaneously extending its reach through a host of “development experts,” humanitarian agents and “democracy promoters” charged with filtering, sorting and policing the Palestinian civilian population. While taking a new and perhaps more sophisticated form, these contemporary practices and strategies must not be dissociated from a longer history of counterinsurgency in Palestine…. The aid regime that has taken form in recent decades is part and parcel of the refinement and evolution of techniques that Khalili speaks of.’

The poster above is the work of Hafez Omar here and here, and Lisa’s essay derives from her doctoral research whose working title is ‘Negotiating a Colonial Present: Aid and its fragmentary states in Palestine’ .

The humanitarian present, humanitarian reason and imperialism

More from my continuing reflections on the humanitarian present: first, a recent interview with Jean Bricmont, the author of Humanitarian Imperialism: using human rights to sell war (Monthly Review Press, 2006) at Counterpunch here.

If you don’t know the book but the name seems familiar: Bricard co-authored Fashionable Nonsense: postmodern intellectuals’ abuse of science (Picador, 1998) with Alan Sokal (yes, that Alan Sokal).

And if the idea of ‘humanitarian imperialism’ seems to echo Noam Chomsky‘s ‘military humanism’ – remember his The new military humanism: Lessons from Kosovo (Common Courage Press, 2009), and if you do see also his A new generation draws the line: humanitarian intervention and the “responsibility to protect” today (new edition, Paradigm, 2011) – then here is Chomsky on Bricard and ‘the new doctrine of imperial right’.

All that said, Bricard’s (and Chomsky’s) vision is considerably narrower than the sense in which Eyal Weizman develops the idea of a ‘humanitarian present‘ that involves the entanglement of military violence, international humanitarian law and NGOs. Here I think some of the sharpest contributions have come from Costas Douzinas, Professor of Law at Birkbeck, University of London.  His relevant essays have appeared all over the place, but the core arguments are assembled in his Human Rights and Empire (Routledge, 2007).

The significance of Douzinas’s project was beautifully captured by Umut Özsu writing in the European journal of international law 19 (2008):

If rights are to retain their emancipatory edge in an age that is increasingly prone to couching its wars of retribution and occupation as necessary evils en route to the attainment of perpetual peace, a considerable measure of vigilance is required to keep them from being subsumed beneath the rubric of the new arsenal of governmental techniques with which the ‘post-9/11’ West has armed itself. After all, what presents itself as a bold acceptance of responsibility may, on closer inspection, prove to be substantially indistinguishable from accommodationist opportunism. Douzinas’ work is invaluable in this regard, laying the groundwork for a form of cosmopolitanism which neither clings unquestioningly to the humanitarian tradition nor permits itself to be captured by the machinery of an ostensibly mature and conscientious pragmatism. 

And for a genealogy of humanitarianism it’s hard to better Didier Fassin‘s monumental Humanitarian reason: a moral history of the present (University of California Press, 2011).  Trained successively in medicine, in public health and in social science in Paris, Fassin’s career spans a world of field investigations and social responsibilities, including service as Vice-President of the French National Committee on AIDS and Vice-President of Médecins Sans Frontières.  Fassin co-edited (with Mariella Pandolfi) an indispensable collection of essays, Contemporary states of emergency: the politics of military and humanitarian interventions (Zone, 2010), but Humanitarian reason is his magnum opus (in every sense of the word) – so far, at any rate.

If you don’t know his work, one of the best introductions is Fassin’s lecture on the Critique of Humanitarian Reason on 17 February 2010 at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton:

Humanitarianism, which can be defined as the introduction of moral sentiments into human affairs, is a major component of contemporary politics — locally and globally — for the relief of poverty or the management of disasters, in times of peace as well as in times of war. But how different is the world and our understanding of it when we mobilize compassion rather than justice, call for emotions instead of rights, consider inequality in terms of suffering, and violence in terms of trauma? What is gained — and lost — in this translation? In this lecture, Didier Fassin, James D. Wolfensohn Professor in the School of Social Science, attempts to comprehend humanitarian government, to make sense of its expansion, and to assess its ethical and political consequences.

And here he is:

For a detailed, thoughtful and compelling review of Humanitarian Reason see Steven Lukes, ‘The politics of sacred life’, in Public Books (August, 2012) here.  An extract:

The inequalities resulting from humanitarian government are, moreover, at work on the global scale, as evidenced by the contrast between refugees, gathered, protected, and assisted in huge camps in the South, and asylum seekers, subject in the North to decisions “parsimoniously made about which of them may be granted protection under the law.” For this to work the territorial and moral boundaries between the two worlds must be tightly sealed and policed, for example, “preventing refugees from the South from claiming the prerogatives granted to asylum seekers in the North.” As for the latter, if they are admitted, it is on humanitarian grounds rather than as of a right.

However, the heart of Fassin’s critique of humanitarian reason lies, not in the exposure of the disjunction between fantasy and harsh realities, but rather in the analysis of the ways in which humanitarian discourse functions to render this disjunction less visible and less troubling than it might otherwise be, thereby inhibiting possible effective practical and political interventions. Indeed, there is the suggestion here that moral discourse itself may serve to displace a more adequate understanding, deflecting attention from the deeper and wider sources of misery and suffering, thus rendering action to reduce them less feasible.

We need, Fassin writes, “to understand how this language has become established today as the most likely to generate support among listeners or readers, and to explain why people often prefer to speak about suffering and compassion than about interests or justice, legitimizing actions by declaring them to be humanitarian.” The social sciences are themselves part of this story, lending credit to the new political discourse by focusing on exclusion and misfortune, suffering and trauma, providing “the new lexicon of moral sentiments” that “has perceptible effects both in public action and in individual practices.” What, he asks, “ultimately, is gained, and what lost, when we use the terms of suffering to speak of inequality, when we invoke trauma rather than recognizing violence, when we give residence rights to foreigners with health problems but restrict the conditions for political asylum, more generally when we mobilize compassion rather than justice?”

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.

‘The terrain as medium of violence’

News from my friend and colleague Gaston Gordillo about his proposed paper for the Violence and Space sessions at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers in Los Angeles next year.  An extract from the abstract (!) for The Terrain as Medium of Violence:

In this paper, I draw from [Eyal] Weizman and also from Paul Virilio’s work on violence and vision and Derek Gregory’s research on aerial bombing and drones to examine a key principle of a theory of the terrain: the decisive importance of verticality in the deployment of state violence as a three-dimensional vector. The history of aerial bombing and the recent rise in the use of drones reveal that the control of the skies and the atmosphere —and the speed and global reach their spatial smoothness allows for— has become fundamental to imperial power.
Yet the politics of verticality pose spatial paradoxes that can only be appreciated through the actual, tangible material-political terrains in which it operates. Contra the image of absolute deterritorialization it tends to evoke, the verticality created by drones is always-already subsumed to a spatial principle as old as warfare: that the ultimate aim of controlling a higher ground through towers, mountaintops, or the sky is to create a view from above to visualize, localize, and inflict violence upon targets located primarily on the ground. In short, drones patrol the skies not to control high altitudes per se but in order to control an opaque terrain below that limits the state field of vision. And despite their capacity for unleashing massive levels of destruction, drones reveal something else about the terrains of Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Yemen endlessly scanned by their cameras: that imperial ground forces do not control those spaces. This political voiding of imperial space by local insurgencies is made possible by another ancient principle of guerrilla warfare: the fact that the mastery of heavily striated terrain (mountains, forests, urban spaces) by flexible and mobile forces allows them to avoid visual capture by the state and, in the long run, wear down and defeat more powerful militaries. The verticality generated by drones, in short, reveals not only the vast spatial reach of imperial violence but also the profound spatial limits it encounters amid the political and material striations of the global terrain.
More at Gaston’s Space and Politics blog here, with links to his other postings on these ideas and news of his book project, The After-Life of Places: Ruins and the Destruction of Space, forthcoming from Duke.  He promises more to come!
The Violence and Space sessions will evidently be very lively: Stuart Elden has also published his abstract, “Urban Territory: Violent Political Technologies in London and Kano”, on his Progressive Geographies blog here.
Horizontal notes on the vertical: I expect most readers will know of Eyal’s work on the politics of verticality, most obviously through his book Hollow Land: Israel’s architecture of occupation (2007 – paperback out this year), and Stuart has become interested in similar issues: see the video of his Secure the Volume: vertical geopolitics and the depth of power here.  Steve Graham has also called for a ‘vertical turn in urban social science‘: you can listen to it here, and read his essay with Lucy Hewitt, “Getting off the ground: on the politics of urban verticality”, in Progress in human geography (Online First: 25 April 2012) doi:10.1177/0309132512443147.  Enough to make you giddy.

Humanitarian space and the humanitarian present

Today (19 August: WordPress is 8 hours ahead of me!) has been designated World Humanitarian Day by the United Nations General Assembly  ‘to coincide with the anniversary of the 2003 bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq, which killed 22 UN staff’.  From The Colonial Present:

The old Canal Hotel had been used as a base by UN weapons inspectors and sanctions monitors before the war – it became known as “the Sanctions Building” – and it remained a soft target after the UN mission moved in.  Its local secretariat had refused high-level security in order to distance the mission from the fortified compounds of the occupying power.  On August 19 a massive truck bomb exploded outside, devastating the building and a nearby hospital.  At least 23 people were killed, including the UN special representative in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and more than 100 injured, many of them seriously.  Most Iraqis were appalled by the mass murder of civilians from many different countries, and there was considerable speculation about the identities and motives of those responsible for the atrocity.  Although there were several reasons why the United Nations could have been the object of such an attack (UN-mandated sanctions and UN Security Council Resolution 1483 to name but two), the real target seemed to be the occupation itself.  For the attack was a hideous reversal of the coalition’s own strategy of “shock and awe”.  What one journalist described as “the horrifying spectacle of a major building in the capital blown apart” was designed not only to demonstrate the strength of the opposition but also to isolate the coalition through intimidation.  Baghdad was already a city under siege, but the blast heightened the sense of impotence and vulnerability.  The primary objective was to deter others from coming to the assistance of the coalition and hence to increase the burden of the occupation upon the United States.

This year’s World Humanitarian Day campaign is called “I was here” but, as that awful anniversary ought to remind readers in the United States, the United Kingdom and elsewhere, “we were there too – and the main burden of the occupation fell upon the people of Iraq.   

Iraq Body Count estimates that from 1 January 2003 through to 11 July 2012 (the latest date today for which figures are available) there were between 108,183 and 118,224 documented civilian deaths.  IBC notes that ‘full analysis of the Iraqi War Logs released by Wikileaks may add 13,000 civilian deaths’.  There have been several other projects that have tried to count and/or estimate deaths in Iraq, but the War Logs are particularly useful for suggesting the breakdown of total deaths:

The vast majority of casualties were indeed civilians, and the geography of their deaths was plotted on a number of websites from the Wikileaks data: Visualising data reviewed a number of these maps (with further links), and SpatialKey provided its own series of sobering maps.  (For an interactive map of coalition casualties – pairing locations in Iraq with hometowns in the USA – see here).  And Luke Condra, Jacob Shapiro and their colleagues have provided detailed quantitative analysis – using the IBC database and SIGACTS reports – in a series of papers, including”Who takes the blame?  The strategic effects of collateral damage”, American Journal of Political Science 56 (1) (2012) 167-87 and currently available on open access here.

The UN website for World Humanitarian Day continues: ‘Every day humanitarian aid workers help millions of people around the world, regardless of who they are and where they are. World Humanitarian Day is a global celebration of people helping people.’  I contemplate this hard on the heels of reading Eyal Weizman on the humanitarian present in The least of all possible evils: Humanitarian violence from Arendt to Gaza (London: Verso, 2012).  I noted this book in a previous post; Weizman’s concept of ‘the humanitarian present’ emerged via a series of interviews and conversations with Rony Brauman, the former president of Médecins san Frontières and currently professeur associé at Sciences-Po Paris.  Brauman’s alternative conception of ‘humanitarian space’ is radically different from the spatial imaginary of UN agencies where, Weizman explains,

‘humanitarian spaces are clusters of extraterritorial enclaves and the protected corridors that connect them with infrastructure and transport centres.  These kinds of humanitarian spaces are often marked as circles on maps around the areas where relief operations take place – at “the internal peripheries of war”‘ (pp. 56-7).

These are the sites of the humanitarian present: platforms for the operation of those ‘moral technologies’ through which humanitarian agencies and humanitarian law work in concert with military and political power to calibrate the contemporary economy of violence and to govern ‘the displaced, the enemy and the unwanted’ (p. 4).  (Jennifer Hyndman‘s brilliant work on the politics of aid, humanitarianism and securitization speaks directly to these claims, and for a parallel critique of UN peacekeeping, see Paul Higate and Marsha Henry’s Insecure spaces: peacekeeping, power and performance in Haiti, Kosovo and Liberia (London: Zed Books, 2009)).

Against this, Brauman advances a conception of humanitarian space not as a territorial zone – thus sans frontières, without borders – but rather as what Weizman glosses as ‘a set of operational categories, or space-bound circumstantial conditions, that make independent humanitarian work possible’ – that ‘hold relief work at a distance from political and military practice’ (pp. 56-7).

There are critiques of Brauman’s views – see note (2) below – and Weizman is no camp-follower: he has important things to say about the radicalization of humanitarian space so that ‘the politics of humanitarianism’ can give ground to ‘the politics of the displaced’ (p. 61).  But in tragic measure this was exactly what motivated Sergio Vieira de Mello too: to distance his work in Baghdad from Bush’s ‘armies of compassion’ and Blair’s ‘military-humanitarian mission’.

Further notes

(1) Ashley Jackson reports that the annual incidence of major attacks against aid workers worldwide has more than doubled since 2003.

(2) For critical discussions and elaborations of ‘humanitarian space’ see D. Robert DeChaine, ‘Humanitarian space and the social imaginary: Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders and the rhetoric of global community’, Journal of communications inquiry 26 (4) (2002) 354-69; Dorothea Hilhorst and Bram Jansen, ‘Humanitarian space as arena: a perspective on the everyday politics of aid’, Development & Change 41 (6) (2010) 1117-39; Margo Kleinfeld, ‘Misreading the post-tsunami political landscape in Sri Lanka: the myth of humanitarian space’, Space & Polity 11 (2) (2007) 169-84; Adi Ophir, ‘The sovereign, the humanitarian and the terrorist’ (2003); Benjamin Perrin (ed), Modern warfare: armed groups, private militaries, humanitarian organizations and the law (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012) (see Part Three: “The Humanitarian Space debate”); Maurya Wickstrom, Performances in the blockades of neoliberalism: Thinking the political anew (Houndmills: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2012) (Ch. 3 includes a discussion of Brauman and Ophir that speaks directly to Weizman’s project).

Humanitarianism: Past, present and future

While I was thinking about  Eyal Weizman‘s reflections on what he calls ‘the humanitarian present’, I stumbled across what looks set to be a fascinating conference organised by the University of Manchester’s Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute, 8-10 November 2012:

The provisional programme includes keynotes from (among others) Mark Duffield, ‘How did we become unprepared? From modernist to post-modernist conceptions of disaster’, Mary Kaldor, ‘The evolution of humanitarian intervention’ [with a response from Maja Zehfuss] and Janice Gross Stein and Michael Barnett, ‘The globalization of humanitarianism’, and papers from (among others) Simon Reid-Henry, ‘Humanitarian Reason, Moral Geography and the contemporary Will-to-Care’, Michael Givoni, ‘Gazing back: local perceptions and humanitarian knowledge’, Larissa Fast, ‘Aid and violence: reaffirming “Humanity” in Humanitarianism’, Gary Blank, ‘Framing Third World Victimhood: Oxfam, the “Biafra Lobby”, and the politics of famine in Britain 1968-1970’, Roland Bleier, ‘The visual dehumanization of refugees’, James Thompson, ‘Humanitarian performance’ and Kathleen Coppens, ‘Long-term conflicts and humanitarian aid’. My selections just scratch the surface, but what’s particularly interesting is the mix of presenters – scholars, professionals and activists.