I gave the following remarks on 26 March 2014.
There currently exists a limit in the liberal critique of the drone program: there is a discussion about the efficacy of the program – and with it an emphasis on collecting numbers of casualties, of some matrices of sorting the dead into militants and civilians; there is a discussion of the legality of the program – with it the implications for state capacity to fight terrorism or to punish individuals; there is a historicizing of drones within imperial histories of violence upon colonized spaces –and with it a linking of US regime to earlier British or European regimes. In any of these cases, there is an assumption that the critic is making a moral case against the usage of drones for imperial over-reach or against blowback, but which stops at not knowing the precise numbers of civilian casualties and hence in suspension.
Priya Satia’s recent essay on the history of drones links British and later US regimes of power and is highly critical of imperial outreach and in an exemplary fashion. Yet Satia concludes: “Only intense public pressure can force lawmakers to have a conversation about what drones should be used for, as has been true of the limits we want to impose on other technologies, from computers to land mine.”1 Satia’s reversion to an idealized liberal democratic politics is incongruent to the critique of lawmakers from the long twentieth century that Satia herself thoroughly documents in her work. What Satia does not do is question the very gaze that allows lawmakers to constitute a space of exception for a vast swarth of subaltern subjects and reject the premise in the first place.
It is not an advisable position to take: after all, the drones ostensibly target a group of individuals (al- Qaeda or Taliban) who as well make no distinction between civilian and military and who have carried out a long string of horrific violence against various states. Being deemed outside of Reason, of History and, markedly, of Time, the only option is to eliminate them with force, and in this particular chain of calculations, the drone program, however flawed, represents the best case scenario.
What I would like to do is point out a particularly US based history (not British or European) both for the targeting of a space as one out of civilization and with categorizing violence on that space as righteous. In an earlier essay, on the question of technology and the act of “seeing” that governs the technical sophistry of drone warfare (“Adam’s Mirror: The Frontier in the Imperial Imagination“) I made a particular argument for us to consider the history of US regimes of power. My argument today furthers that claim by stating that drones do not represent any paradigmatic shift. Rather, the drone program is a continuation of a long history of risk minimization and political marginalization of people-as-population whose presumed opacity helps the US polis imagine the worst. In this regard, the particular spatialization of violence enacted in the drone strikes has been at-home in the foundational ethos of US state-hood.
First, the question of space itself – the un-goverened or semi-governed space, which is thought to lie at the borderlands or at the frontier. It is a site of anxiety, a source of disruption, a place where inclement forces gather to plot, and to attack. It is the space which orients our actions (“Wild West” or “Tribal Areas”) away from civitas to jus bellum. It is regularly invoked elsewhere in contemporary discourse, but it is rather closer to home.
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- Priya Satia, “Drones: A History from the British Middle East,” Humanity 5 (Spring 2014): 1-31. [↩]