Saturday, August 11, 2012

Drone (un)Ethics on the Border

Great, reflective piece by Dr. Devon G. Peña. -Angela

Philosophers rationalize drone patrols
By Devon G. Peña
Credit: Yonatan Frimer. Team of Monkeys
What goes by the name of ‘justice’ is often merely the violence and thievery practiced by those holding the reins of power.
Mark LeVine (2012)
There is a saying, “All’s fair in love and war,” that takes on new meaning with the increasing use of Uninhabited Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or ‘drones.’ There is a fierce political and ethical debate surrounding the use of drones by the U.S. military and in particular the deployment of this technology as an assassination weapon in the so-called “War on Terror.” Less concern has been expressed over the deployment of drones as a border control and surveillance technology along the 2000 miles of the U.S.-Mexico international boundary. We can discern much about the state of exception in the U.S. by analyzing the striking convergence between what philosophers are saying about the ethics of the use of drones in Pakistan tribal areas and other locales subject to this assassination program and what partisans are touting in the context of the politics of immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border, understood as a different kind of war zone.
I will start with a quote from a recent article by an ethics professor from the University of Connecticut with the revealing title, “Moral predators: The duty to employ uninhabited aerial vehicles,” in which the author rebukes those who object to the use of these ‘faceless’ death machines:
 …we have a duty to protect an agent engaged in a justified act from harm to the greatest extent possible, as long as that protection does not interfere with the agent’s ability to act justly…Therefore, we are obligated to employ UAV [drone] weapon systems…The point…is…that there is nothing wrong in principle with using a UAV and that, other things being equal, using such technology is, in fact, obligatory.
Bradley. J. Strawser, Journal of Military Ethics (2010)
I am one of those that thinks military intelligence and military ethics are contradictions in terms; they just do not belong together.  But, the philosophers have spoken and the word is: Drones are an ethical means for the conduct of war, even if they involve faceless killing, collateral damage, and the removal of the customary constraints against going to war because the technology lowers the jus ad bellum threshold – it makes it too easy to get belligerent since the aggressor faces no prospect of casualties. 
Remote war through these technologies is said to make going to war, or engaging in acts of violence, much easier. But I do not think the U.S. has ever had a problem about going to war or using weapons to settle disputes; this is how the country was settled and stolen from Native peoples. There is seldom any hesitation and so I question the hand-wringing of the liberals who bemoan the advent of remote-controlled (qua joystick) war machines.
The U.S. is the most belligerent hegemonic power in the history of the planet. But critics are correct to object and point that this is not even close to being about war, just or otherwise. It is about the use of faceless violence to propagate an assassination program with high levels of so-called collateral damage or civilian casualties; some estimates hold that 32 percent of casualties are unarmed civilians. It is also about the collapse of our civil liberties as UAV technologies are deployed by police and other law enforcement agencies in the domestic theater [sic]; a warning pun intended.
What does this matter of assassination warfare have to do with the deployment of drones along the U.S.-Mexico border? Surely, we are not using drones to kill undocumented immigrants as they cross the border?
We must first understand that politicos have done a masterful propaganda trick convincing a majority of U.S. citizens that there is not just a War on Terror, but there is an endless litany of wars; The War on Drugs; War on Voter Fraud; War on Obesity; War on Christianity and Christmas; War on Insect Pests; and of course the War on [white male] Freedom [dominance] and War on Western Civilization, which lead to the War on Ethnic Studies; finally, we have the grand old War on Illegal Aliens [sic] and the Border Wars. We are apparently addicted to War or at least to war and belligerency as perfect tropes for the American way of life [sic] or death. These are more than metaphors invoked by over-zealous journalists or the symbols of right-wing partisans.
U.S. white settler society has been waging Border Wars for at least a hundred and fifty years. We need only recall the intense border conflagrations against Native Americans memorialized in comic books and second-rate history books, including the 1912 doozy, Border Wars of Texas (see below). The author of that triumphalist book, James T. DeShields, was able to relish in the glow of the white imaginary of Manifest Destiny and so dedicated his treatise on Army violence against Native Americans and Mexicans to
The Sons and Daughters of Those Noble Pioneer Fathers and Mothers who . . . battled so bravely for supremacy and . . . made possible all the glorious blessings that have followed…[The original dust jacket describes the book as a testament to]…the early battles of those advancing pioneers as they relentingly [sic] encroached across the borders of the territories which the Indians believed to be theirs…made invaluable by his extensive use of other primary source material such as his numerous turn-of-the-century interviews and correspondence with early Texas Rangers and frontiersmen who were yet living. Many of his accounts are found nowhere else in publications of Texas history and thus provide fresh insights into the history of Texas’ wars against the Indians. [brackets added]

At least this dedication is completely honest and clear: These Border Wars were/are totally about attaining white supremacy; this sure beats the hell out of all the post-modernist ambiguity that ends up rationalizing domination or depoliticizing the possibility of resistance while pretending we are all above the violence because we can safely celebrate difference now and become transborder subjects. Right. Try telling that to the immigrants getting shot at by Minutemen militia members, while the drones stalk them from invisible heights.

While there will not likely be any armed drones conducting border patrol duty any time soon, there are plenty of anti-immigrant nativists who harbor serious fantasies of violence against the “invading brown tides” and are rooted in this legacy of white fantasies of border wars and conquests. 
However, I advise my readers to not place this past the realm of the possible; at least not yet. I recall when I was in Juárez-El Paso in 1979 working on my dissertation that a controversial made-for-TV movie on a nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviets came out; this was before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The film was titled “The Day After” and it largely focused on the survivors’ efforts to live after the atomic holocaust.
Credit: MGM Home Video
The regional chief administrator of the Border Patrol was interviewed after the screening of the movie and asked to explain the policy of the U.S. toward border control in the event of a nuclear war. The agent explained that there were fighter jets on alert from Holloman Air Force Base and that the air forces were under orders to strafe the border with live rounds and missiles to prevent Mexicans from pouring over the border into the United States. I remind readers that Holloman AFB is the primary operations base for Air Force flights of Predator and Reaper drones.
I was, of course, astounded by this response; the racist response was striking but the more so because I kept wondering: Why would Mexicans cross over into a nuclear-devastated country? Would it not be people in the U.S. fleeing to cross into Mexico to get away from the radiation fallout? It made perfect sense though: We always think that as soon as our country is weakened or we let our “guard” down, the “wetbacks” will invade. It was a revelatory moment and its profundity was sadly missed by most and the comment passed without protest or further analysis.
More than thirty years later, we are doing a lot more than harboring plans to bomb the border in the event of a national security emergency. We are already in a state of emergency while actively pursuing a policy of militarization and encampment – i.e., making our country not so much a fortress as a concentration camp filling detention centers with disappearing bodies.

Along the way, the War on Terror and the War on Illegal Immigration got conflated, producing an especially pernicious and lethal combination on the ground. There is no doubt that the telluric partisans on the extreme right – those who want to deport all immigrants and electrify the southern border – love the idea of drone technology. As the price of the technology plummets we can be sure that the militias, Minutemen, and other border vigilantes will deploy these as well.
Border control. Credit: Fernando Llera
Killer drones are now part of the symbolic politics that permeate the entire hate-and-fear iconography of the so-called War on Illegal Aliens [sic]. A recent political cartoon (shown to the right), which was originally intended for Mexican newspapers, has gone viral across the right-wing blogosphere. It depicts a smiling drone chasing a stereotypical Mexican in a large sombrero helplessly fleeing from a missile bearing down on his back.
The Minutemen Project – which now uses the tag-line, “A multi-ethnic immigration enforcement advocacy group,” to make itself sound more civil, diverse, and palatable – is celebrating the deployment of multiple surveillance drones along the U.S.-Mexico border with this declaration:
(The Republic) - A new unmanned aircraft has arrived in Arizona and will be the fourth in the states fleet to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border. The Arizona Daily Star reports ( that the aircraft, also known as a drone, arrived Tuesday. In all, six drones patrol the border from California to Texas, doing things most manned aircraft can’t. Their cameras can determine from as far as 10 miles away if a ground sensor was set off by drug smugglers or cows. They also can collect intelligence on suspicious behavior at houses without anyone knowing because they fly so high and are quieter than other aircraft. The drone costs about $6 million, while the antennas, radar, maintenance and other operational costs total $18.5 million per drone.

Whatever the cause or future of drone technology, it should go without saying that the use of UAVs by the Border Patrol and other federal and local police agencies clearly represent a ready-made threat to our civil liberties. To appease us, the industry and the Pentagon have already developed a Drone Code of Conduct.  Promises not to accidentally spy on us are being made and the Department of Homeland Security and law enforcement agencies are asserting that no one will keep or use the results of “innocent” eavesdropping on untargeted civilians (and their conversations or movements).  Don’t we all feel better already!
UAV technology also represents a threat to the lives of undocumented immigrants who are being driven into ever more isolated and dangerous terrain during their journeys to the U.S. in search of jobs or families, but no one in government or right-wing freedom-loving groups seems overly concerned with the ethics of a border policy that is resulting in thousands of deaths. This is the nature of drone ethics: What goes by the name of ‘justice’ is often merely the violence and thievery practiced by those holding the reins of power.
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