Monday, November 11, 2013

Obama’s Catastrophic Drones

Thomas Dumm
Amherst College

Recent revelations concerning the American drone campaign in Southwest Asia and the Arabian peninsula might lead one to think that the worst aspect of the campaign is the imprecision of the drone attacks, the ancillary damage in the form of innocent lives lost. But leaving aside the horror of a policy of assassination from the sky, this use of drones illuminates a core paradox in the “war against terror.”  



Terrorism, catastrophe, these are big words to throw around. Perhaps it makes sense to begin with a provisional definition of terrorism. I would suggest that we understand terrorism to be the tactical use of violence or the threat of violence in order cause psychological trauma on a specifically targeted population. The purpose of terrorism can vary almost infinitely, from forcing a state to meet a particular political demand, to gaining vengeance against a religious opponent, to – although this is actually more the stuff of graphic novels and superhero movies than reality – expressing a nihilistic urge to destroy for its own sake. Because there is usually a focused end to acts of terror, formal rationality can be used to understand acts of terror. Indeed, one can apply game theoretical models to the efficacy of terrorism, as has been shown by the prominent economist Darius Lakdawalla. 



The effectiveness of terrorism is to be measured not only by the specific destruction those who engage in it wreak – the physical injuries and deaths to those immediately victimized – but more fundamentally instead by how it traumatizes its targeted audience. Terror in this sense is communicative violence, designed specifically to frighten people so as to get them to alter their behavior in ways the terrorist wants. Measuring the efficacy of terrorism then becomes something qualitative – it requires that we be able to describe and interpret the effects of the act or acts of terror on people’s behavior. It requires that we think imaginatively concerning how terrorism does what it does to those who are its victims. 


Sometimes the motives of terrorists can be discerned by knowing who they are. In at least one case, that is easy, because of the extraordinary visibility of the terrorist in question.  I am referring here to the state terrorist, the actor that only pretends not to use the technique of terror in the flimsiest gesture toward human rights. The state terrorist is so prevalent an actor largely because the very function of the state, to paraphrase Max Weber, is to maintain a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. State actors very often go too far and engage in illegitimate acts of violence, rationalizing their actions as necessary for the survival of the polity they putatively serve. Because they have the tools of violence ready at hand, it is easy for them to act. Because of the vast instruments of destruction that powerful states have on hand, we can state very simply: States terrorize and the more powerful the state the more terrorizing. 


The United States of America is the most prominent practitioner of state terrorism today. One need only read the headline on the front page of the October 22, 2013 issue of the New York Times [PDF] – “Civilian Deaths in Drone Strikes Cited in Report: U.N. Set to Debate Issue: U.S. Sees Triumph, but Pakistanis Say They Live in Terror.” Or read the first quotation in that article, from a denizen of the border town in Pakistan that has been the object much drone activity: “The drones are like the angels of death,” said Nazeer Gul, a shopkeeper in Miran Shah. “Only they know when and where they will strike.” 


This article appeared only a few days after the historian Nasser Hussain published “The Sound of Terror: Phenomenology of a Drone Strike,” on the Boston Review website. Hussain notes the division of experience of drone operators – sight, not sound – and those who live under the threat of drones – sound, not sight. To hear the constant buzzing of a drone overhead day after day, which may only be surveilling an area, but may be preparing to drop a bomb on a target, is obviously terrifying for those who suffer it. Hussain writes, “[O]ne man described the reaction to the sound of the drones as a ‘wave of terror’ coming over the community.” In another testimony, Hisham Abrar stated, “when children hear the drones, they get really scared, and they can hear them all the time.” 


Hussain refers to this as “anticipatory trauma.” Such trauma is deeply associated with the development and intensifying deployment of air power in the twentieth century, noted some time ago by the French war and media theorist Paul Virilio. Think of  the V-1 and V-2 bombs used by the Nazis to terrorize London. “A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now,” is how Thomas Pynchon described this in the opening lines of Gravity’s Rainbow.  



But anticipatory trauma is not limited to air power. Think of another twentieth century development, death camps, powerfully analogized by Art Spiegelman in his epic, Maus, when Art asks his psychotherapist, a survivor, what Auschwitz felt like. “What Auschwitz felt like. . . hmmm, BOO! “ “YII!” screams Art, in response. “It felt a little like that,” says the therapist, “but ALWAYS! From the moment you got to the gate until the very end.”

Hussain’s final point in this essay is perhaps his most important, namely, that far from being an efficient means of fighting against terrorists, the infrastructure for drone warfare is vast, extremely costly, and requires a permanent imperial presence throughout the world to work at all.  Aside from the political economic implications concerning the costs of empire, we might also infer that any country that would construct such a costly infrastructure, would also be tempted to use it more than once. 


If we compare the state terrorist – let us call him Obama, to the abject terrorist – let us call him Ishmael -- who lacks the vast resources of a state, no matter how well sponsored he might be by a state, we may realize just how efficient the non-state terrorist is in comparison to the state terrorist. Consider the number of American on American soil killed by terrorists directly or indirectly inspired by Al Qaeda and others since 9/11: the number is 19. At the time of the Boston Marathon bombings, John Cassidy of the New Yorker contrasted this level of violence with other violent deaths in the U.S. in one year. “In 2010, to take a year at random, there were 11,078 firearm homicides in the United States, and 19,392 firearm suicides. In the same year, there were 544 homicides by suffocation and 89 by fire, plus 79 intentional poisonings and 52 intentional drownings.”  


Americans over the past 12 years since 9/11 have had a much greater chance of dying from lightning strike – an average of about 79 per year -- than from an act of terror. Yet the amount of money and treasure in the form of lives lost in the “war on terror” has been close to 2 trillion dollars and counting, 4,326 American deaths in Iraq and another 2,012 and counting, in Afghanistan. These figures do not include those killed by American and coalition forces, estimated in Iraq to be about half a million; for Afghanistan figures are much harder to come by, and claims of deaths by NATO versus the Taliban makes counting very difficult. 


With this in mind, if we use the most common dictionary definition of catastrophe – “an event causing great and often sudden damage: a disaster” -- then the event of 9/11 was indeed a catastrophe. But for whom? That might not be the right question, if we think that the event of a catastrophe is something beyond human agency, indiscriminating in the damage it causes. The criterion of “beyond human agency” also suggests that if human action is involved, there is no catastrophe. But even here I would suggest that 9/11 was a catastrophe, partly because of the event and even more fundamentally because the war on terror that emerged from that event has been has, by almost any measure, not been rational response to that attack, one with predictable and clear consequences, but a continuing, uncontrolled human disaster, even as humans have been involved in perpetuating it. From the beginning, there is abundant evidence that those who initiated this war were drawn by unconscious but powerful psychological forces to do what they did. Here I am not only referring to the Oedipal drama enacted on the world stage by George W. Bush, the paranoia of the neoconservative policy-makers, from Cheney to Rumsfeld to Wolfowitz, but to something more deeply buried in what we might call the structural unconscious of the American state.


Here is where I believe there is an unspoken and troubling linkage between the state terrorist and what we might call the abject terrorist. What is going on in the relationship of the state terrorist and the abject terrorist is a form of projection by the state terrorist – attributing to those who you have treated with great and fatal injustice those very qualities of lying, sneak attacking, massacring, etc., when they respond in kind. (This phenomenon has been noted as occurring in the United States as early as Herman Melville’s analysis of the metaphysics of Indian hating in his 1857 novel The Confidence Man.)


But there is more than simple projection at work here. There is an uncanny identification that intensifies and deepens the fear of the state terrorist for the abject terrorist. For Freud, the uncanny is often represented in the figure of the döppelganger, the double.  In his study The Uncanny, referring to E.T.A. Hoffman’s novel, The Elixirs of the Devil, Freud suggests that doubles appear as identical to each other. “This relationship,” he writes, “is intensified by the spontaneous transmission of mental processes from one of those persons to the other – what we would call telepathy – so that the one becomes co-owner of the other’s knowledge, emotions and experience.” Freud suggests that this is a very old and primitive psychic structure, finding one of its earliest human expressions in religious belief, a way of fending off the fear of death by positing an immortal soul that accompanies the body. The residue of this primitive phase of our mental development, he suggests, accounts for its uncanny power. “The double,” Freud writes, “has become an object of terror, just as the gods become demons after the collapse of their cult . . .” 

I would suggest that when thinking of terror and catastrophe, the catastrophe of terror is that one cannot get rid of one’s döppelganger without getting rid of oneself. In other words, state terrorists are deeply bound up with abject terrorists, unable to continue to exist without the presence of this other, constantly inciting them to act so as to be able to react. Steven Johnston noticed this creepy phenomenon in his analysis of the film The Dark Knight Rises in an earlier Contemporary Condition post. But this phenomenon was probably most explicitly expressed in the film in that trilogy, The Dark Knight, when the Joker, responding to the ever humorless Batman’s suggestion that he might want to kill him: “I don’t want to kill you! You complete me!” 


That would seem to be the submerged element of the catastrophe we are living through right now. A compulsion to kill, yes, but also a compulsion to continue this telepathic relationship, asymmetrical as it may be, between the state terrorist and its double. In short, as the inheritor of the collective wounded outrage of the state terrorist, the current inhabitant of the White House is every bit as haunted as was his predecessor, and every bit as complicit in ongoing murder of innocents in the name of American innocence.


[Note: An earlier version of this post was presented as part of a symposium on “Terror and Catastrophe,” at Robert Frost Library, Amherst College, on October 23, 2013. Other contributors included Andrew Poe, Adam Sitze, both members of the Amherst College faculty, and Simon Stow, of William and Mary. The panel was sponsored by Amherst College’s Copeland Colloquium, which is devoted in 2013-14 to the theme of “The Catastrophic.”]

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