Amidst all the talk about Amazon’s plan to use drones to deliver books and packages, and all the furor over NSA spying on your emails, and peeking at online video games to discover hidden communications between players, there now appears on network television, a VISA ad designed to catch the attention of football fans that features a chase scene. This time around it is not your ordinary car chase, however, but a drone zeroing in on an individual in street clothes dashing across a semi-arid landscape.
In the last few weeks of he season, and I suppose now in the playoffs, we will see a pointed cloud streaking down aimed at the runner. It hits throwing up a cloud of dust. But somehow the running man survives this “attack,” and continues on. Another funnel-shaped cloud appears, followed by another explosion. And yet he still carries on running.
The third time, the missile turns into a football, which the man tucks away. Suddenly the scene changes from the barren ground and the voiceover asks, “Would you like to catch a pass from Drew Brees?” And we see the New Orleans quarterback ready to throw again, and the fleeing man – now with a big grin on his face – quips, “Put some steam on it this time!”
The drone-shaped ad tells us a lot, unfortunately, about where we are today, and the crossover in our culture from military to popular fare for all audiences. What the Hummer was to the Iraq War, the drone now becomes to the never-ending GWOT (Great War on Terror). Polls consistently show a highly favorable impression of drones as weapons of choice in the War on Terror. Yet there is a different impression about drones in the rest of the world. Even our allies question whether the drone war campaign as it is conducted, in part by a private presidential army as a “killing machine,” as one former official described the CIA role, is legal under international law. Beyond that concern there are two other burning questions, the problem of civilian casualties being the first, and the matter of whether you are not making many more enemies than you kill with things like signature strikes, where as one commentator said, you might target a group of men because they were suspicious looking, loading trucks or even doing jumping jacks. The current imbroglio with Pakistan, for example, about local leaders holding up vital shipments across the border into Afghanistan is only one manifestation of the dangers drones pose to American interests – and soldiers.
The possibility that drones could be used on the American homeland by state or local agencies has already triggered a strong reaction. According to the ACLU some 43 states have considered 96-drone related bills. Eight states have passed laws, according to an editorial in USA Today, most to require law enforcement officials to obtain warrants before using drone tracking. It is not simply about killing people, but the governmental use of drones to watch the movements of wholly innocent citizens, a practice that would reverse the historic American assumption about guilt and innocence. As the editorial concludes, “the hype is outrunning concerns about safety and privacy.” The latest news talks about $100 million programs to develop fleets of drones that are able to select their own targets, flying out from motherships. This stuff used to be the comic book version of the future – now it’s here.
Finally, there is the deep concern that drones give the president and a few chosen aides the power to go around the Constitution’s limitations on war-making. A secretary of defense once called them the, “The only game in town.” Left unanswered by that quip is whether the technological capability to go after presumed enemies by using drones where foot soldiers do not go is winning the war on terror, or breeding more enemies in countries where the United States is not at war. The eagerness to treat drones in an eye-catching fashion during football game time-outs confirms an image of America casually unconcerned about serious questions raised by drones. Hellfire missiles are not footballs. But do our leaders know the difference?