Drone strikes on American sovereign territory. This eventuality (if it is not already a fact) would be a bit of an anti-climax, given the number of drone strikes that already take place on non-American sovereign territory, places that have fallen under the shadow of the United States’ military reach under the UAV-fueled Obama Doctrine of the Disposition Matrix. Drones are certainly not the first weapon to extend a technological American semi-sovereignty over other nation-states. This technique is the essence of the phrase “superpower”. What makes the power so super, is that it extends beyond its legal reach. For better and for worse, UAVs have been enabling this for years and will no doubt continue to do so.
So then, what is the sanctity of “American soil”? Why would we act shocked at the eventuality of drone strikes within the continental United States and its territories, or somehow believe that it could never happen? Certainly there is the old nationalistic instinct of “exceptionalism”, the jingoistic and racist implication that the US can do to others what it wouldn’t have done to itself. But as well, there is the flagging notion of legality–the argument that somehow the so-called rules of war can justify blowing up houses in other countries, while in the United States Proper there is a Bill of Rights, posse comitatus, and other such juridico-discursive constructions that could stop laser guided air-to-ground missiles from reaching their targets. There is a cognitive gap, a demilitarized zone of the New Normal, that makes drone strikes outside the border wall okay, while those inside the equivalent of wearing one’s muddy shoes inside the house. We hide behind this gap, those of us who were not terrorists, smugglers, or foreigners, and so said nothing when the Hellfire missiles came for them.
Are drone strikes within American sovereign territory possible? The answer is an solid “yes”. Sure, there are countless reasons why this should not be the case. But the truth of the matter is that the technology exists, and in the face of technological capability the border is merely conceptual. But let’s analyze the matter more closely. Here are some data points, ranging from the merely factual to the more speculative, that might help us come to terms with this future inevitability.
The Will to Drone
The strongest, and yet most fallible argument against the possibility of drone strikes inside the US is that there would be incredible public outrage against it, and so those who would order the strike would not have the stomach to actually give the order. While the moral argument against drone strikes could certainly be a powerful argument, and it could be optimistically supposed that the US officials and military leaders would prefer not to kill their own citizens on their own land, this is merely a matter of hope. We hope that this is the case, and we hope that this case never changes. All it takes is a slight cultural or historical shift, and the winds of popular and individual opinion might change. After all, it only takes one person with the keys to decide that this is a step worth taking, and suddenly the matter of whether it was the right or the wrong thing to do is for historians to debate.
The Posse Comitatus Act is Federal law limiting in the ability of Federal authority in enforcing state laws. Because state law takes priority over federal in many circumstances, this is largely viewed as a law preventing the military from patrolling the streets of US cities. However, it is more complicated than that. US Customs and Border Protection, a Division of the Department of Homeland Security, already uses drones to patrol the border with Mexico, to interdict drug smugglers and illegal immigrants. The Coast Guard has jurisdiction over all waterways in and around the United States, and is a branch of the armed forces as well as under the domain of DHS. There are numerous federal laws which federal agencies enforce throughout the United States, anti-terrorism, the current justification for foreign drone strikes, being only one of them. Whatever law, disaster, or exigent circumstance is used as the door to bring drone strikes home will certainly not be without precedent–it will simply be another step.
States of Exception
The “state of exception” is a political science concept first identified by Carl Schmitt, and more fully theorized by Giorgio Agamben. It is the idea that the modern constitutional nation-state is built with the implicit or explicit understanding that interrupting the constitutionally protected freedoms of that nation-state is justifiable for the purpose defending the existence of the nation-state. These “exceptions” to the constitution take place more and more frequently, the more threatened the nation-state argues itself to be. These “threats” can take the form of disruptions of the peace, threats to the day-to-day functioning of government, a state of war, or threats to the citizenry. The “immanent threat” described in a recently leaked congressional memo provides the exception legally justifying the United States’ current drone strikes–but who can say what the extent of exceptions will be in the future?
The US military has killed US citizens on US soil before. In any number of riots, from the civil war draft riots in New York City, to Watts, to Kent State, the military and the National Guard has killed civilians without trial, and without full legal investigation. The idea that US citizens are ultimately and always “friendlies” to the military is a myth. In the Cold War, Nike-Hercules missiles armed with nuclear warheads were positioned around major cities in the United States and Europe. These missiles, with an effective range of about one hundred miles, could not hit targets internationally. Instead, they were designed to explode in the air as as defense against incoming enemy bombers and missiles, and could also be aimed at the ground against oncoming troops. These were nuclear missiles designed to be fired at the United States. The justification of nuking home territory in the event of a crisis was not an impossibility, but merely an outcome to be judged by game theorists and other profit-loss economic models.
What is a Drone Strike?
We tend to think of a drone strike in the standard form of attacks made by Hellfire missiles fired from UAVs, like they currently are in many countries around the globe. But this is not the only way that a drone can kill a person. If a video feed provides intelligence allowing a soldier to shoot a person with a conventional gun, is this a kill by drone? If 24-7 drone surveillance allows authorities to control a person’s entire life, does that life belong to the drone? These technological tools do much more than fire missiles. There are countless ways for a government to kill its own citizens.
State and local law enforcement is already comfortable with the collateral damage of “signature strikes”, and has proved immune to jurisprudence, given a free reign to kill innocent civilians in the pursuit of their own interpretation of justice. In New York City, police killed a gunman while wounding nine bystanders–and this was deemed justifiable. In the recent manhunt for Chris Dorner, police twice fired on people unrelated to the suspect, simply because they were driving a similar vehicle. These are hardly the extent of incidents like this. At what point will “probably cause” literally equate “disposition matrix”? Only time will tell.
A significant element to the task of looking forward into the future is trying to understand what is going on in the present. Anxiety about the future of UAVs is a product of our lack of understanding and control over what they are doing now. We would like to think that technological development has made a safer world, in which only the bad guys get what’s coming to them, and the innocent have the freedom to not think about their immanent demise coming from the skies. And we have left the anxiety of mustard gas, carpet bombing, and nuclear warheads largely behind us. But just because we are beyond the Blitz does not mean that we understand what is happening to us. The confusion is deep, the concepts immense. And the problem, like so many issues of our eternally onrushing future, is that while some people are attempting to understand these issues better, there are an equal or larger number of people thriving in the turbulence, profiting on the perplexity. Death by drone, unfortunately, might be a fairly easy fail-state to accept. The trouble is for those of us who remain and who will, citizens of one particular nation or not, have to become accustomed to this new normal, when video cameras make the decision about death, and the longer lens of history is the only one available for attributing justice and understanding.
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