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Drones: The dark side of power

Drones have become weapon of choice in the war on terror.

Last updated: 16 Feb 2014 06:08
Hatem Bazian

Dr Hatem Bazian is co-editor and founder of the Islamophobia Studies Journal and director of the Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project, and a senior lecturer in the Departments of Near Eastern and Ethnic Studies at Berkeley.
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The use of drones against combatants and civilians is a pressing ethical question [EPA]

In "Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith", Anakin Skywalker's defection to the Dark Side is a critical moment of personal weakness and the political abandonment of the Jedi Order. In order to save his ailing wife but tricked into believing that the Jedi Knights are corrupt, Skywalker kneels before Darth Sidious and pledges his allegiance to the Sith Order. Upon rising, he is reborn as Darth Vader, thus cementing his transformation to the Dark Side of the Force - with the power of the Sith, the Empire's vast fleet, the clone armies, and the Death Star already under development. The Death Star becomes the most powerful military weapon and mobile base to pursue and destroy the Rebel Alliance. 

The successful "Star Wars" franchise captivated generations of worldwide audiences not only because it was - and still is - an enthralling science fiction drama, but also because it touches upon timeless social issues about the use and abuse of power, greed and humility, love and hate, trust and betrayal, domination and compassion, honour and envy.

A movie like "Revenge of the Sith" can reveal much about what we value in our society because it can raise questions about the world that we live in now. For example, under what conditions do people change from being agents of peace and justice to being agents of death and destruction? Why does the wielding of absolute power end up corrupting people absolutely? And more importantly, what can we do as a people to right the wrongs committed from the abuse of such power?

The answers are not easy, nor do I want to offer simplistic ones for them. But what I can do is point to a pressing moral and ethical crisis that is casting a dark shadow on our nation. The major issue confronting us today that brings these questions into focus is the military deployment of drones, the weapon of choice for US President Barack Obama, and the ease and clinical nature of their use in the so-called war on terror. 

Drone warfare: Obama's weapon of choice

In the science fiction universe of "Star Wars", the Death Star is a moon-sized space station capable of destroying an entire planet with a powerful weapon. As the Galactic Empire's ultimate weapon, it is used to destroy the home planet of Alderaan in "Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope" after Grand Moff Tarkin attempts to pressure Princess Leia to give up the location of the secret rebel base. She gives a false location, but Tarkin destroys Alderaan anyway. As an "ultimate weapon", the fearsome capability of the Death Star is revealed and it continues to be used as a weapon of choice. 

In the real world of military strikes and the mounting losses of civilian lives in Arab and Muslim nations, in the United States' war on terror one of the many weapons of choice are drones, which can be deployed anywhere in the world, and their effects are immediately devastating. It is the indiscriminate killing of so-called targets of interest without the mobilisation or loss of US troops on the ground.

Added to this is the highly dubious tactic of "double taps", whereby a second strike closely follows the first strike, as people gather to help the injured. This makes the use of drones even more controversial because it increases the number of casualties to include rescuers. It also blatantly reveals the destructive power drone warfare. It enables President Obama to become "really good at killing people".

War is business and the business of war is the ongoing securitisation of societies across the globe. 

It is ironic that President Obama has been the direct beneficiary of both the anti-war and the civil rights movements, which allowed many generations to discover their inner power and harness it for positive change. The relationship of the struggle for human dignity led by the civil rights movement and the victory of President Obama should never be underestimated or underappreciated.

But this continuation and strategic escalation of the "war on terror" policies, in particular drone warfare, mars his legacy. I voted for President Obama in two elections hoping that he would uphold the legacy of the real "Jedi order" of civil and human rights advocates.

But alas, it is a loss and a profound disappointment that he opted for the allure of the "Dark Side". What would Martin Luther King, Jr and Nelson Mandela say about the drones? The easy, silent and clinical deployment of death and destruction while constructing the illusion that it is a sound, legally defensible policy and in-line with universal human right principles is confusing at best, and outrageous at worst.

Blood is not an argument and the ability to kill without being seen and not knowing how many are being killed is not a rationale or an argument for dealing with the threat of terrorism. 

Drones and the military industrial complex

The military industrial complex is alive and well in the US and around the globe, and during Obama's presidency it has managed to expand its tentacles into every aspect of our lives. The "war on terror" has become the catch-all for the "Dark Side" to penetrate further into our consciousness and make the case that only death machines, and new and improved "Death Stars" can save us from the enemy. However Pogo's famous line, "We have met the enemy and he is us," is a more apt description of what we collectively have become as a nation and what we have allowed to be done in our name.

Raining death indiscriminately from a drone represents our collective national kneeling to the "Dark Side" and accepting the politics of revenge as a convenient substitute for values, ethics and principles.

What made the "Death Star" such a powerful symbol in the "Star Wars" franchise is its total massive, destructive power representing the Empire's ability to cause death and destruction from afar. But the decision to deploy this weapon is one of choice and the power to do so is animated by indiscriminate and reckless disregard for life itself.

The logic of "ends justifies the means" is very problematic since our ends, the desire of the good society, are already embedded into an advanced military industrial economy. Thus in pursuing a better and more "peaceful" future, we have all surrendered our moral and ethical imperative to end the war and its business.

Drones are in reality a growth industry and are part of the economy and they are no longer only an ethical, moral and legal justification for fighting terrorism. 

The choices that we make in the military industrial economy are used to expand government and private expenditure to save "us" from the imminent threat. War is business and the business of war is the ongoing securitisation of societies across the globe.

Drone production, deployment, and warfare moved from the battlefields of Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen to US and European urban centres, where police has started using drones. The peaceful spin-offs of the military drone technology are many and their use in the civilian market will complicate our relations with them and curtail the ability to resist the constant deployment of this weapon of choice.

Indeed, the American public accepted its utility first in fighting terrorists abroad but it was only a matter of time before corporate and security interests saw the giant domestic market and moved to create the needed rationale for its adoption across the country. Fear of terrorists abroad has led us to accept government intrusion into our privacy, and now spying and wire-tapping our conversations and deployment of drones are all driven by economy and growth dynamics.

Becoming good at killing people is about selling and marketing weapons of choice in the modern battlefield that has no limits for rationalising death and destruction, and no rationales are more alluring than money and power. 

Dr Hatem Bazian is the founder of the Islamophobia Studies Journal and a senior lecturer in the Departments of Near Eastern and Ethnic Studies at Berkeley. 

Follow him on Twitter: @Hatembazian

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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