Drones are all the rage these days, and not in a good way. The increasing toll taken by these robotic executioners is beginning to register with the public, after many years of automated death from above in our adventurist wars. Still, the use of drones is expanding in many places, and not just in the theaters of combat. Drones are used to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border. Local governments and police forces use drones, even if they’re disclosed publicly as part of safety programs or for purposes other than enforcement. Many are equipped with cameras, widening the surveillance society even if not overtly used as tools of destruction.
The issue of expanding automation in foreign combat and domestic policing alike raises many questions apart from the legality of its use in war. Remote-controlled bombing contributes to a greater sense of “action at a distance” that works to overcome a natural human prohibition against killing our own kind — one that soldiers have to be conditioned to surmount. The steady distancing effect of modern warfare continues to push the envelope of our empathetic capacities while enabling remote outcomes with little risk involved.
Some years ago I wrote about the “dehumanization of dehumanization” as a cultural trend, sardonically waxing about how “back in the day” we at least still dehumanized people in a humanistic way. Today, we don’t even have the wherewithal to “see the whites of their eyes” (or even the lay of the land below) before pulling the trigger or dropping the payload. So-called “justice” is meted out impersonally, with nary any regard for the humanity of the recipients — or even for the perpetrators themselves.
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Indeed, the use of robotic justice, whether via drone attacks or pervasive surveillance devices, dehumanizes everyone concerned. Despite the distance from their targets, drone operators are not fully immunized from the psychological effects of killing people by dint of their not-so-subtle deployment of Reaper and Predator technologies. Virtual warfare still produces tangible effects on civilians and combatants half a world away as well as on those who are asked to control the misnamed “joysticks” here at home.
In some ways, the technocratic nature of war embodied by drones is symptomatic of larger forces in society. Increasingly, human contact is mediated through digital devices that are by now omnipresent. The texture of our discourses and communities steadily moves from the humanistic to the mechanistic. Others can be “unfriended” or “blocked” from making contact with the push of a button — something that was harder to do when we had to live, work, and play more closely with those in our midst. The malleability of relationships and forms of exchange weakens the ties that bind, even as it provides the illusion of greater connectivity.
It’s all of a piece, and drones are a dramatic demonstration of the trend. Just as the dominant culture is laden with more devices of control, so too is war designed to be steadily waged through greater technological means in the days ahead. Such patterns erode accountability, promote ethical detachment, and turn people into mere data points. While humans have always found ways to inflict harm on one another, physical or otherwise, the scale of our current capacities to do so has outstripped our moral development. The resultant culture of disconnection and disposability jeopardizes not only human rights, but our very ability to survive on the planet; commodification and dehumanization are thoroughly interconnected aspects of an expanding mindset that replaces the sacred with the profane.
In the end, the central question remains: will we control our technologies, or will they be used to control us? As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “The means by which we live have outdistanced the ends for which we live. Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.” The use of drones to inflict harm at a distance is a stark reminder of how far we have gone toward losing our ability to feel and away from the essential need to realize the impacts of our actions.
As the wars continue to drone on, it’s time for a chorus of voices to grow louder and demand that we humanize our engagement with others at every level of existence. This in itself won’t solve the twin problems of perpetual warfare and escalating alienation, but at least it might give us a chance to catch up to ourselves.