A straight line can be drawn between celebrations of ‘precision’ air weaponry and airstrikes in civilian areas. The inability of US drone operators and targeters to find and identify individuals accurately has led to a strategy based on volume. Drop a lot of bombs, accept that many civilians will die, and occasionally you will kill someone you meant to.
The Ehang 184 is a Chinese-produced taxi drone that has begun tests in Dubai of trips up to ten miles long. When it arrives on the market, each one will probably cost its private hire operator between $200,000 and $300,000. But prices fall almost as fast the technology improves. According to Paul Rigby, the CEO of Consortiq, a drone consultancy firm, you can now buy for £500 a drone with capabilities that in an equivalent model five years ago would have set you back £10,000. In five years’ time, Rigby says, there’ll probably be drones that can carry a person two hundred miles before the batteries need to be recharged. Uber foresees a day when a 50-mile drone taxi flight from the São Paulo suburb of Campinas to the city centre will cost the equivalent of $24. Refugees who can afford it currently pay thousands of dollars to escape war zones and make the uncertain journey to a place of greater safety in Europe. In the future, perhaps some of them will be able to travel by drone.
In the mid-20th century, poliovirus paralysed half a million children a year, in rich countries as well as poor. In 1952 there were 57,628 cases in the United States. Following the development of vaccines by Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, polio declined markedly in North America and Europe. The US had its last case in 1979, the UK in 1982. There were still, however, about 350,000 cases a year in the mid-1980s, predominantly in countries where the state did not have the money or capacity to implement mass vaccination programmes. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative was formed in 1988 by the WHO and national governments to finance and organise immunisation campaigns. It precipitated a sharp reduction in polio: there were 37 cases in the world in 2016, a fall of 99.9 per cent. But the disease stubbornly persists in Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Back in the day, the rhetoric of American power was thick with talk of high moral purpose. The 'international community', the label of choice for the United States' Facebook fanbase, proved compliant in the face of US-sponsored mass killing in Indonesia under Suharto, the fire-bombing of civilians in Vietnam, and the decades-long portfolio of Monroe Doctrine-inspired murderous dictatorships in Latin America. Hot on the heels of Vietnam and the secret bombing of Cambodia, Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize. Latterly the high moral tone took a bit of a knock from the bungled crusades in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. But now, in the dying days of the Obama regime, it’s back.
Two years ago, on 17 March 2011, at approximately 10:45 a.m., a US drone fired at least two missiles at a jirga (meeting of elders) in Datta Khel, North Waziristan. The Daily Telegraph reported later that day, quoting anonymous ‘intelligence sources’, that ‘more than 38 suspected militants were killed’. There has never been an independent and impartial investigation or even official acknowledgment of the strike. In Pakistan last October I spoke to some of the victims’ relatives. ‘The drones had been flying low all day,’ I was told by Sayed (not his real name), whose cousin, an 18-year-old student, was killed in the strike.
‘Sovereign is he who decides on the exception,’ Carl Schmitt famously wrote in Political Theology. Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution, which so excited Schmitt, invested the president with emergency powers. After they came to power in 1933, the Nazis duly got president Hindenburg to use article 48 to annul constitutional rights in the wake of the Reichstag fire. Executive fiat survives intact in today’s democracies. In the UK, Orders in Council persist as executive powers with the force of primary legislation, exercised under the royal prerogative – they were used in 2004, for example, to overturn a court ruling that the forcible exile of Chagos islanders was unlawful.
Unmanned is the latest release from the Italian game designers Molleindustria, who aim to ‘free video games from the dictatorship of entertainment’. Their other productions include Phone Story, ‘an educational game about the dark side of your favourite smart phone’: you have to use armed guards to threaten Coltan miners in central Africa to increase their productivity and catch suicidal Chinese factory workers in giant nets. It isn’t available from the iPhone app store. Unmanned, rendered in blocky, lo-fi graphics, examines a day in the life of a disaffected suburban drone pilot.