Terminator Antichrist (drone as symbol)

In a useful article addressing what others have called a “UAV scare,” ((“Panic,” with its embedded allusion to the god of woods and fields, is almost a better word, but we are not quite there yet except possibly among political intellectuals on deadline.)), responding specifically to David Remnick’s comparison of The Drones to The Bomb, Joshua Foust counters common misperceptions about UAV weapons systems, then offers the following summary critique of the critics:

[D]rones are far less deadly, and their use far more expensive and complicated, than their critics describe. David Remnick’s concerns are certainly rooted in well-meaning skepticism of the program (and it needs a lot of skepticism), but such concerns are simply not grounded in fact. The figures I dug up here are all easily accessible on the internet — they require no access to privileged knowledge or inside access to officials to discover. It just takes some homework.

Foust finishes his post in head-scratching mode:

Why so many critics of the drones program do not put in the time to do this homework, however ((typo fixed))… well that I’ll just have to think about.

As any drone critic can tell you, if not in so many words, the reason no homework is necessary is that The Drones are obviously evil.

Drone critics are reacting to the symbolic entirety of the system as they have been given to understand it. This symbolic understanding is neither right nor wrong, and therefore cannot be refuted by any merely factual or narrowly objective analysis. It is a matter of faith or political theology, or a matter of response to a violated psychological investment – none of which is to say that the concern is in any sense trivial. To say so would be to identify oneself as of the evil to be exorcised by the faithful recitation of the anti-dronist litany.

The Drones as symbol refer us to a tyrannical, imperial, not merely mechanical but super-biological or super-organic, invulnerable, temporally and geographically unbounded, and most of all cruelly lethal power that has already annihilated the human being ideally before it sends its “Hellfire” ((a very appropriate name in this context)) missile at him to finish the job, while also morally annihilating the distant human pilots and their masters, the latter group eventually including all of us who benefit or who possess a moral share in the program as citizens of a democratic republic. Even if drones are more expensive, more difficult to base and operate, and technically much easier to combat than they are imagined to be, they still symbolize the infinitely impersonal global state operating according to its own technological rationale. They present an ultimate paradox of uncontrollable total control, unapproachably “remote” yet omnipresent power of life and death, the prospect of the final totalitarian state.

In short, the Drones are obviously icons of the terminator antichrist. Adam Elkus compares the un-homeworked fantasies of the anti-dronists to the inchoate fears of intellectuals 100 years ago regarding the rise of air power, but the vision if not or not yet the reality of The Drones is the same symbolically accurate and irrefutable, if in particulars somewhat hopeless vision of a vertiginously shifting human horizon. HG Wells was wrong about Sino-Japanese dirigible fleets and oxygen-bullet fighters over the Rockies, but he was quite right in his intercontinental techno-apocalyptics. That the Drones or the UAV surveillance and targeted killing system is by orders of magnitude more selective, and therefore less damaging in any objective account, than other forms of aerial bombing; much less comprehensibly and riskily organic than a Special Forces raid; and, as aerial weapons systems go, diametrically opposite to a nuclear strike makes it seem even more fiendish, not least because seductively more usable, to the liberal or libertarian who is reacting on the basis of a quasi-religious defense of the sacrosanct individual and a deep underlying inability ever to justify war at all. ((The modern liberal struggles to legalize the extra-legal, which means to liberalize the constitutionally illiberal. This problematic goes to the origins of modern liberalism, and, as Leo Strauss argued on several occasions, was recognized but never fully mastered by Hobbes and followers up to the so-called post-modern era in their anti-theological and humanist, metaphysically individualist political philosophy.)) The drone becomes like a demon who is after each or any of us personally, under the direction of the absolutely corrupted political leader, possessed by the Devil.

One might as well try to tell the triumphant American anti-torture crusader – who will often be today’s drone critic – that thousands of times as many victims of American wars have been horrifically killed, horribly maimed, permanently injured, or profoundly immiserated than tortured under interrogation, and in a merely material or pseudo-objective calculation would deserve many thousands of times greater consideration and outrage than a relative handful of men in manacles. It is also true, some might consider it unfortunately true, that the most ardent defenders of The Drones are often also yesterday’s defenders of “enhanced interrogation.” So, this morning, at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen, Nob Akimoto, who has all along taken the position that the Obama Administration has deftly handled the evolution of the targeted killing program toward a more legally and administratively sound and durable framework, directs us to some familiar names: Via Jack Goldsmith we find our way to a John Yoo op-ed criticizing the Obama Administration from the political right, for its apparent effort to legalize the properly un-legalizable.

Akimoto and commenters in this instance mainly contribute cheap personal attacks of the sort that help to cordon off matters that are too difficult and disturbing to discuss sensibly. Since Yoo is a “fucking disgrace” and a “parody of himself,” a scapegoat in other words, and since everyone who counts by definition must agree, anyone who attempts to understand his argument from his point of view and on his terms must be prepared for ridicule at least, if not banishment. Here, it is Akimoto who is willing to be the voice of the obviously obvious, the absolutely self-evident. Life is much easier to figure out with only fools and demons against us.

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  1. Actually Hunter Killer would be the right analogy, the ones you saw at the openings and in the flashforwards of all the terminator films,

    • Didn’t want to get too geeky about or focused on the Terminator references, which have long been a cliche in the drone discussion anyway. I used a prototype “H-K” in the sidebar, but resisted the temptation to use it as a main image.

      The whole Terminator series is built up around this humanity vs. technology dynamic, of course, as is Avatar (and even Titanic and the Abyss, if less incisively). One of the things that makes those movies, especially T1 and T2, as much fun as they are is how schizoid they are about themselves, and how the movies themselves seem to contradict, then contradictorily again, re-embody their own exaggeratedly paranoid take on technology as a threat to the human. I was disappointed that the Sarah Connor series was terminated, since it seemed to be on the verge of getting into some very tangled convolutions or maybe involutions on the whole thing.

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  1. […] faith that our most ardent torture critics, not coincidentally our most ardent critics of the targeted killing and “drone warfare” campaign, represent so well is a fundamentally libertarian, originally modern and liberal faith based among […]

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  3. […] frequency of drone attacks1 – thus the “possibly late” part of the reply tweet. As I’ve argued before, to understand The Drones requires understanding or at least attempting to comprehend the system of […]

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