The growing use of domestic drones is setting off alarms — justifiably?
In a 1998 piece for Harper’s titled “Goodbye to All That: Why Americans Are Not Taught History,” Christopher Hitchens juxtaposed dystopia, as imagined in George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Hitchens, who authored several articles on Huxley and a book on Orwell, distinguished Orwell’s “house of horrors” that strained “credulity” from Huxley’s ability to augur a frighteningly “painless, amusement-sodden, and stress-free consensus.”
Both texts describe variant species of social stricture, and the abuse of technology to control thoughts, minds, and the spiritual evolution of our collective conscience. But Orwell and Huxley render alternate visions of coercion — 1984 foreshadowed a world of fear and active repression, whereas Brave New World imagined social adherence, bought through gratification. For Orwell, “who controls the past controls the future.” Huxley’s message was much simpler: “History is bunk.” Contentment bred stability, knowledge of the past was edited, and people were unable to compare the present with any other time.
In Brave New World you find no hint of the Big Brother that haunted the Orwellian nightmare state. However, when Huxley’s protagonist, Bernard Marx, visits his friend and fellow Alpha, Helmhotz Watson, there is a moment when both men are struck by a unique foreboding. Marx flings open the door, suspicious that their conversation is being observed. Of course, there’s nobody there, but the moment offers a powerful reminder that this brave, new world is every bit the dystopian dictatorship, where independent thought and action are actively discouraged.
It’s a familiar feeling — one that I’d guess we’ve all experienced. The sense that somebody’s watching you. It’s an odd sensation — you’re somehow more conscious of yourself, but your movements feel constrained by a subtle pressure. It’s impossible to describe yet hopeless to ignore. It’s a gut instinct that’s both creepy and compelling.
We may find we’re getting used to it.
In February, Congress ordered the Federal Aviation Authority to construct guidelines for the use of domestic drones, acknowledging a broad increase in surveillance, on the home-front.
Under the new regulations, police and first responders will be the first to fly small drones over domestic airspace. Within the next four years, the federal agency is charged with authorizing and certifying the flight of assorted unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). By the FAA’s own estimates, by 2020, some 30,000 drones, of various shapes and sizes, may be patrolling America, from above.
In the March/April 2012 issue of Foreign Policy, Micah Zenko, of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote the following about the potential militarization of our airspace:
As of October, the [FAA] had reportedly issued 285 active certificates for 85 users, covering 82 drone types. The FAA has refused to say who received the clearances, but it was estimated over a year ago that 35 percent were held by the Pentagon, 11 percent by NASA, and 5 percent by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). And it’s growing. U.S. Customs and Border Protection already operates eight Predator drones. Under pressure from the congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus — yes, there’s already a drone lobby, with 50 members — two additional Predators were sent to Texas in the fall…
Up until this point, controversy surrounding drones centered on the ethics of asymmetrical warfare and concerns as to whether robotic Hellfire strikes constituted extrajudicial executions under the Geneva Convention. The elimination of foreign terrorists — and a handful of U.S. citizens — has been generally received as an acceptable alternative to “boots on the ground.” Consider the fact that since 2011, the U.S. Air force has trained more drone pilots than fighter and bomber pilots combined.
Of course, up until now, UAVs have been recognized as an instrument of war — an important, impersonal resource in our global war on terror. Many are aware that, in recent years, Customs and Border Patrol has also relied on drone surveillance to monitor our border with Mexico, and prevent illegal immigration and drug trafficking.
Now, critical questions are being raised about domestic drone use. First and foremost, how will technology refined on distant battlefields — and employed in a shadow war against global terror syndicates and militant client-states — be used at home? It’s hard to process American skies full of UAVs, whose predatory cousins are busy performing “decapitation” strikes in the AF/PAK.
High profile drone strikes of the sort that killed al Qaeda’s American-born talent scout, Anwar al-Alwaki, aren’t the norm. The vast majority of unmanned flight time is spent gathering intelligence, performing surveillance and carrying out reconnaissance. In military jargon, this is termed “ISR” — shorthand for those missions that are too “dull, dirty, or dangerous” for manned aircraft.
For some, this portends serious privacy concerns. Americans are understandably alarmed by the threat of a surveillance state, relentlessly monitored by flying robots — some, no bigger than a hummingbird, others large enough to carry heavy ordnance. In an age when our expectations of privacy seem increasingly flimsy, drone technology appears poised to dramatically, and invasively, increase the government’s ability to breech your bubble.
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