In the not so distant future, America's skies will be full of . . . drones.
What could go wrong?
"Although the prospect of drones flying over U.S. cities is generating cries of spies in the skies," writes the Los Angeles Times, "groups from California to Florida are fiercely competing to become one of six federally designated sites for testing how the remotely piloted aircraft can safely be incorporated into the nation's airspace."
It's just technology and technology is neutral, or so the forces of mainstream capitalism assure us. Drones are an emerging market, with worldwide sales expected to double in the next decade, to $11 billion, if not much more. And these will be good drones, the kind that look for lost children or leaks in pipelines, the kind that catch criminals.
What disturbs me about all this -- what feels utterly unexamined in the mainstream coverage of this looming techno-makeover of our world -- is:
A. Why is there such an emerging market for drones?
B. Why does the fact that some people will make lots of money on drones make their domestic mega-debut a done deal and what are the implications of the fact that potential profit for the well-connected is the lodestar of our future?
C. What might Drone World look like 10 or 20 years -- or seven generations -- down the road? And why does that not seem to be a concern of government; that is to say, why in an alleged democracy is there so little public discussion about the world we're creating for our children and all succeeding generations?
Even the red flags of concern -- about privacy or "Big Brother" -- that some people are waving about domestic drone proliferation seem depressingly limited, especially because this is the only downside the corporate media bother to acknowledge. Passing legislation that prohibits drone surveillance without a warrant is a good idea, of course, but I have no faith in the power of law to protect us from the sort of social forces that drones enable.
Even unarmed drones are extraordinary tools of domination. But how strange, how naïve, to ponder the future of domestic drones without bothering to notice their current widespread usage as tools of murder and terror.
They've seduced the Obama administration into playing video game war in Central Asia on the pretense that killing alleged terrorists, and anyone else in the vicinity, is keeping America safe. Drones are more than just useful tools; the fact that they bestow such remarkably precise power on those who control them makes them truly dangerous appendages if the controllers are smitten with their own righteousness.
And righteousness combined with lethal power is militarism -- which Jeff Cohen, in a recent speech at the National Conference on Media Reform in Denver, called "the elephant in the room" and "arguably our country's biggest problem." Only the rest of the world is aware of the U.S. addiction to militarism. In the circles of consensus power that govern the United States, including the mainstream media, there's no such thing. In those circles, there are only our economic interests and our security, which add up to perpetual war.
We live in a society that requires enemies, and my guess is that, however much the promoters of drone technology extol the positive uses of drones -- finding lost children and lost hikers, aiding in wildfire containment, natural disaster rescue assistance, monitoring the weather, scouting film locations (!) -- their primary use will be in us-vs.-them situations. People who live in gated communities, secure in their "us" status, may see no problem with this, but for members of oft-targeted groups, the concerns about domestic drone usage, and the possibility of what the ACLU called "mission creep," are hardly abstract.
"Even when laws do apply, constraints on law enforcement have a tendency to slacken when communities of color are the subjects of observation," Seth Freed Wessler and Jamilah King note on the website Colorlines.
Citing a warning from digital watchdog group Electronic Frontier Foundation, they add that "there's currently no legal firewall stopping the government from equipping drones with rubber bullets, tasers or other so-called 'non-lethal weapons' that research suggests get deployed on people of color at higher rates and that mirror other kinds of police violence."
How hard is it to imagine the "war on terror" going domestic? It already has, of course, by other names. My point is that it's absurdly naïve to envision domestic Drone World without factoring the dark side of U.S. militarism into the mix. Drones do not empower empathy. They empower its opposite.
Even the LA Times story quoted above, about the competition among states to get selected by the FAA as a drone test site, alludes -- humorously -- to the militarism lurking behind the drone craze. The story pointed out that Ohio's pitch to get a test site included the fact that the state "was home to development of the 'world's first unmanned aerial system,' a sort of flying bomb known as an 'aerial torpedo' developed in 1918."
The fun is just beginning.
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Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, visit his website at commonwonders.com or listen to him at Voices of Peace radio.
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