03/14/2013 02:49 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Most Terrifying Drone Ever! Run Away!

When I began the day, I promised myself I wasn't going to write about drones or anti-drone crusader and Guardian blogger Glenn Greenwald or the war on terrorism again, mainly because I covered the topic here last week and several more times elsewhere. But the drone topic continues to be fueled by misinformation and a considerable dose of hysteria.

Now, once again, it's important and increasingly mandatory that I reiterate my position on the administration's use of drones because of the degree of kneejerkery circulating through the tubes. For what it's worth, the president should be stripped of his war powers via a repeal of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, the war on terrorism should end and the use of drones by the military and CIA should be regulated by Congress. Simple and direct.

That said, there's also a lot of nonsense floating around out there which goes far beyond rational, reasonable activism on the problem. For example, Greenwald tweeted the following note the other day, and I can't help but respond:

The link takes you to a story out of Monroe, North Carolina, where the local police department has ordered -- stop the presses and alert Code Pink! -- a drone to augment its law enforcement efforts.

Based on Greenwald's tweet, you might be thinking, Holy crap on a stick! Drones patrolling the skies of Monroe, North Carolina (wherever that is) -- launching Hellfire missiles at moonshiners and big city carpetbaggers! It's the rise of the machines! Damn you, Skynet! Run away! Run away! DRONES!

But of course this tweet was a stellar example of the hyperbole that Greenwald markets to his followers on the drones issue. The sensationalism works especially well on Twitter with people who merely read the screaming slug-line and frantically retweet it without clicking the link. If we merely read the text, we're led to believe that local police departments are evolving into huckleberry-sized drone franchisees of the Obama administration's counterterrorism weapon of choice. And, worse, it appears as if terrifying drones have been "married" to the (admittedly worthless) drug war. Drones and the drug war: an incendiary Venn Diagram guaranteed to spark a geyser of outraged megadittoes from Greenwald's acolytes. What ho?! Local Gomers pursuing harmless, giggly pot smokers with drones?! Due process is truly dead! IEEEEE!

If we click on the article itself, however, we quickly discover what's really going on.

1) The drone is a Maveric UAV, designed and marketed by a local Monroe outfit called Condor Aerial. Maverics don't carry weaponry of any kind and can't provide long-term surveillance due to its maximum 90-minute flight time.

2) Based on the news story, the police department intends to use the drone essentially as they would a helicopter for the stated purposes of "rescue, natural disasters, pursuits and other aerial needs," including situations like "a bank robbery, or any incident where the officers are pursuing someone on foot." Though, at $44,000, the drone is considerably less expensive to purchase and maintain than a chopper. Unless the drone develops artificial intelligence and begins to think for itself, I'm having a difficult time distinguishing it from any other law enforcement aircraft beyond the fact that its pilot is on the ground. And, hell, they can put a deadly police sniper on a helicopter. Not so with the Maveric.

3) The word "drugs" or the phrase "drug war" don't appear anywhere in the article. It's possible that Greenwald interpreted "asset forfeiture" as being specifically about drug dealers (the government uses this admittedly dubious process on all sorts of criminals), but there's not a single mention to that effect. Though I suppose it's possible, it's definitely not a fact pulled from the article he linked. (See UPDATE below.)

4) The Maveric has been available since 2003 and 160 law enforcement agencies nationwide are already using similar tools.

5) And finally, here's a photo of the Maveric drone:

Scary, huh. It looks like a stubbier, steampunkish B52 or maybe the dropship from the Aliens movie, capable of totally blasting you into vapor. Now imagine Barney Fife in Bungledick, North Carolina with this behemoth war machine at his disposal.

But wait. Before you lapse into an oh-so-sweet outrage coma because it's a big scary drone, here's the Maveric shown to scale:

I hasten to note that I pulled this directly from the Condor Aerial website and I absolutely didn't Photoshop anything. Yeah, so, it's tiny. When I saw this pic, I actually said out loud to no one, "It's a radio-controlled toy airplane with a fancy camera!" I mean, if the police began to chase you with this thing, you could feasibly thwack it out of the sky with a tennis racquet or a well-aimed dodgeball.

Conclusion: it's not the kind of "drone" Greenwald wanted you to think it was.

Seriously, though, I absolutely agree that it's always a good idea to keep a tenacious eye on government authority. Anyone who's read my posts against the (formerly) naked body scanners and the perpetual fearmongering of the previous administration knows I'm hardly a fan of government overreach on this front. But if we, as citizens and activists, want to be taken as grown-ups, it seems to me as if we need to pick our battles wisely, and this stupid little toy (albeit an expensive stupid little toy) probably shouldn't be one of those battles.

As for Greenwald, the misleading nature of his tweet speaks volumes about how not every screed he blurts into the tubes should be taken as gospel. Rather, he's an activist who's clearly willing to grab any miniscule dollop of nothing and, using his obvious talent for writing, expand it into something that you should be outraged about -- or else you're an apologist for sinister personality cults and power-drunk authoritarian zealots. It's a compelling yet deceptive rhetorical cocktail: Here's an obvious trespass you should be viscerally offended by, and, if you don't mash the panic-button because, say, you realize that this big bad drone is really a radio-controlled toy, here's a hearty pile of shame-on-you to suck on. I don't know for sure, but it seems as if Greenwald believes that by issuing hyperbolic missives peppered with this-other-smart-person-agrees-with-me-so-I'm-right-and-you're-not-one-of-us shaming, he'll be seen as a steadfastly vigilant activist even if not everything he writes passes the sniff test. It's all a means to an end. If he can make his disciples poop their big boy pants about the Monroe PD's "drone," he's scored a crucial push-back in his ongoing struggle against the forces of evil. Evil toys.

Okay then. That's all. For now.

What's next?

UPDATE: This article in the Charlotte Observer notes that the Maveric was purchased using "drug forfeiture funds."

Cross-posted at The Daily Banter.
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