We’re sending unmanned drones into Pakistan, dropping missiles near the border of Afghanistan. Last week? One hundred eighty-seven innocent civilians were killed by the United States in these kinds of attacks. We’ve effectively started a war in yet another country.
Our pilots sit in D.C., half a globe away, with joysticks in their hands, staring up at the screen. These drones fly at 25,000 feet and can hit a target the size of a human face with complete accuracy. Are you paying attention to this? These are our tax dollars. There are no pilots “on board” the drones, so there is no need for a cockpit in the traditional sense. The face of each drone is faceless. No window to see in or out of; just a flat, smattering of pale white, an oblong, expressionless head with the capacity to act but not to think.
The Pentagon says not to worry. It takes 17 steps from U.S. ground troops in Pakistan to the drone pilot sitting in D.C. before a missile can actually be dropped.
Seventeen steps. That’s about as many paces as the D.C. military personnel manning these machines probably walks between his parked car in the driveway to his front door when he gets home at the end of a long day.
“Daddy, what did you do today?”
“I watched Afghanistan and Pakistan on the special TV,” our man says.
“What does it look like there?”
And the man thinks he knows. He thinks that the smears of brown and pale greens, that the relief trucks and refugee camps, that the epic mountain slopes (home to the elusive snow leopard), that the people who move like little dots on the screen, are two-dimensional; inconsequential in the face of growing threats of terrorist activity. How could he think anything differently? He cannot hold their children in his hands. He cannot feel the wind as it pushes through the Swat Valley. He cannot smell the soil or detect it underneath his fingernails.
We have given him a flat picture of a round place. And it is in his nature to make everything uniform and the same. Where bumps arise on the surface, he will press the button on that joystick and drop the missiles until everything looks flat again. Quiet and calm as the white noise hum of his office, deep, deep in the basement of the Pentagon, deep, deep in the dirty conscience of our body politic.