Drone Cop. Part I: Destroying Citizenship by Dehumanizing Police

Remember “RoboCop,” Paul Verhoeven’s landmark sci-fi thriller movie? A future monolithic corporation controls a crime-infested Detroit. It transforms a dead police officer into a cybernetic law-enforcement “unit” called RoboCop. The cyborg hero devastates urban criminality, and soon the streets are safe.[1] RoboCop is little more than an cybernetic enforcement drone; the remains of his humanity is an open question.

Well, science fiction, warts and all, sometimes gives us as good an eye on the present as on the future, even though its plot and characters may be weak or its tone juvenile. Such stories often point to the problems of the present in the guise of a technically advanced future. “Robocop” is something more than human, but he is also dehumanized by his cyber-mechanization. His modus operandi is always overpowering force of violence – a high-tech old west “shoot first and ask questions later” modality. However, in the real world cops are people too.

The death of Albuquerque police officer Daniel Webster, after being shot in a routine traffic stop, occurred in the context of widespread public criticism of the excessive use of force and high rate of killings by Albuquerque police in the previous decade. The Department seemed in seriously dysfunctional when a Justice Department investigation led to specific requirements for reform. Yet, the community energetically rallied around Officer Webster and his family while he lay struggling to live.

Community support grew even stronger when Officer Webster died a few days after the shooting. People came forward and lauded him as a true hero, a “guardian angel” who had gone above and beyond the official duties of his job whenever he had the opportunity to help people in need. Officer Webster, a combat veteran, evidently was widely recognized for being a true peace officer. The growing trend toward drone cops, completely isolated from the people, is the exact opposite. Officer Webster seemed an exception to the emerging rule in policing.

Today, drone bombings and missile attacks on human “targets” abroad have proliferated on the presumption that “suspicious activity” may involve terrorists in Yemen, Afghanistan, or elsewhere. The adaptation of that mental model of operating in “conflict zones” to police practices by civilian “law enforcement” is well underway, although fundamentally flawed. At the same time, presidential “hit lists” must give us pause, even if the targets are overseas. In so-called “targeted killing,” – a term that conjures images of precision, likely unjustified – pretty much everyone near the target is defined as “the enemy” unless proven otherwise. So called “collateral damage” is widespread, though under-reported via re-definition. Children in Yemen are called “terrorists in training” by drone operators at their stations back in Nevada.

At what point in the militarization of domestic law enforcement do neighborhoods become “combat zones,” and to what extent, does enforcement take the place of law? And what is the result? What is the effect of local police in the U.S. adopting the combat model of operations? Clearly, it is already happening in various jurisdictions around the “homeland.”[2] We’ve seen some of the result already. The destruction of small villages in Yemen, killing innocent civilians, is analogous to the excessive use of force and indiscriminate shooting of civilians on city streets across the “homeland.”

As dangerous as drones over our cities and towns may become for aviation, no less to civil liberties and human rights, an even more dangerous “dronification” is happening to police officers themselves. They are being turned into Drone Cops. To understand what a drone cop is, consider the contrast with the traditional concept of law enforcement and the role of peace officer in communities. Traditional peace officers were members of their community tasked with assuring the safety and security of the citizenry. They knew their neighbors.

What distinguishes a drone from a manned aircraft? It is the pilot of course. Yes, on-the-ground operators do “pilot” the drones. The technology of “unmanned aerial vehicles” (UAVs) allows for two possible tasks: surveillance and targeted killing. Perhaps inadvertently, they sometimes bomb wedding parties and other innocent gatherings. This may be due to “faulty intelligence” (weak electronic information compounded by cavalier attitudes about who may be defined as an “enemy”). But it is also caused by a blurring of definitions of “enemy” vs. “civilian.” A similar blurring results as police are dehumanized and become Drone Cops, who also have come to have just two tasks: surveillance and targeting for violence too often involving killing.

The idea, for example, that any Afghan male who seems to be of an age suitable for military service is to be predefined as a “terrorist” unless subsequent to his death he is proven otherwise, is beyond Kafka in its absurdity. But it is convenient for the trigger-happy commanding officer “managing” an ad hoc conflict zone in a non-war. A similar mindset seems increasingly prevalent in urban law enforcement circles. Young men of color are routinely pre-defined as criminal without regard to circumstance or behavior. They become dehumanized “enemies.”

The death toll for civilians in the conflict zones that has been created by the questionably named “War on Terror,” keeps rising without consequence for the presidentially sanctioned killers. Some who found their own dehumanization to be intolerable have become whistle-blowers.[3] Unverified distant technical means, such as a cell phone being near a location, are used to target persons on a “kill list.” The illegality of extra-judicial assassination aside, the essence of the exercise is its indiscriminate practice of terrorizing citizens of other nations. The meaning of terror is heightened by drone strikes in far away places. What can be more terrifying than a drone attack on your village? The culture of unending war produces terrorist enemies by its own terrorist practices. Terror is also a product of the unending “war on drugs” by Drone Cops, which ultimately becomes a war on vulnerable people.
Part II of this essay will address the replacement of the human decision-maker in law enforcement with the application of technology to control populations.
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[1] Netflix description accessed at: http://dvd.netflix.com/Search?v1=RoboCop&oq=roboc&ac_posn=1
[2] A strange term, “homeland.” It is akin to the terms “fatherland” and “motherland,” which connote nationalistic ideologies, usually asserted by empires. It is interesting to note that the term came into use in the United States largely in response to the attacks of 9/11, which were the first major successful retaliatory actions by deranged Middle East adversaries who identify U.S. military presence, occupations, and actions as a threat to their societies. The blurring of the distinction between foreign combat zones and “the homeland” by the 9/11 attacks seems to have brought the term to use as attempts were made to reorganize security within the nation along the lines of military security at the edges of empire. The implications of all this for domestic law enforcement include the ease with which municipal police departments have become militarized, both in equipment and in attitudes toward the public, both of which foster an image of the public as potential “enemy combatants” and blur any distinction between citizen and criminal.
[3] Four drone-war whistle blowers told their stories of personal dehumanization and indiscriminate killing-at-a-distance on Democracy Now!, November 20, 2015. Accessed at: http://www.democracynow.org/2015/11/20/exclusive_air_force_whistleblowers_risk_prosecution

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