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

Independence: Illusion and Reality

I get It. We’re celebrating the American Revolution and our independence from England today.  But the idea of independence has an odd history in the U.S.A. We treat the concept as a cultural icon, we fight “for freedom” around the world – or so we claim. We give little thought as to the real functions of any particular war of choice we allow our leaders to start. We live in a bubble of self-congratulatory national glorification. We excuse our elite’s attempts to dominate the world for their profit and power — and our debt. We give a blank check to the military-industrial-congressional complex President Eisenhower so emphatically warned us against in his farewell address.

Independence and Human Rights

So, you could say we deceive ourselves about just how “independent” each one of us really is. We hold up our ideals of personal freedom, free markets, free trade, free press, and freedom from government intrusion in our lives. Yet we willingly submit to the violation of our civil and human rights by corporate and government agencies. We tolerate mass surveillance of every citizen who has a phone, credit card, or computer by the NSA and its corporate collaborators.

We buy the argument that we should not be upset “if you have nothing to hide.” We ignore the fact that “big data” allows mass manipulation. We tolerate congressional oversight committees that allow spy-agency officials to lie to them. We accept police military assaults on homes — modeled on our night raids in Iraq — on “suspicion” that there might be some marijuana present. We endure regulators giving free reign for Big Banks to speculate with borrowers’ money and bring down the economy with impunity. We put up with local homeowners associations micromanaging property owners’ private lives over illusions about ‘property values.’ We permit the oppression of others. We value the “right to be left alone.” But we tolerate unwarranted “stop and frisk” harassment of young men of color and we ignore their mass incarceration.

Interdependence is Real

The contradictions in our misapplication of the principle of independence seem unbounded. But let’s look at what “independence” really means and how it relates to “interdependence.” I think that may give us a clue about why we are getting ourselves into so much trouble, both at home and around the world. In our relations with each other and the planet itself, we assert our rights to plunder everything in sight. But in a finite world where we are already upsetting the ecological balance to where survival is dubious, that just does not work any more.

In practical terms, our independence is an illusion. It doesn’t fit reality. In a more modest framing independence is very important. But what’s the difference? The reality of human “interdependence” needs to be considered. We have been living on the basis of an illusion of total independence ever since the dawn of the industrial revolution. It worked fairly well for the entrepreneurs as long as there was room for expansion. The industrializing nations did invade, occupy, and exterminate native populations all over the world.  They destroyed the independence of others wherever they found it in order to expand their own. That’s how those opportunities were kept available for the “independent entrepreneurs” of Empire.

Conquistadors, robber barons, and pioneers, as well as the likes of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Hank Paulson, and Donald Trump have been the prime beneficiaries of independence. Yes, an odd assortment. All of these folks were/are innovative — and often ruthless. One person’s entrepreneur is another person’s oppressor. So called independent actions do not happen in a vacuum. Pure independence would be approximated only by a hermit.

But we must not forget social-economic power; that is what most entrepreneurs seek and gain, usually by using/exploiting others. Our idealism implies that independence is for all. Our political elites pretend to “export democracy” to the world. We equate independence with economic growth, the dominant value of American culture. But that has been achieved by the few dominating the many.

Moral Economy

Underlying it all is the fact that all human life is grounded in one way or another in inter-dependence. The very richest of the 1% are clearly dependent upon the willingness of others – such as banking regulators – to tolerate their “independent” financial speculations. In a moral economy, risk would fall on the risk taker, not the rest of us; only then could he be truly independent.

But a truly moral economy would be based in equitable interdependence, where risk and reward would be shared by all who are interdependent in their relationships. That is not about to happen in the corporate state that has evolved with over-indulgence in an illusion of independence. The most powerful elites control the most powerful institutions that now constrict the independence of “the 99%.” They squeeze the earnings of employees. They conduct mass surveillance to “manage” the population. They impose various restrictions on political participation to protect their power. To attain true independence we need to establish a morality of equitable interdependence — we have our work cut out. Happy 4th!