Sovereignty Mockery: Drone Tyranny at Home and Abroad

Take it from a penitent practitioner of drone warfare: Americans do not want these devices hovering over their cities. Only it’s already a reality. Literally as I type, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is flying a predator drone over Minneapolis, surveilling people protesting the police execution of George Floyd. Almost certainly, this particular prototype isn’t armed. After all, according to the United States Air Force, the predator’s primary purpose is as “an intelligence-collection asset,” and it is only used “secondarily against dynamic execution targets.” Nevertheless, mass surveillance has always been a slippery slope towards violence. Just ask the eleven people (including five children) killed when Philadelphia police dropped a satchel charge on the house of a black liberation group in 1985.

Make no mistake, historically speaking, every single solitary advance in surveillance technology – from telegram to telegraph to telephone to terabyte – ostensibly designed to ensure citizen safety, has quickly been turned against domestic dissidents. It would be nothing short of clinical collective delusion to assume that the panopticon-level surveillance capabilities of drones will prove an exception. If they spare them any thought at all, most folks, understandably, associate drones with their recent violent application in America’s twenty-first century overseas warfare. Undoubtedly, they have been exceptionally lethal and far less precise than billed in endless United States military campaigns.

Still, missiles need not discharge from America’s drones to inflict deep damage. Even the perception, or mere possibility, of perpetual surveillance is itself a disciplinary tool that squelches dissent. Whether cruising above dozens of foreign countries with which the United States is not legally at war, or buzzing over Detroit, Dubuque, and yes, Des Moines, drone fleets make a mockery of sovereignty. Tech-savvy surveillance amounts to liberty larceny.

From West Africa to Central Asia, United States militarism and its inherent technological tyranny has created a generation of poor people, especially children, of color who live in terror. Theirs is a life few Americans (for now) can fathom: they are cowering in fear of, and even suffering PTSD from, the hum and buzz of the Pentagon’s and CIA’s drone fleet. Even if a missile doesn’t launch from these unmanned aircrafts, the Africans, Arabs, and Asians below know, viscerally, that they live under an Orwellian surveillance regime. However, now, just like the United States military’s excess assault rifles, camouflage body armor, and MRAP armored vehicles, drones are headed for communities near you. This, friends, is the logical (albeit absurdist) conclusion of an empire come home to roost.

Don’t be too shocked: it’s what they do, historically and conceptually.

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See, victim and victimizer are always inextricably linked in any imperial system of repression, and it hardly matters that there’s no military draft, no direct “war-tax,” and no congressional declarations of war. The United States government wages these aggressive wars in the people’s name. We are all complicit. That war, whether waged on the urban inner-cities, native reservations, or Rust Belt ghost towns, counts as a collective national sin.

The war on “terror” is but the latest canard for what has always been, in a final sense, a war on poverty, people of color, and ultimately, dissent. That the drone fleet is flying home proves what ought always been obvious: when it comes to empire, Baltimore is Baghdad; Kalamazoo becomes Kabul. To humanize a bit, Eric Garner and George Floyd are victims of the same system that drone-executed Abdulrahman al-Awlaki (a teenage American citizen) in Yemen and tortured-to-death an Afghan prisoner known only as Dilawar. Expedience and ethics alike demand what the “kids” call intersectionality. In this case, activists make no distinction between the demonstrable crimes of domestic and overseas empire.

These days, Washington may well prefer a rather “postmodern” pattern of warfare; what I’ve dubbed a “social-distancing” brand of combat. Yes, the militarists are ever savvy. They know that reliance on mercenaries, militias, and machines (especially airborne and unmanned) limit the United States’ troop casualties. They know that fewer flag-draped coffins on the news – when these images aren’t prohibited, that is – raises less public ire.

Never forget: they count on our apathy.

Forget Middle-Eastern oil. Citizen languor lubricates the war machine.

The abstraction of American aggression makes modern war nearly invisible. In the face of such opacity, it’s tempting to wonder if the Pentagon is really up to large amounts of war at all. Yet empathy and decency, whether rooted in faith or secular humanism, demands we reject this temptation from devilish empire-builders. For here, perspective matters, as it always does. None of us are an ounce more precious than the vigilante-victim Ahmaud Arbery or Abdulrahman’s eight year-old sister, Nawar alAwlaki, killed in a United States commando raid in Yemen.

Two notable saints, both secular and spiritual, knew as much and warned us thus, 102 and 40 years ago, respectively. The late Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, was assassinated by a United States-backed paramilitary death squad in March 1980 for expressing such sentiments. The recently canonized monsignor, his sainthood held up until a fellow Latin American summited the Holy See, no doubt knew the risks. The homily that likely got him killed resonates with antiwar veterans everywhere. He addressed his climactic remarks to “the men in the army:”

“The peasants you kill are your own brothers and sisters. When a man tells you to kill, remember God’s words, ‘Thou shalt not kill’.

In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people, I beg you, I beseech you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!”

Sixty-two years earlier, an American secular saint, the five-time Socialist Party candidate for president, Eugene Debs, was sentenced to ten years in federal prison for giving an antiwar speech at a peaceful rally. He, too, bespoke the oneness of man when he then addressed the court:

“Your honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

These activist saints, and countless others whose names we’ll never have occasion to know, remind us of the undeniable fellowship of human existence and suffering. The tools of man’s and the state’s violence may well change – from dagger, to derringer, to drone – but the outcome remains constant. Personally, I spent most of my adult life wielding and managing that violence, as a victimizer. For years, a banal radio served as my portal to rain destruction. Like most all living veterans since the Korean War, I’ve never been bombed from the air. For United States soldiers, the experience, that terror, is unknowable, unthinkable even.

Yet I’ve dealt and witnessed enough death to allow myself the projection and conjecture that for its victims, there’s nothing abstract about the United States’ way of war.

No doubt it feels a lot like “real” war below the business end of America’s raining munitions. Decency demands disobedience; to stop that war before it boomerangs back to Des Moines…

Reprinted from Via Pacis Catholic Worker with permission.

Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and contributing editor at His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Mother Jones, and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War (Heyday Books) is available for pre-order. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet and see his website for speaking/media requests and past publications.

Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen


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