Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Electric Eye

During my years as a teenager in the Eighties, one of my favorite metal albums was Screaming for Vengeance by Judas Priest. The album opens with an instrumental track called "The Hellion" that then segues into the song "Electric Eye," which is about an aerial surveillance device whose "lasers trace everything you do" and whose purpose is to "keep the country clean."

Earlier this year, I was at a fundraiser held at a bar where a Judas Priest tribute band played "Electric Eye." Listening to the lyrics, it suddenly occurred to me how prophetic the song turned out to be.

Surveillance drones such as the Predator first entered the public consciousness during the war in Afghanistan.  Their use rapidly expanded from just surveillance to actual combat capability, being armed with Hellfire missiles.

Drones have since become commonplace in what is commonly called "The War on Terror" here in the United States. In places such as the mountainous region along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen, which were generally inaccessible to our soldiers, drones became both our eyes for tracking terrorist targets and our means of killing them.

Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan was frequently flown over by drones in the months before Seal Team 6 dropped in to pay him a visit.  Drones were also instrumental in the tracking and killing of Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. Awlaki's death generated a bit of controversy, because he was an American citizen who was basically executed at the orders of the President of the United States.

Our heavy reliance on drones for striking at Taliban commanders in the mountains of Waziristan in Pakistan is also a sore point in our country's relationship with Pakistan, particularly when a drone strike results in the deaths of Pakistani civilians. 

The excerpt below from the website gives us an idea of what it is like to live in areas where our drones frequently operate:

Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning. Their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves.

One could make a good case that the frequency of drone strikes in places like Pakistan and Yemen undermine the legitimacy of their governments, which are viewed by their citizens as stooges of the United States and at the very least tacitly complicit in the deaths of their own people at the hands of U.S. drone strikes.

While we Americans are used to looking at drones as something employed by our government abroad, there is also a growing concern that the potential use and abuse of drones by federal and local law enforcement authorities here at home.

The ACLU has a web page devoted to the issue of the use of drones in the United States here, including a link to the organization's report on domestic drones.

The ACLU advocates for putting in place rules "to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits of this new technology without bringing us closer to a 'surveillance society' in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded, and scrutinized by the government."

With the ubiqituous presence of cameras on our streets and buildings, I would argue that we are already living in a surveillance society.  Here in Nassau County where I live, there's hardly a major traffic intersection that does not have a red light camera.  Several years ago, I myself was a victim of one when I made a right turn on a red light at an intersection in Hicksville.  It was a Labor Day weekend and there was no cross traffic when I made the turn.  I had also mistakenly believed that the cameras only targeted cars that drove through an intersection when the light was red and that they did not target right turns.  Lesson learned.

In a sense, thanks to the prevalence of security cameras, drones, and even the huge numbers of mobile phones with photo and video capability that people carry around with them, we have become like God.  For millennia, many humans were told and believed that some deity watched ceaselessly over them and took note of everything they did.   You would be told that though you might be able to commit a crime without the knowledge of your fellow man, somebody up in the heavens would know and remember.  Now, we don't need to pay any mind to the unblinking eye of an invisible divinity when human technology has reached a level where we can now watch each other.

1 comment:

Robert the Skeptic said...

This is a thorny subject. I grew up in a time of cops walking the beat and patrol cars hiding behind billboards.

Now I frequently drive between major cities on the highway and almost never see a cop. In Oregon police budgets have been slashed, personnel being the highest cost of overhead.

One must also consider the presumption of privacy in public places. Troubling me is the double-standard that is growing (and which I have blogged about) between the police videoing citizens versus the mostly illegal practice of police arresting citizens LEGALLY videoing them!

Maybe drones cruising the freeway picking up the guy racing at 110 mph is a good thing for overall safety? Maybe drones circling a park full of peaceful Occupy protesters, not so much.

Thoughtful post!!