This summer, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced the successful test flight of a solar-powered drone that could one day deliver worldwide internet access. He lamented on his personal Facebook page that “more than half the world’s population — 4 billion people — still can’t access the internet” and suggested that the drone could be what makes the internet a universal right.
Days later, the Pentagon issued an email statement revealing that it had carried out a drone strike in Somalia against al-Shabab. Zuckerberg’s announcement ricocheted across the internet, generating excited chatter on business and tech websites, while the Pentagon’s muted statement vanished from the headlines within hours.
For years, the Obama administration was assailed from the right and the left for its overreliance on — and lack of disclosures regarding — lethal drone strikes in Afghanistan, Libya and Pakistan. Under President Donald Trump, the rate of airstrikes has increased, though he has not faced the same kind of resistance that his predecessor had. This is in part because Trump is giving progressives other programs and policies to oppose. But it is also because Americans have grown accustomed to seeing drones used in business, from telecommunications manufacturers like Qualcomm to fast-food restaurants like Domino’s.
The commercial use of drones has reframed the unmanned aircraft as a humanitarian and consumer good rather than an instrument of war. Drones may soon deliver internet access to Uganda and pizza to our doors, but we should not let their benign uses distract us from their deadly ones.
The CIA, in collaboration with the Air Force, executed the first lethal drone strike on Oct. 7, 2001 — the first day of the war in Afghanistan. It would be the first of thousands, as Predator and Reaper drones armed with Hellfire missiles emerged as chilling icons of the war on terror.
When Barack Obama signed a new Presidential Policy Guidance that imposed modest limits on the drone program, he had to fend off a public protest from antiwar activist Medea Benjamin. From the audience, she reminded the president of the death of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, a 16-year-old American killed by a CIA drone strike in Yemen, and asked, “Is that the way we treat a 16-year-old American? Can you tell us why Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was killed? Can you tell the Muslim people their lives are as precious as our lives?”
Trump has not met that kind of challenge because he has never addressed his administration’s use of armed drones in public. With the president’s attention and tweets directed elsewhere, lethal drone strikes in Somalia and Yemen have been overshadowed by stories about drones as life-saving couriers of defibrillators in the United States and humanitarian aid in Rwanda and tools for catching Elephant poachers in Malawi.
The conversation has shifted from the Pentagon and Langley to Silicon Valley, where engineers and executives have refashioned the drone for a consumer market. That has meant shedding the image of the killer drone and substituting it with something less threatening — something fun, safe and in the service of the greater good.
Progressive artists and filmmakers have tried to denaturalize drones for Americans by putting them in the position of Afghans, Pakistanis, Somalis and Yemenis who live under drone surveillance. For example, data artist Josh Begley designed an iPhone app that maps all of the government’s lethal drone strikes in real time, demanding that users confront that violence, he explained to the Atlantic, “in the same places we see pictures of our loved ones or communicate with our friends.”
Filmmaker Laura Poitras’s exhibition last year at San Antonio’s the Whitney Museum included an installation titled “Bed Down Location,” where visitors were invited to lie on a carpeted platform and look up at a video projection of star-filled night skies in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen marred by ominous, streaking drones. But artists like Begley and Poitras are losing the representational struggle to tech giants like Amazon, Facebook and Google, which encourage Americans to relate to drones as consumers rather than citizens.
Of course, with the right oversight, drones can do a lot of good in the world, as Zuckerberg and others suggest. However, their commercial use at home risks distracting us from what they were designed to do, in our name, in the Middle East and Africa.
Trump may be silent on his administration’s drone program in Somalia and Yemen, but we should not let his silence determine ours.
Darda is an assistant professor of English and Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies at Texas Christian University.