Known Unknowns

Hellfire from Paradise Ranch: On the Front Lines of Drone Warfare BY Joseba Zulaika. Berkeley: University of California Press. 296 pages. $20.
The cover of Hellfire from Paradise Ranch: On the Front Lines of Drone Warfare

The question of whether they did it—the abominable act—doesn’t apply only to victims of torture. When drone operators Westmoreland and Bryant tell us they killed hundreds of civilians, while the president and his officials staunchly deny it, the logical question is: Did they actually do the killing? Yes or no? But what if, as in Hollywood’s structure of inherent transgression, the answer is a simultaneous yes and no? Recall Casablanca’s scene in which Ingrid Bergman pulls a gun in the hotel room and threatens Humphrey Bogart in order to obtain letters of transit for her husband; the two characters have been lovers in the past, and he responds to her demand by telling her to shoot him as a favor. She doesn’t, of course, and instead breaks down with the memory of their last parting in Paris, confessing that she still loves him. As they embrace, the camera moves away for several seconds, encircling the airport tower, before returning to the pair again, to frame Bogart smoking and gazing out the window before the story continues.

The question for the viewer is: Did they do it? Richard Maltby answers, Yes and no at the same time, arguing that the film “deliberately constructs itself in such a way as to offer distinct and alternative sources of pleasure to two people sitting next to each other in the same cinema . . . [so it] could play to both ‘innocent’ and ‘sophisticated’ audiences alike.” The codified signals (the postcoital cigarette, the phallic tower) suggest that they did it, while other signals (just a few seconds, the bed not undone, the pair having the same conversation when the camera returns) that they did not. The spectator is at once allowed to adhere to strict moral codes and at the same time allowed to imagine an alternative subversive sexual narrative. But perhaps you don’t need two spectators and one is sufficient—since you are absolved from guilt by the official story, you can indulge in fantasies. The Lacanian conclusion is that the couple “did not do it for the Big Other (in this case the decorum of public appearance, which must not be offended), but they did do it for our dirty fantasmatic imagination. This is the structure of inherent transgression at its purest: Hollywood needs both levels in order to function.”

And apparently so does counterterrorism as reality show. The reward of such artful fantasy is that, as in the world of Hollywood and Las Vegas, you can simultaneously believe and disbelieve the implications of the War on Terror such as the “kill list.” Do drone pilots unlawfully kill noncombatants? Yes and no. They don’t for the big Other of the general public that will never see their president as “an assassin,” yet any sophisticated reader of Jo Becker and Scott Shane’s report in the New York Times has little doubt that “signature strikes” amount to unlawful killing. But these two readers can be one and the same. The question of what “belief” is in such cases is comparable to the question of whether the ancient Greeks believed in their own myths. The Greeks often laughed at their own myths and didn’t seem to believe much in them; it wasn’t the myths’ truth or falsehood that mattered but their conventionality, their verbal nature, the art of their rhetorical modality. The liar is not even pretending to lie, so there is no scandal. In short, concluded Paul Veyne, there are “modalities of belief . . . a plurality of programs of truth,” and “the Greeks believe and do not believe in their myths. They believe in them, but they use them and cease believing at the point where their interest in believing ends . . . [for] all peoples give their oracles—or their statistical data—a nudge to confirm what they wish to believe.” Like the Greeks in ancient times, we today fabricate our criteria for truth and degrees of belief regarding drones.

The reader knows drones are killing innocent people but doesn’t care—because there are different criteria for truth and because the president and the counterterrorism regime reaffirm our need to believe that Law and Morality are being respected. Indeed, lest anyone be confused by the seeming amorality, Becker and Shane’s report, as discussed in the previous chapter, repeatedly alluded to the priest-like high moral character of President Obama and his counterterrorism chief, Brennan. Somehow, as long as public leaders pay obeisance to high principles, they and we can justify the killings, even enjoy them with the patriotic superego’s “dirty fantasmatic imagination,” for they represent the victory of order over terrorism. In this sense “Law itself needs its obscene supplement . . . is sustained by it.” The “unknown known” of the kill list is that we know they are killing civilians, but we are at war and so we are allowed to enjoy the fantasy of the “known unknown” that many of those we kill are also probably terrorists. Hollywood, Las Vegas, Dreamland, Creech. Did they do it? Yes and no. Did they kill innocent noncombatants? Yes and no. Are we guilty? Yes and no.

And how do you name this duality? To begin with, could you call the drone killings assassinations? Officially, it is “unknown” that drones exist, let alone that they kill innocent victims. One known that must be rendered into an unknown is that drone killings are for much of the world, and were for the US until 9/11, “assassination.” This knowledge is too harsh for the media, general public, and the US governments, so it is referred to as targeted killing. Thus the first step toward the new conceptual paradigm is linguistic—naming it becomes inaugural. Indeed, as argued elsewhere, the rhetorical arts of naming, categorizing, defining, and plotting are foundational to the required new reality-making discourse of counterterrorism.

A writer must name things, but some events are hard to name and some words hard to write. Murder and assassination are among the hardest words to write down. US journalists enforce a policy of not calling drone killings “assassination,” the rationale being that the word should be reserved for the killing of politically prominent people. In short, the drone victims are “prominent” enough to deserve to be included in the kill list but not prominent enough for their killing to be considered of significance and therefore an “assassination.” It couldn’t have been easy for the New York Times chief Washington correspondent David Sanger to write that a targeted killing by drones is “essentially assassination, because the linkage to the attacks of September 11, 2001, more than a decade ago, has been strained by the passage of time.” Sanger quoted a current official from the Obama administration involved in the debate about the legitimacy of drone strikes: “it’s hard to distinguish this, in a practical sense, from targeted assassination.” On some rare occasions they are referred to as “quasi-assassination.” The use of the term assassination for victims of US secret agencies wasn’t so restricted in the past. The CIA manual defined the term as “used to describe the planned killing of a person who is not under the legal jurisdiction of the killer, who is not physically in the hands of the killer, who has been selected by a resistance organization for death, and whose death provides positive advantages to that organization.”

Describing drone killings as “targeted killings” has one fundamental inadequacy: since most of these killings take place in “signature strikes,” where the victims’ identities, names, or activities are for the most part unknown, the victims are collateral damage rather than sought-after militants—untargeted rather than targeted. In the end, killing by drones is not satisfactorily described by the terms assassination, murder, collateral damage, or even targeted killing, which shows that we are facing a new type of killing closer to Giorgio Agamben’s “bare life”—drone victims are animal-like, zoe, people without rights of society, citizenship, and burial, and the very naming of their killings presents a problem of description. The post-9/11 War on Terror was for President Bush “an international manhunt,” and, from a hunter’s perspective, terrorists are wild game, dirty animals whose killings don’t amount to homicide, let alone assassination. If formerly the CIA had an assassination manual with clear techniques and warnings as to how to do it, now “assassination” is out and “targeted killing” is in. The predicate describing the action has changed as well—the killer is now a targeter.

First off, a hunter-killer, as either a drone or a pilot, needs a target. Drone pilot Martin “found himself hoping that the targets he was following would prove themselves to be insurgents so he could ‘get some action.’” When the US War on Terror expanded to involvement in Yemen, “there was excitement” at the CIA and other agencies, for “we’d been wanting to do strikes forever at that point.” The local Yemeni government was advised that the “manhunting right in their country would be shared by two US target-killing agencies, the CIA and the JSOC.” At the CIA, “Their focus [was] on head-hunting rather than intelligence.” Target-hunting had become a profitable business.

But one doesn’t need to be a passionate hunter for the job. Drone targeting became “a career track” for “ordinary people”: “The bar for war had been lowered, the remote-controlled age had begun, and the killer drones became an object of fascination inside the CIA.” Thus targeted killing gave rise to a new profession: “Many targeters spent their entire professional lives doing nothing else, rising steadily through the ranks as they developed greater expertise at hunting people, one by one.” Indeed, “ ‘targeting’ came to mean something quite different for the analysts who moved into the Counterterrorist Center. It meant tracking down someone deemed a threat to the United States, and capturing and killing him.” And what you needed for this was skill—targeting, like archery, had turned into a form of art.

Some writers avoid the expression targeted killing, claiming it is nothing but a euphemism for assassination. But the power of the euphemism is central to drone warfare and constitutive of counterterrorist discourse. Dropping bombs is “kinetic military action.” A call to go to war is couched as a call for “all necessary measures” to protect civilians on the ground. The rewording of “torture” to “enhanced interrogation techniques” was critical in legitimating it for public debate. Westmoreland’s and Bryant’s particular Slaughterhouse seemed so nonreal and dissonant because their killings were “targeted killings” for the general public, while for the targeters they were “assassinations.”

Excerpted from Hellfire from Paradise Ranch: On the Front Lines of Drone Warfare by Joseba Zulaika, published by the University of California Press. © 2020