In the Age of the Almighty Computer, drones are the perfect warriors. They kill without remorse, obey without kidding around, and they never reveal the names of their masters.
NW: The Stop LAPD Coalition’s contends that unmanned aerial vehicles have no place within the hands of police or the military. In the case of Los Angeles, should we trust that LAPD will not weaponize these drones? And furthermore, does it even matter if they’re weaponized via lethal or non-lethal means given that drones can facilitate the delivery of violence by visually assisting SWAT teams in apprehending targets, for example?
HK: Absolutely. Both. We can look at it in either/or terms or we can look at it as “all of the above.” I think it’s not a matter if we should trust [LAPD Police Chief] Charlie Beck or not, but it’s the nature of the institution itself that requires and demands what the drone’s capabilities and capacities will look like. As we say here, it’s not a matter if whether they will [weaponize drones], but rather the minute you open the door – – even with the most restrictive policy – the policy itself, by nature, adapts to mission creep because it is embedded in that institution. Once the policy is there then it becomes just a play on words. For example, what does “exigent circumstances” mean? It could be anything.
As a result, those with power and in power get to establish the rules of engagement – Charlie Beck and other types – they come and go. They come here for 10 years, or two terms, and then there’s a new police chief. But I think it’s the institutional prerogatives that really determine and establish [the usage of technologies like drones]. And if we look back, it has been a process. Things have been built over time, even over the last 15-16 years when we saw what direction LAPD has gone into with regards to the role of technology. Also, [William] Bratton had come from Boston, to New York, to LAPD, and then back to New York…he was one of the primary architects of the expansion of technology.
One of the biggest successes of LAPD has come through the deep investments they’ve made in public relations machinery. Despite being one of the most murderous police departments in the country they still avoid getting coverage from the national news. So looking at the history of the LAPD: you have an Inspector General, you have an independent civilian oversight commission, the Los Angeles Police Commission, which has subpoena power and that has existed since the 1920s, but ironically functions as a rubber stamp body after seminal events like the  Watts rebellion and uprising. The McCone Commission came from the outside while the Police Commission was there and, after Rodney King, another outside commission, the Christopher Commission came in while the Police Commission was still there and, last but not least, after Ramparts we saw a federal consent decree for 12 years where the Department of Justice came in with the threat of a lawsuit. The language they used was very clear: the LAPC is incapable of self-governance, which required bringing in an outside body in order to quell the threat of a lawsuit directed against the LAPD, LAPC, and City Council as well. I think it’s within this landscape that Charlie Beck fits. He becomes one person in this larger structure. These are the structures of power that we can relate to. Where do drones fit into all this: the militarization, the equipment, and so on?
Drones give a tremendous boost to [LAPD’s] capacity, a much wider bandwidth to surveil and I think we need to be looking at drones as well through a operational lens as well as culturally and socially – in particular, looking at the intimidation factor of drones particularly for people of color and in communities that have been historically traumatized. Of course, the conversation around the helicopter is illustrative of this in the sense that it’s often referred to as the “ghetto bird.” So when the ghetto bird shows up and throws a spotlight on a community the purpose of that is to intimidate and threaten, “We are here,” We’re watching you,” “We’re all over you,” right? Presently, Culver City is getting eight drones and what this illustrates is how wealth and power moves and how it demands and requires “cleaning up,” so to speak [of disorderly populations]. Total silencing and subjugation of communities is another component of this wealth and power, so we also have to frame it within the context of psychological impact and trauma on communities as well: the silencing, the chilling effect.
NW: Speaking to that: as a Pakistani immigrant, what impact have drones had in terms of the fabric of that society?
HK: One can look at Pakistan as an equivalent to how Palestine has functioned as an open-air prison and as a laboratory for testing out tactical weaponry including drones and other technologies. Similarly, Pakistan has been on the receiving end of hundreds of drone attacks. One of the things I noticed having gone to a couple areas is the silencing and the chilling effect and the trauma where there are communities in Pakistan that, the minute they hear any sound, it just completely chills the whole community because they feel the drones are coming. It has been a very traumatic experience with at least 3,500, perhaps 4,000 people [being] killed as a result of these attacks.
Also, we have to look at it in the larger context of white supremacy in that it has reached the point to where war now has become a video game. So it is very much in line with how white supremacy operates in terms that the toys used to engage in violence have now become the toys used to wage war: whether it’s an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, or a manned aerial vehicle like a fighter jet. Flipping the script on the whole notion of exceptionalism, we have to look at it from the angle that the [drone pilot and/or the broader US] is completely excepting itself out of humanity and, as a result, humanity becomes completely disengaged as well.
It’s almost like, in a way, not just a numbing effect, but gives life to statistical existence and when we look at it through that lens it justifies the representation of people as just a number. When you don’t have the touch, the feel, the visual and the sound of another body, of a human being, it just becomes a number. So to reduce trauma on “our own side” it’s interesting how these things are shifting. But, of course, trauma has its impacts at home, domestically, as well when you look at suicide rates within the US military, which – I don’t know the exact numbers in terms of suicides of fighter pilots, bombers, and drone operators – but it’s interesting to consider how this disengagement is expanding over time as well.
NW: Do you hold that the drone is illustrative of the times we inhabit? This remoteness, malaise, and alienation that is a byproduct of the current neoliberal order?
HK: Yes, absolutely.
NW: I ask because one phenomenon or spectacle facilitating this remoteness is the “militainment” that has really been ramped up post 9/11, whether it be evident during Super Bowl halftime shows, advertisements, other sporting and music events, or blockbuster movies. There’s this been an increasing complex synergy between the entertainment industry and the Pentagon and the national security state for nearly two decades now [if not longer]. By steeping the U.S. public in the macro level violence of a glorified kill machine – the military-industrial complex – through this merging of violence and entertainment, our immediate environment increasingly comes to be interacted with through the lens of security; Hence, the hegemony of military values and the rising tides of authoritarian politics but also, at the time of this interview [Feb 2018], we’re almost 20 mass shootings into the new year. War always comes home and, with it, an indelible shift in consciousness and interpersonal interaction.
HK: We have to look at this interpersonal relationship through the lens of technology. If our friendships are based on technology, our likes and dislikes are based on technology, generationally speaking, younger folk’s conversations are based-on sending a message, on texting something. Even the national surrounding and environment is done through sending a photograph: “This is where I am.” So I think again, how war is waged and violence is engaged in –this disengaged existence– is becoming more and more a part of life.
NW: Can we even refer to contemporary war as “warfare” in the age of drones given that the latter implies, historically at least, two parties facing off in some sort of direct confrontation, or at least as relatively close as the technology of the times would allow? Is war being replaced by the logic of extermination at this point in the history of remote-controlled killing?
HK: Yeah, I’d definitely agree with that. I’m not a political scientist but yes, I think you’re right. It is a process of annihilation and it is a process of a one-way engagement of violence and the message is “You will receive it, when We want you to receive it” and “You will be destroyed, when We want you to be destroyed.” I think those messages are being sent very clearly and loudly as well.
NW: What worries me is blind acceptance of drone technology by the U.S. public given that, with the weaponized drone, quoting Grégoire Chamayou, “[n]ot only is it not necessary for [drone pilots] to die in order to kill, but it is impossible for them to be killed as they kill.” Subsequently, “our boys in blue,” “our heroes in uniform,” -military and law enforcement- can operate with no risk behind the aegis of a technology that epitomizes vital self-preservation [but only of certain bodies].
HK: Yes, [accepted] for the maintenance of white privilege. For those communities that have historically been on the receiving end of state violence and the police state? I’d say the jury’s still out on that. But I think the tactics that are used we also have to consider as well. How drones are becoming normalized through, for example, yearly announcements that this or that holiday season is going to mark the largest sales of drones.
In the U.S., your humanity is assessed by your capacity to consume so the more you’re able to consume the better a human being you are. I think there’s a consumption factor that becomes a primary point of entry into how things become normalized in people’s lives. We have to look at it also how economics and consumption patterns have shifted from going shopping at the mall to now online consumption. It’s quite remarkable that within the current economic landscape there’s nothing tangible attached to what is being offered by Uber, Airbnb, Facebook, or Amazon. Amazon may have its own warehouses, but still it’s somebody that’s moving things [versus creating them], which is interesting in that it reminded me of how in The Empire of Cotton, Sven Beckert highlights that none of these [economic shifts] happen by chance. Creation and destruction are two central aspects. You have to destroy the local infrastructure to create the conditions of and for dependency. So, in a sense, the local Mom-and-Pop economy had to be destroyed to create that culture of dependency as well. I believe drones will similarly over time create that culture of dependency: where remote controlled killing machines keep our people safe so the use of drones in warfare boomerangs back into police culture to be used very effectively.
I bring up The Empire of Cotton as the book reminded me how the idea of the middleman, who mediates trade, how that was eliminated, but now, there’s a sort of slow reconfiguration where the Facebooks and Amazons of the world have become mediators of consumption as well. So I think that’s in a sense how these things play out.