Sunday, June 23, 2013

Orwell: Making the Drone Killing Visible

[Part of the series: 2013 = 1984?]

I've written about how important for us to realize that drone killing is not just something that's happening "out there" somewhere; we need to make drone killing 100% visible to the rest of the American public -- i.e. to the people responsible for it.

Steamer! Bang over'ead!

George Orwell, writing in 1949, made the drone killing visible -- even though "drones" didn't technically exist at the time.
"Steamer!" he yelled. "Look out, guv'nor! Bang over'ead! Lay down quick!"

"Steamer" was a nickname which, for some reason, the proles applied to rocket bombs. Winston promptly flung ihimself on his face. The proles were nearly always right when they gave you a warning of this kind. They seemed to possess some kind of instinct which told them several secondes in advance when a rocket was coming, although the rockets supposedly traveled faste than sound. Winston clasped his forearms about his head. There was a roar that seemed to make the pavement heave; a shower of light objects pattered onto his back. When he stood up he found that he was covered with fragments of glass from the nearest window.

He walked on. The bomb had demolished a group of houses two hundred meters up the street. A black plume of smoke hung in the sky , and a below it a cloud of plaster dust in which a crowd was already forming round the ruins. There was a little pile of plaster lying on the pavement ahead of him, and in the middle of it he could see a brigh red streak. When he got up to it he saw that it was a human hand severed at the wrist. Apart from the bloody stump, the hand was so completely whitened as to resemble a plaster cast. (1984, p. 74)

Today, we have a full battery of research and analysis to document the experience of living under drones. And yet, didn't Orwell lay it out for us long ago?

They didnt oughter of showed it . . .

In 1984, the transgressive act that starts Winston Smith on the path of resistance is writing in a diary, and the memory that he chooses to record is an eerie vision of our own time:
April 45h, 1984. Last night to the flicks. All war films. One very good one of a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean. Audience much amused by shots of a great huge fat man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him. first you saw him wallowing along in the water like a porpoise, then you saw him through the helicopters gunsights, then he was full of holes and the sea round him turned pink and he sank as suddenly as though the holes had let in the water. audience shouting with laughter when he sank. then you saw a lifeboat full of children with a helicopter hovering over it. there was a middleaged woman might have been a jewess sitting up in the bow with a little boy about three years old in her arms. little boy screaming with fright and hiding his head between her breasts as if he was trying to burrow right into her and the woman putting her arms around him and comforting him although she was blue with fright herself. all the time covering him up as much as possible as if she thought her arms could keep the bullets off him. then the helicopter planted a 20 kilo bomb in among them terrific flash and the boat went all to matchwood. then there was a wonderful shot of a childs arm going up up up right up into the air a helicopter with a camera in its nose must have followed it up and there was a lot of applause from the party seats but a woman down in the prole part of the house suddenly started kicking up a fuss and shouting they didnt oughter of showed it not in front of the kids they didnt it aint right not in front of kids it aint until the police turned her turned her out i dont suppose anything happened to her nobody cares what the proles say typical prole reaction they never -- (1984, p. 7-8)

Orwell's insightful foretelling of our love affair with aerial killing raises several questions:

(1) What Orwell describes sure sounds like drone killing. Does it really make any difference whether the killing machine actually has a human pilot in it, instead of controlling it from a distance?

(2) What's more significant here -- the killing itself, or the entire pattern of control exercised by the person(s) directing the camera? What are we to make -- really -- of the marriage of weapon to camera?

(3) How do you explain the reaction of the spectators described by Orwell? Can this possibly be realistic?

Do high school students still read 1984? How long will it be before our drone-addicted government realizes what a "dangerous" book this is and takes it out of the schools?

Read 1984. While you still can.

(Page references are to the 2009 Plume paperback edition.)

Related posts

With drones, people become just dots. "Bugs." People who no longer count as people . . . .

(See Drone Victims: Just Dots? Just Dirt? )

At the end of the first day of the 2012 CODEPINK drone conference, I came to a realization: the fundamental problem that we had all gathered to address is that drones render killing 100% invisible. And as long as the killing is invisible, we lose the most powerful tool we have for fighting the killing: the disgust and outrage of the general public.

(See Make Drone Killing 100% VISIBLE!)

I was back in New Jersey to visit with high school friends in July. It gave me the opportunity to visit the newly opened 9/11 Memorial. Not surprisingly, what I saw made me spend days and weeks thinking about the memorial itself, and the larger issue of 9/11 in our national life. Out of all that I have seen and heard and read and thought about, several thoughts keep rising to the top.

(See 9/11 Memory: Grieving and Celebrating Valor, Leaving Vengeance Behind )