- Drone Encounters: Noor Behram, Omer Fast, and Visual Critiques of Drone Warfare
5000 feet’s the best. I love it when we’re sitting at 5000 feet. You have more description, plus at 5000 feet I mean, I can tell you what kind of shoes you’re wearing from a mile away. I can tell you what kind of clothes a person is wearing, if they have a beard, their hair color and everything else. There are very clear cameras on board. We have the IR, infrared, which we can switch to automatically, and that will pick up any heat signatures or cold signatures. I mean if someone sits down, let’s say, on a cold surface for a while and then gets up, you’ll still see the heat from that person for a long time. It kind of looks like a white blossom, just shining up into heaven. It’s quite beautiful.—Anonymous drone pilot, quoted in Omer Fast’s 5000 Feet Is the Best
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.—International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic (Stanford Law School) and Global Justice Clinic (NYU School of Law), “Living under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians from U.S. Drone Practices in Pakistan”
On January 23, 2009, three days after taking office, President Barack Obama approved missile strikes on two houses in Pakistan. The strikes, carried out by remotely controlled unmanned aerial vehicles, were the first drone attacks of the Obama presidency and killed several civilians alongside the targeted “militants.” The drone program has expanded dramatically during Obama’s first term, with five times as many confirmed drone strikes as during the Bush administration.1 Drones have become a favored weapon in the “war on terror” because of their supposed visual superiority. Drone program supporters, for example, tout the systems’ “surgical” sighting and targeting technology. The most common combat drone models, the Predator and the Reaper, are equipped with color and black-and-white television cameras, radar, [End Page 193] infrared imaging for low-light conditions, and image intensifiers, which enable the aerial vehicles to send full-motion video to remotely located operators who can then use the drone’s lasers to target people or structures on the ground. In addition to these visual capabilities, drones also resist being seen both literally, as they fly at high altitudes and have stealth design features, and figuratively, as the Obama administration did not acknowledge the covert campaign of drone strikes in Pakistan until 2012, and government officials routinely downplay the number of drone attacks and civilian casualties. The concurrent drawdown of troops on the ground and ramp up of remote-controlled combat, moreover, reduces US military casualties and helps minimize media attention to the various foreign and domestic sites of the war on terror. Drones draw their deadly power from these twin claims to visual superiority: the ability to see and to resist being seen. At the same time, however, artists, scholars, and human rights activists have used the visual to contest the expansion of the drone program.2 In this essay, I consider how Noor Behram’s photographs of drone attack scenes and Omer Fast’s short film 5000 Feet Is the Best undermine the supposed precision of drone technology and trouble the invisibility of drone warfare.
Proponents of the expanded use of armed drones in combat emphasize that the technologically advanced sighting systems lead to unprecedented levels of precision and accuracy. Responding to questions about President Obama’s first public acknowledgment of the classified drone program, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters, “A hallmark of our counterterrorism efforts has been our ability to be exceptionally precise, exceptionally surgical and exceptionally targeted in the implementation of our counterterrorism operations.”3 The White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan offered a similar defense of...