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  • Drone Penalty
  • David Wills (bio)

As will be argued in what follows, the central question of the death penalty is the question of time. That question begins, in the present case, with the time of a writing that attempts to address what we call current events, particularly an academic writing—as distinct, for example, from journalistic writing—whose rhythms of composition and publication obey particular protocols and render problematic the specifics of what we call political intervention, the relevance or efficacy of which is normally determined by a certain “punctuality.” Hence Zola’s “J’accuse,” a paradigm within the genre of public intellectual intervention, published in L’Aurore on 13 January 1898. I do not know how to resolve the tension between the exigencies of a given political instant and the extended time of academic reflection—particularly vis-à-vis contemporary forms of mediatic instantaneity—but I am struck by the uncanny resemblance between that form of urgency versus duration, supposed to determine political relevance, and the temporal framework of the death penalty, where another type of insistence on instantaneous efficacy meets resistance in the requirements of due process and the desire for the extension of human life.

Suffice it to say that between the time this paper was first drafted (April 2013) and the moment of its publication, or reading, certain facts will have intervened. I have attempted to account for some of those new facts in modifications to the text or by means of notes. Notable among such events, however, is first the statistical increase in drone strikes and numbers of victims, for which the figures provided below are current as of this date of writing (August 12, 2013); also worthy of mention, no doubt, for explicitly addressing the question of drone warfare and for failing to change anything of consequence for the arguments I develop, is Obama’s speech at the National Defense University on May 23, 2013.1

There is a line of flux or flight whose northern tributary begins in Aden and its southern tributary in Mogadishu, converging in Zeila near the Somalian border with Djibouti, before skirting along the semi-desert and steppes of the southern edge of the Sahara to track all the way across Africa at one of its widest points, making stops in Khartoum (Sudan), Bilma and Agadez (Niger), Gao and Timbuktu (Mali), potentially or eventually linking through the ancient Ghana Empire with the West Coast of the continent. I would not be speaking figuratively if I were to call that line “positively medieval,” for it traces one of the major trade [End Page 174] routes of the Middle Ages along a dividing line, buttressed by the desert sands, between the Islamic east and north and the animist cultures of sub-Saharan Africa. I would also not be speaking figuratively if I were to call that line “positively medieval,” for it provided one of the paths for the development of the slave trade whose already existing African versions would come, following and in spite of the Renaissance, to be rationalized, supersized and globalized to feed the insatiable appetite for coerced labor of the colonizing and capitalizing West. In that way the trans-Saharan supply lines converged on the west coast of Africa only to leap seamlessly across the Atlantic and gush their human surplus on the shores of the New World. As Édouard Glissant notes in Poetics of Relation:

The slave Trade came through the cramped doorway of the slave ship, leaving a wake like that of crawling desert caravans. It might be drawn like this:

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African countries to the East; the lands of America to the West.


Today that line tracks the relentless westward expansion of President Obama’s transcontinental drone trade, as his Predators or Reapers faithfully follow the routes of medieval and modern human trafficking from Djibouti across to the latest proposed base, probably in Niger, for activities in Mali, and beyond. Given the relish with which Obama has embraced the targeted killing option over the pesky rules of war and vagaries of public opinion, not to mention the problem called Guantánamo that refuses to go away, we may not...


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pp. 174-192
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